You are not a balloon

We all do it.

You're stressed out so you drop by a colleague's office. And then it starts - the rant. And before you know it, you've spent 30 minutes rehashing every little detail of everything little thing that is bothering you.

Venting. Ranting. Letting off steam. Whatever you call it, we all do it. But venting doesn't work.

Venting feeds stress.

How many times have you said "I just need to vent, then I'll feel better." There's tons of advice out there that suggests that venting - whether it's a verbal rant or a physical act like punching a pillow - relieves stress.

The problem is that advice is wrong.

The psychological research on this is pretty clear - venting, both verbal and physical, doesn't work. Venting to reduce your emotions is like trying to put out a fire by dousing it in gasoline1 - it makes it worse.

There are a couple of problems with venting. First there's the assumption that if you can get some of your stress outside of you by venting, there will be less of it inside of you. Like letting air out of a balloon. But...

You're not a balloon.

You don't have a limited supply of stress. You're not a balloon that deflates when you let out some air. In fact it's the opposite. Describing in minute detail everything that is stressing you out feeds your stress.

And that's the second problem with venting. It feeds the very emotion you're trying to get rid of. When we act or think in ways that matches what we're feeling, it makes our emotion stronger. So if you're stressed and you act stressed - by venting, for example - you're feeding that stressful feeling and making it stronger.

So does that mean you shouldn't talk about things that stress you out? Nope. Bottling up your feelings is also pretty bad for you (more on that in another post). The key is changing how you talk about stressors.

Replace mindless venting with positive venting.

There is a way of venting that helps relieve stress. I call it positive venting. Positive venting doesn't feed the stress loop in your head, it interrupts it. Rather than going over (and over and over) what was said and done, positive venting helps you see things in a different light.

Studies on coping have found that one of the most effective ways to feel better is to change your perspective - to reframe the situation in a more positive way. Find a benefit in the stress - an opportunity to grow or learn, a chance to use a new skill or practice compassion towards someone else, a change to test yourself. You can do that on your own but it's also a really great way to tweak your venting rather than just complaining.

Don't complain; reframe.

So next time you're tempted to rant about something that's bothering you, ask yourself "How can I talk about this situation in a more positive way? What benefit is there for me here?" And then talk about that as much as you talk about the nitty gritty of what is bothering you. End your rant with a positive spin. Yes, it's stressful or irritating or annoying but... and insert your positive spin here.

It won't just benefit you, it will also benefit the person you're venting to. Cause let's face it, as much as we all like to rant, it's not that much fun to listen to someone else rant. So when you shift the way you rant - when you change from mindless to positive venting, you'll find it has a positive impact on your relationships as well. The people listening will be more engaged and more willing to stick around. You can even enlist them to help - if you can't find a positive spin on it, ask someone else for their take on it.

I'd love to hear how it goes for you so if you try it out, leave me a comment below and let me know. And if you know any world-class ranters, pass this on to help them out.

1Bushman, B. J. (2002). Does venting anger feed or extinguish the flame? Catharsis, rumination, distraction, anger, and aggressive responding. *Personality and social psychology bulletin, 28(6),* 724-731.

Photo Credit: mike warren via Compfight cc

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