How to vent healthily
While bleeding has its place and can be a helpful way to deal with it under the right conditions, there are many other strategies that offer more consistent benefits
Opinion: When we have a long and stressful day, we often want to talk to someone close to us. Whether it’s telling your partner about an annoying co-worker at work or texting your friends about how frustrated your partner didn’t do the dishes yet again, it can feel good to just let it out.
Sharing or letting out negative emotions – ventilation – is a commonly used coping strategy. Many people believe that venting is helpful because it allows them to let go of their frustration and anger and they are then better able to solve problems.
However, research suggests that venting can be a double-edged sword.
On the one hand, we can feel better when we share our emotions because people tend to respond with reassurance and sympathy. No one likes it when their friend or family member is stressed, and naturally they want to be supportive, affirmative, and understanding.
On the other hand, if we keep venting out to someone to deal with it, it can negatively affect the other person’s emotional state. After a while, they may find it difficult to respond with the same level of warmth, empathy, and support, and this can strain the relationship.
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Venting with others who are also experiencing a stressful situation can also increase a sense of mutual distress, making both parties feel worse.
Whether venting as a social sharing strategy is helpful or harmful likely depends on a few things, including who we vent to, how often we do it, and how we go about it.
In our research with international students at Te Herenga Waka – Victoria University of Wellington, we found that successful release depends on how much emotional support the students had available to them.
International students face various stressors when moving to another country. This includes navigating life in a new environment, often using English as a second language, making new friends, adjusting to a new culture with its norms and rules to name a few. Like others, international students regularly turn to venting when faced with stressful situations.
We found that for international students who had a lot of support from friends, family and other people in New Zealand, venting often made them feel worse over time. Interestingly, we found that for international students who had fewer people to turn to, venting was a helpful way to reduce their feelings of anxiety, depression, and other mental health symptoms.
Why could this be the case?
Those with a larger support network can vent their anger to many different people, and not everyone will respond with the same level of sensitivity and affirmation. The more we lash out with people we don’t know well, the more likely we’ll get some unwanted responses.
It’s also possible that students with a small support network were more careful about how they shared their negative emotions to protect the few close relationships they had.
Overall, our results suggest that venting on another person can help us relieve stress and negative emotions, but it can also make us feel worse.
So what can we do to ensure that our releases are helpful and not damaging to relationships?
It can feel good to let our negative emotions out, but when using this coping strategy, it’s important to consider the feelings of the person we’re communicating with.
To avoid emotionally distressing the other person and damaging our relationship with them, we can express appreciation for their support and be available to reciprocate when they need our reassurance. If we notice that the other person is less sympathetic when we vent, they may be trying to signal that we have vented a little too much and have a hard time responding.
In this situation, we can think about alternative strategies. Luckily, venting isn’t the only strategy in our coping toolbox. While bleeding has its place and can be a helpful way to deal with it under the right conditions, there are many other strategies that offer more consistent benefits.
Coping strategies are commonly categorized as either problem-focused or emotion-focused. Problem-based coping involves strategies such as seeking advice, creating a plan of action, and taking active steps to implement the plan. These strategies aim to identify the causes of stress and eliminate it.
Emotion-focused coping, on the other hand, aims to manage the level of stress we feel and reduce negative emotions. Relaxation and positive reinterpretation are useful emotion-focused coping strategies. Positive reinterpretation requires that we focus on the positive and make sense of the situation.
Using problem-focused coping strategies in combination with emotion-focused strategies can be very effective. When we feel more in control of our emotions, we are better able to solve problems.