Your Health


Even if they're limiting the oils, people do not seem to be limiting their anger. The president says he's angry. Members of Congress say they're angry. The public, we're told, is angry.

So today NPR's Alix Spiegel looks at anger, at what researchers want us to know about its expression. She begins by visiting a woman who's turned anger into a money-making venture.

ALIX SPIEGEL: Every business has a story. And the story of Sarah Lavely's business began shortly after her husband of 12 years left her cold - alone in a house in New Hampshire. You see, after his departure, Lavely took up an unusual hobby. Every morning she'd go out her front door and smash his belongings on the asphalt driveway.

Ms. SARAH LAVELY (Sarah's Smash Shack): It was fabulous. I mean, I was angry as - I was angry and I was picking stuff up and holding it up over my head and smashing it straight down on my driveway. It was very good.

(Soundbite of laughter)

SPIEGEL: Lavely decided to move back to California, stay with her mother. But a couple days after the move, she found herself lying in bed yearning for destruction.

Ms. LAVELY: I woke up that day and I thought, oh, I don't really have a forum to continue this release of this intense energy that's building up inside of me. So I wish there was someplace I could go and do it. And I'll create a place where people can go and do that.

(Soundbite of item breaking)

SPIEGEL: Today, about 200 customers a week carry their frustrations to Sarah's Smash Shack in downtown San Diego. For around $25 Lavely provides dishware and protective gear and the felt-tipped pens that people use to write on the plates they fling against the wall, cryptic messages that Lavely later sweeps into a dustpan.

Ms. LAVELY: Maybe I'll see part of someone's name or I'll see a lot of times kind of parts of phrases, like I'm not good enough or I don't do things right.

SPIEGEL: For Lavely the Shack is a positive thing, a place where people can express themselves and in a sense cleanse their anger by allowing it to be aired and go from being a negative thing to something that's been diffused and dealt with.

(Soundbite of song, "Mother")

Mr. JOHN LENNON: (Singing) Mother, you had me, but I never had you.

SPIEGEL: The idea that it's important and healthy to vent your anger in some way has been around for a long time. Freud was a fan. But in the United States, it only really exploded in the 1960s and '70s. The song you hear playing under my voice, for example, was famously written by John Lennon after an intensive course of primal scream therapy in the early '70s. And according to Jeffrey Lohr, a professor of psychology at the University of Arkansas, rock stars weren't the only people who believed in letting it all hang out.

Professor JEFFREY LOHR (University of Arkansas): It was a mental health commonplace. Everybody knows that expression of negative feelings was a beneficial thing to do.

SPIEGEL: But now the pendulum has swung. Lohr says decades of research on the idea of cathartic anger — the theory that actively expressing your anger can reduce or relieve the feeling — has produced a clear message.

Prof. LOHR: Punching pillows and breaking dishes doesn't reduce subsequent anger expression; that the research shows clearly.

SPIEGEL: In fact, the research very clearly shows the opposite is true. The more you get angry, the angrier you get. And so psychological researchers across the nation are now on a campaign to recast our view of anger expression. Sadly, even screaming is now out of vogue, because any arousal just increases your arousal. So no more screaming at your family. Lohr has a better idea.

Prof. LOHR: To say, for example, my voice may not indicate it, but I am very angry with you now.

SPIEGEL: You're saying express your feelings, but don't express your feelings in an emotional way.

Prof. LOHR: Well, don't do it in a cheap and self-serving fashion.

SPIEGEL: Kind of makes you long for the '60s, doesn't it? Of course, getting people to behave this way will probably be an uphill battle. Lohr and the ragtag crew of academic aggression researchers who produced this work are even having problems convincing everyday mental health practitioners to consistently adopt their recommendations. Many therapists, it seems, are attached to the idea that you really should feel free to express your feelings.

Now, to be clear, Lohr isn't pro-repression. It's just that we're not supposed to yell at anyone anymore. In fact, Lohr claims the immediate sense of release we get after screaming or breaking plates is an illusion.

Prof. LOHR: You have the sense of immediate improvement, but it's only a sense. The real question is, would you feel any less uncomfortable if you didn't vent, but did something else instead, such as breathe deeply for two minutes, or remove yourself from the conflict-arousing circumstance?

SPIEGEL: But Sarah Lavely isn't buying it.

Ms. LAVELY: I've never seen someone come in angry, go in the room, smash stuff and come out angrier. I think cathartic anger, at least what I'm seeing here at the Smash Shack, is absolutely a positive thing.

SPIEGEL: Lavely says her business has been growing and despite the economy is growing still.

Alix Spiegel, NPR News, Washington.

INSKEEP: And that's Your Health for this Thursday morning.

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