How to vent healthily


Though venting has its place and can be a helpful way to cope under the right conditions, there are many other strategies that offer benefits more consistently

Opinion: When we have a long and stressful day, we often want to talk about it with someone close to us. Whether it is telling your partner about an annoying colleague at work or texting your friends about being frustrated with your partner who once again didn’t do the dishes, it can feel good to just let it out.

Sharing or letting negative emotions out – venting – is a commonly used coping strategy. Many people believe venting is helpful because it enables them to release their frustration and anger, and they are better able to problem-solve afterwards.

However, research suggests venting may be a double-edged sword.

On the one hand, sharing our emotions can make us feel better because people tend to respond with reassurance and sympathy. No one likes to see their friend or family member stressed and naturally they want to be supportive, validating and understanding.

On the other hand, when we persistently vent to someone else as a way to cope, it can negatively affect the other person’s emotional state. After a while they may find it hard to respond with the same level of warmth, empathy, and support, and this can put a strain on the relationship.

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Additionally, when we vent to others who are also experiencing a stressful situation, it can reinforce a sense of mutual distress, making both parties feel worse.

Whether venting as a social sharing strategy is helpful or harmful probably 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 venting was dependent on how much emotional support students had available to them.

International students face various stressors as they move countries. These include navigating life in a new environment, often using English as a second language, making new friends, getting used to a new culture with its norms and rules, to name just a few. Like others, international students regularly turn to venting when they face stressful situations.

We found that for international students who had a lot of support available from friends, family, and other people in New Zealand, venting frequently led to feeling worse over time. Interestingly, we found that for international students who had fewer people to turn to for support, venting was a helpful way to reduce their feelings of anxiety, depression, and other psychological symptoms.

Why might this be the case?

Those with a larger support network can vent to a lot of different people and not everyone will respond with the same level of sensitivity and validation. The more we vent to people who we don’t know well, the more likely we will receive some unwanted responses.

It is also possible that students with a small network of support were more careful about how they shared their negative emotions to protect the few close relationships they had.

Overall, our findings suggest venting to another person can help us alleviate stress and negative emotions, but it can also make us feel worse.

So, what can we do to make sure our venting is helpful and doesn’t damage relationships?

Letting our negative emotions out can feel good, but when we use this coping strategy, it is important to consider the feelings of the person with whom we are sharing.

To avoid emotionally straining the other person and damaging our relationship with them, we can express appreciation for their support and be available to reciprocate when they may need our validation. If we notice the other person is less sympathetic when we vent, they may be trying to signal that we have been venting a little too much and they are finding it difficult to respond.

In this situation, we can think about adopting alternative strategies. Luckily, venting is not the only strategy in our coping toolbox. Though venting has its place and can be a helpful way to cope under the right conditions, there are many other strategies that offer benefits more consistently.

Coping strategies are commonly categorised as either problem-focused or emotion-focused. Problem-focused coping includes strategies such as seeking advice, making a plan of action, and taking active steps to carry out the plan. These strategies aim to identify what causes the 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 us to focus on the positives and to find meaning in the situation.

Using problem-focused coping strategies in combination with emotion-focused strategies can be very efficient. When we feel more in control of our emotions, we are better able to problem-solve.