Let me lay the cards on the table right at the beginning: This is based on authentic research. Dr Fabian Pels, on whose research this post is built on, has endorsed this on behalf of his team. He wrote over an email: “We were pleased to read your blog post. From our point of view, we can clearly state that you send the right message.”
Anger is an issue we all wish we could learn to deal with — in ourselves and in others. The destructive reactions we come up with when in anger, we often come to regret later. We must control the anger when it’s easy before it gets out of hand. Is there an easy way to that?
Sometimes you realize you did wrong in the heat of the moment, which makes you go angry at yourself all over again. Think: That’s memory of anger making you angry.
Do you punch a bag to control your anger?
Does venting off douse your flame? Does blowing off some steam by carrying out an aggressive action, control your anger?
Did anyone ever suggest you box the stuffing out of a punching bag to get your anger under control?
It’s a popular belief that punching a bag or a wall or a pillow reduces your anger. But experts say that the popular media may have got it all wrong.
This catharsis message — that acting out an aggressive deed reduces anger — is way off the reality. In a 1999 study, Brad Bushman, Angela Stack, and Roy Baumeister found that people who followed this catharsis message and then hit the punching bag became more aggressive afterward.
Punching bags to blow off steam really makes you angrier.
And in 2002, another study found that when angry people hit a punching bag while thinking about the person who had angered them, they got angrier. By the way, his study was also by the same anger researcher Brad Bushman.
So, there it is: Boxing the hell out of a pillow will only make you more angry.
Can you row away your angry feelings?
A few months back, in 2016, Fabian Pels and Jens Kleinert of German Sport University, Cologne, gathered 33 men and 27 women from local universities. These were students of psychology or social science. Of these, 58 students played a sport with regularity, as jogging, basketball and gymnastics.
The psychologists said they were to take part in a study “to examine whether self-perception differs between physical activities primarily requiring fine motor skills and those primarily requiring endurance”. That’s expert-speak for “We want to find out how you guys see the difference between exercises that need fine skills and those that demand stamina.”
But actually, it was an aggression study.
Half of the chosen sixty were to row on an ergometer — a rowing machine. The researchers divided them into three groups —
- the first to row it out on their own (individual),
- the second to perform it with others as team (cooperative), and
- the third to do it with others as contestants (competitive).
The other thirty had to do combat exercises. They also got clubbed into three groups.
- The individual combat exercisers punched a boxing bag.
- The competitive combat players got this instruction: Strike your opponent with a bataka bat (a padded foam bat), and your opponent could hit you back with theirs.
- The cooperative combat guys had to hit a corded ball in a way that it passed to the other person over a rail. The other person would then pass the ball back.
Overall, there were six random groups with six different activities to follow.
Before the start of the study, each of the participants received a pencil-and-paper test to find out their aggression score. Then their ‘umpires’ asked them to carry out some table tennis tasks.
While they were at it, the umpires gave them a load of negative and unfair criticism to increase their anger levels.
Afterwards, the researchers checked their anger levels in another pencil-and-paper test. Finally, they were to do the rowing or combat exercises. And, of course, they went through the test again.
But, wait, this wasn’t over. The whole cycle got repeated thrice. (Talk of being recruited for psychological studies!)
The researchers at the beginning had assumed that their study will prove that:
- anger reduced when the exercise had movements unlike aggressive motions, and
- people working out together got less angry.
But they were wrong on both of these assumptions.
In the end, when the results came after analyzing all that data, it was a surprise. It was not that the persons who worked together as team became calmer. And it was not that the ones who played combat sports became angrier.
It was this: The individual rowers had reduced their anger the most.
Does the best fighter ever get angry?
One thing was clear to the researchers. That rowing away on a machine on your own to bring the anger under control wasn’t a strategy that was foolproof.
So it wasn’t the real find. Then, what was? Read on.
The researchers noticed the combat groups couldn’t be made as much angry by harsh criticism as the rowing groups. Said in a simple way, the combat groups were more chilled out even after their umpires rubbed them the wrong way.
Plus, these combat guys did not pick up more anger while doing their bat-hitting or boxing rounds.
Remember the Lao Tzu quote: “The best fighter is never angry.”
All exercisers had reduced their anger, which Pels and Kleinert thought was due to overall muscle relaxation.
But even this wasn’t the real find of the study.
So, what was the surprise find?
It was this, as the researchers wrote in their article in the journal Perceptual and Motor Skills:
“Aggression reduction is less a matter of movement type or social constellation than a matter of need satisfaction and personal fulfillment. In other words, sport and exercise are able to reduce aggression, particularly in cases where participants experience movements or tasks as satisfying and enjoyable.”
In plain-speak, as this research found:
Exercise can cut your anger down, but only when you find it enjoyable.
An anger misquote
You may find it quite interesting to know that even though being credited to have said it, Buddha never said this:
“Holding on to anger is like grasping a hot coal with the intent of throwing it at someone else — you are the one who gets burned.”
It’s a popular misquote attributed to Buddha.
Hunting for it, you find that Joan Borysenko had written something similar in her 1987 book Minding the Body, Mending the Mind that somehow got changed into that misquote. Borysenko’s original words were: “The Buddha compared holding onto anger to grasping a hot coal with the intent of throwing it at someone else. You, of course, are the one who gets burned.”
Coming back, what Pels and Kleinert’s research indicates is that if you want to bring your anger down, and stop holding onto the hot coal, engage yourself in an exercise that you enjoy doing.
Exercise can cut your anger down, once you make sure you enjoy the moves.
Now that is an easily doable way to control your anger.
by Sandip Roy