Stop and Smell the Roses

Friday, December 19, 2008 
By: Rinie Geenen and Bart Thoolen

FMOnline vol. 8, no. 12

When I’m angry, it’s best to stay out of my way. Don’t worry, I’m not the type to get physically violent, but at such times my verbal reactions can be far from subtle. I’m generally not ashamed of such moments. After all, everybody gets mad sometimes. Many experts in the field claim that I shouldn’t bottle up my anger. Expressing my emotions may be a good way to prevent me from becoming really angry. Letting off some steam is both relieving and prevents further aggravation. 


So, dear friends, be thankful that I express my anger. And to the man in the traffic jam who showed me his middle finger, I would like to say. “Wonderful, that’s the spirit! By expressing your anger you may have just prevented a major traffic accident!” In the future, I will smile congenially, give you the thumbs-up and yell, “Good man! Get it all out!”


…At least, I think I will—if my assumption is correct. However, is it? Is it really so good to express one’s anger?


Blowing Off Steam
Brad Bushman has done research into the usefulness of blowing off steam. In various experiments, he made people angry. Half of the participants were encouraged to express their anger, while the other half had to do something else.


Surprisingly, expressing emotions actually increased their anger instead of reducing it. Bushman observed that nearly every other strategy is better than expressing one’s anger, including the option of doing nothing at all. He offers four tips that can help you to adequately deal with your anger: relaxation, delay, diversion, and carrying out an action incompatible with anger.


Tips for Angry People
It’s worth it to take a moment and consider these tips.

  1. Find time to relax! Make a cup of tea. Take a bath or go lie on the couch. Breathe deeply. Think of a tranquil situation.
  2. Postpone! Take a pause before expressing your anger! Count to 10 or, if you’re really angry, to 100. Remember that, if you then still feel the need, you can always vent your anger later on. 
  3. Look for diversion! Stop and smell the roses. It isn’t useful to keep thinking about the things that make you angry. Think about nice things and about the good sides of the person you’re so angry with at the moment. 
  4. Finally, carry out an action that is incompatible with your angry feelings. Pet your dog! Smile at your child! Hug your partner!

Little Imperfections
These tips are not useful in all situations. In fact, expressing your anger can sometimes help you resolve a problematic situation. If I had never vented my feelings to my boss or children, then they probably would have thought that I was fine with an unsatisfactory situation. It might be wise to encourage people who never express their anger to start doing so from time to time. However, while expressing anger may sometimes be useful, it is not always good. Anger expression should not be encouraged too much.


I want to start applying some of Bushman’s tips to my own life. I have a really sweet partner who nevertheless does—though rarely—get angry with me. Usually, it's because I’ve forgotten something. I have already let her read the four tips. If my forgetfulness nevertheless provokes an anger episode, then I have resolved to take the following steps:


I will ask her to sit on the couch and place our child in her lap. While she subsequently counts to 200, I will go set her a cup of tea. If she is still angry, I will walk into our garden, pick her a rose to smell (without thorns of course), and ask her to give me a hug. Finally, if she is still angry with me, even after applying all these tips…. well, then I will know for a fact that it’s wise to be less forgetful next time.


Professsor Dr. Rinie Geenen is a professor in psychorheumatology, and Dr. Bart Thoolen is a researcher/trainer in health psychology at Utrecht University in the Netherlands.



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