Venting when angry seems sensible. Conventional wisdom suggests expressing anger can help us quell it, like releasing steam from a pressure cooker.

But this common metaphor is misleading, according to a new meta-analytic review. Researchers at Ohio State University analyzed 154 studies on anger, finding little evidence that venting helps. In some cases, it could increase anger.

"I think it's really important to bust the myth that if you're angry you should blow off steam – get it off your chest," says senior author Brad Bushman, a communication scientist. "Venting anger might sound like a good idea, but there's not a shred of scientific evidence to support catharsis theory."

That doesn't mean anger should be ignored. Reflection can help us understand why we get mad and address underlying problems. It can also aid emotional validation, an important first step towards healthily processing emotions.

Venting, however, often goes beyond reflection into rumination. The study suggests that many people also try to exorcize anger with physical exertion, which can offer health benefits but may not lighten the mood in the moment.

The studies reviewed included a total of 10,189 participants, representing a variety of ages, genders, cultures, and ethnicities. The findings show the key to curbing anger is reducing physiological arousal, the authors say, from anger itself or from the otherwise beneficial physical activity it might inspire.

"To reduce anger, it is better to engage in activities that decrease arousal levels," Bushman says. "Despite what popular wisdom may suggest, even going for a run is not an effective strategy because it increases arousal levels and ends up being counterproductive."

The research was inspired partly by the popularity of 'rage rooms', where people pay to smash objects in hopes of releasing anger, says first author Sophie Kjærvik, now a communication scientist at Virginia Commonwealth University.

"I wanted to debunk the whole theory of expressing anger as a way of coping with it," says Kjærvik. "We wanted to show that reducing arousal, and actually the physiological aspect of it, is really important."

The team designed the review based on the Schachter-Singer two-factor theory, which describes anger (and all other emotions) as a two-part phenomenon, each comprising a physiological and a cognitive component.

silhouette of person doing yoga on beach at sunset
Calming activities are more effective than venting, research shows. (Dennis Yang/Flickr/CC BY 2.0)

Previous research has often focused on the cognitive angle, according to Kjærvik and Bushman, like examining how cognitive behavioral therapy can help people adjust the mental meanings underpinning their anger.

Research shows that can work, they say, but the review also sheds important light on an alternate pathway for defusing fury. What's more, standard cognitive behavioral therapies are not effective for all brain types.

Their study examined both arousal-increasing and arousal-reducing activities, from boxing, cycling, and jogging to deep breathing, meditating, and yoga.

Calming activities reduced anger in the lab and the field, they found, and across other variables like methods of instruction or participant demographics. Effective arousal-reducing activities included slow-flow yoga, mindfulness, progressive muscle relaxation, diaphragmatic breathing, and taking a timeout.

"It was really interesting to see that progressive muscle relaxation and just relaxation in general might be as effective as approaches such as mindfulness and meditation," Kjærvik says. "And yoga, which can be more arousing than meditation and mindfulness, is still a way of calming and focusing on your breath that has the similar effect in reducing anger."

Rather than trying to vent anger, the researchers recommend undermining it by turning down the heat. Calming tactics already proven to ease stress may also rob anger of physiological fuel.

"Obviously in today's society, we're all dealing with a lot of stress, and we need ways of coping with that, too," Kjærvik says. "Showing that the same strategies that work for stress actually also work for anger is beneficial."

The review found that most arousal-boosting activities didn't reduce anger, and some increased it, with jogging most likely to do that.

Ball sports and other physical activities involving play seemed to reduce physiological arousal, suggesting exertion might be more useful for reducing anger if it's fun.

"Certain physical activities that increase arousal may be good for your heart, but they're definitely not the best way to reduce anger," Bushman says. "It's really a battle because angry people want to vent, but our research shows that any good feeling we get from venting actually reinforces aggression."

More research is needed to clarify these findings, but for now, the researchers say calming techniques – even just taking a timeout or counting to 10 – offer the best options for taming a temper.

"You don't need to necessarily book an appointment with a cognitive behavioral therapist to deal with anger. You can download an app for free on your phone, or you can find a YouTube video if you need guidance," Kjærvik says.

The study was published in Clinical Psychology Review.