Stress doesn’t need an outlet. A persistent myth exposed

Stress doesn’t need an outlet. A persistent myth exposed

There is no 'outlet' for negative emotions (stress). Instead, it will just pass if the source of frustration stops. Revenge may help. But it may be wiser to put it into perspective, meditate on it, seek distraction, or wait until your brain stops mulling it over.

Recently, two academic colleagues - linguists - stated in a national newspaper that swearing helps 'release your emotions', because 'people need an outlet'. I objected to this in a short letter, which led to some commotion on social media. I hope this blog will help clarify the issue.

The ‘outlet’ idea has been around for over a century in psychology, and much longer in human society. The most famous, or should we say infamous version, of this was the ‘catharsis’ idea from psychoanalysis. Even today, most people believe in the ‘outlet’ idea, and it is even advocated by many psychologists: “If you are stressed, let it all out and you will feel better”. Psychological research shows something very different. Venting negative emotions does not help: it only makes you angrier and more aggressive, and it does not lower your blood pressure. This has been demonstrated in several experiments (and series of experiments) since the 1960s and is also consistent with neurobiology: getting angry and expressing it does little more than train the brain to... get angry and be aggressive! Let’s have a brief look at these experiments. But first some theory.

Stress = exercise

The stress response is in essence an exercise response, like running or lifting weights. If someone insults you, your heart rate may start racing, just as it does if you run up five flights of stairs. When you reach the fifth floor, your heart beat recovers quickly (depending on your aerobic fitness). No need for an outlet! The same will be true if the ‘threat’ – the insult – suddenly disappears, for example if it turns out to be not meant as such, or if you have mistaken some utterance for an insult. Putting it into perspective or meditating on it also helps, but more slowly. Better seems to be retaliation: revenge.

Retaliation, aka revenge

As far back as the 1960s and 1970s a series of elegant, well-controlled experimental studies by Jack Hokanson and his colleagues showed convincingly that ‘venting your emotions’ only helps if you turn them against the source of your frustrations, that is, against the ‘threat’ itself. A typical experiment of Hokanson’s team involved harassing participants during maths assignments, which increased their blood pressure. Afterwards, blood pressure recovered faster when the harassed subject could retaliate against the harasser, by giving him either painful shocks or a ‘negative evaluation’. However, this effect was absent when the subject did this to another, unrelated person, or merely fantasized about doing so. If the unrelated person looked like the harasser, or was clearly linked to him, such as an assistant, blood pressure recovery was somewhat faster. This experiment was repeated in many variations by Hokanson and his group, and later by others. The findings were essentially the same, implying that the stress response only decreases when ‘letting out’ is directed at the stressor itself.

Crucially, Hokanson et al. also showed that just expecting to be able to retaliate is already enough to lower one’s blood pressure. So, the act of retaliation itself is not even important for recovery from the stress response. So much for ‘the need to let out negative energy’.

Unfortunately, the Hokanson studies seem largely forgotten, due to the academic amnesia I have talked about earlier. Also, revenge, however rewarding, is unfortunately seldom wise.

Revenge by apes and rats

One could argue that all this may be true of humans, who may have a good idea about whom to retaliate against when stressed, but not for animals such as apes and monkeys. However, there is evidence that when monkeys release their frustration on other monkeys after losing a battle, they do this pretty precisely toward family members or friends of the monkey that just won the battle – preferably toward the latter’s small nephew (Jan van Hooff, pers. comm.). Thus, here too, stress seems to be reduced after getting even (retaliation), that is, reasserting control and not because of a simple behavioural outlet of tension.

Frequently cited experiments show that rats who have received an electric shock suffer less from stress afterwards if they can beat the hell out of another rat who just happens to be near. Is this proof of the outlet hypothesis? Or is this also retaliation? Following the logic above and common sense, I think the latter. From the rat’s viewpoint, who else must be responsible for the shocks?

Expressing anger actually has unhealthy consequences

Brad Bushman and colleagues have shown – in many studies – that when you are allowed to vent your anger, by hitting a pillow, for instance, the result is paradoxical, in that it only increases your aggression. Despite the fact that it often makes us feel somewhat better, it increases our tendency to fight, and thus the stress response. Venting can even increase aggression against innocent bystanders, Bushman claims. According to Carol Tavris, another well-known scientist specialized in anger: “What yelling and punching pillows does is let a person ‘rehearse’ anger... which only encourages more anger.” In Bushman’s words: “Venting anger is like using petrol to put out a fire. It only feeds the flame by keeping aggressive thoughts active in memory and by keeping angry feelings alive”. For all these reasons, a classic guide about anger management and heart disease from the 1980s mentioned 17 anger management strategies, and already no longer included outlet.

Does sport help?

What about running or other intense bodily exercise when you’re stressed or angry? That may be good if it works as a distractor, or perhaps boosts your cognition and helps put things into perspective. But aside from that, in the long term it’s only good for your heart and blood vessels and will not reduce the stress response.

Doesn’t inhibit your emotions cost a lot of energy?

Otherwise than some popular beliefs would have it, neural inhibition – including prefrontal inhibition of the stress response – costs relatively little energy and is extremely cost-effective, and the brain is continuously inhibiting lots of primary, ‘default’ responses. Inhibition is the rule rather than the exception in the body. And individual organisms that spent minimal energy on these default-inhibitory mechanisms undoubtedly had better survival changes in evolution.

Listen to your own complaints

Finally, not only western sciences (neurobiology and psychology) have long debunked the idea that emotion needs an outlet, but Eastern knowledge systems also teach this. Two examples of many: Eknath Easwaran, from combined Indian philosophies: “(…) by venting negative feelings, we relive them – confirming our suspicions that an angry or petulant person is who we really are”. He recommends using a mantra, the “power brake.” Alan Watts in his book on Zen Buddhism: “Listen to your own complaints when the world gets you down, when you are angry, when you are filling in income tax forms. Above all, just listen.

This implies also that avoiding or suppressing negative feelings is not always the best option. We can learn a lot from our emotions. Helping people face their negative emotions and understand what they mean is a substantial part of the work of psychotherapists. You just don’t get rid of negative emotions simply by letting it all out, like releasing pent-up energy, or like defecation and urination, which undeniably bring relief. As the late Nico Frijda, one of the world’s leading emotion scientists, so astutely articulated to me: “The physiological state of an organism is always a reflection of what the organism is expecting in the next moment… and not the result of some sort of ‘emotional metabolism’”