Hate your boss, hit a bag?

By Patrick Mattimore (
Updated: 2010-12-31 15:20
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To Sigmund Freud, the idea of establishing stress-busting clubs and stress-release phone services would make perfect sense.

Freud believed that repressed fury could build up and fester, much like steam in a pressure cooker. The key to mental health, said Freud, is to dampen the pressure of negative feelings by releasing them in a controlled manner.

We relieve internal pressure, Freud suggested by employing defense mechanisms such as displacement or sublimation. So, for that tiresome boss, we might yell at our wife (displacement) or become an amateur boxing champion (sublimation).

"Beating the Blues," a story in Thursday's China Daily newspaper, reported that entrepreneurs are finding ways to help people channel their rage by destroying mock household furniture with a baseball bat at the "Rage Cage." Other stressed-out folks are venting anger by swearing at people over phone services set up for that purpose.

The idea that we can relieve stress by venting is known as catharsis. The concept has gained favor in movies such as the Academy Award-nominated 1976 movie "Network," in which an angry news anchor urged irate viewers fed up with societal conditions, to open their windows and holler, "I'm mad as hell and I'm not going to take it anymore."

A once popular psychotherapy known as primal scream therapy suggested that psychologically troubled adults should release the emotional pain produced by infant and childhood trauma by screaming at the top of their lungs.

Catharsis makes sense, but does it work to relieve stress? Overwhelmingly, scientists who study human behavior say, "no."

In their book, "50 Great Myths of Popular Psychology: Shattering Widespread Misconceptions about Human Behavior," authors Scott O. Lilienfeld, Steven Jay Lynn, John Ruscio, and Barry L. Beyerstein cite a variety of controlled trials involving testing the catharsis hypothesis and conclude that individuals' anger increases after they have acted out their substitute aggressions.

But if catharsis is not a healthy or effective reaction to stress, what then?

To answer that question, understand that most people experience stress from a variety of sources such as work- and school-related pressures, financial responsibilities, familial conflicts, or even Beijing traffic. Reactions to those stressors vary and not all stress is bad. Eustress (good or healthy stress), for example, is the type of energetic reaction to situations that gives us a lift and helps us to perform our best on opening night or when we make a presentation.

But for those debilitating types of stress that catharsis is intended to address and ameliorate (but doesn't), behavioral scientists suggest the best responses are exercise and meditation. Perhaps most important, people need to establish healthy cognitive coping mechanisms to regulate the degree to which we allow outside stressors to control our inner responses.

Smacking dummy boss surrogates may seem to be a way to manage work frustration, but it won't really do anything to relieve stress and it may even stress us out more.

Patrick Mattimore is a fellow at the Institute for Analytic Journalism, a former high school teacher, and an adjunct instructor of law at Tsinghua/Temple Law School LLM Program in Beijing.