Should You or Should You Not Vent About Your Stress?
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Most jobs generate some level of stress. According to the American Institute of Stress, nearly half of workers (40%) say that their job is very or extremely stressful. When we’re stressed, it feels good to vent to colleagues or loved ones. Unfortunately, venting about workplace stress is not always a healthy method to express your frustration. Sometimes, it can actually worsen your stress.
There are two prevailing camps regarding the common “to vent or not to vent” dilemma. There’s one camp who thinks that if they bottle up their stress and bad feelings about work, they will inevitably lose their cool in an inappropriate way, such as in front of their manager or a customer. They think that venting to a sympathetic colleague or friend is a more private and safe way to blow off steam.
The other camp thinks that venting only spreads more stress and negativity. They believe that there are more effective paths to a calmer way of being, such as focusing on solutions instead of problems, looking for the positives in a situation, and even trying to distract themselves.
Fortunately, there’s a lot of research to shed light on whether venting is good or bad. I’ve prepared a pro/con list for you to understand the ins and outs of venting about job stress. Decide what works best for you given your specific situation, and you’ll be on a path to a healthier you.
Venting about your stress: The Pros
- Avoiding disaster. Sure, venting is more effective than losing your cool. Many people feel that they might lose their cool if they keep their feelings bottled up. This is a valid argument. You shouldn’t feel so constricted by your negative emotions that you risk losing your composure or saying the wrong thing. Therefore, letting off steam in small bursts is a better route than risking an emotional explosion in front of the wrong person.
- Immediate relief. It feels great to let it all out! Especially when you've been holding in stress, venting about the daily grind is a powerful release mechanism. If there are negative consequences, you don’t feel them as palpably because it feels so good to vent.
- Hugs all around. Venting about work can help people feel more bonded and connected, especially if they share the same or similar stressors such as the same manager, customers, or physical environment. It helps to know that colleagues or loved ones share our same experience, can relate to us, and care about us. This is even truer in situations where there is little encouragement or support for a job well done.
- Possible solutions to the stress. Venting about stress and problems provides a forum for ideas and solutions that you might not have thought of on your own. Often, peers have great ideas because they are in the same situation. On the other hand, an outsider can offer a fresh perspective. Be aware that when people vent merely to receive sympathy or to bond, the solutions generated will not likely be put into practice. But when people vent and are open to solutions, the discussion can yield great ideas and actionable solutions which, over time, decreases stress.
Venting about your stress: The Cons
- Stress as a contagious cold. Stress, like the common cold, is contagious to people you come into contact with. Research by the Max Planck Institute for Cognitive and Brain Sciences has confirmed that merely watching stressful situations unfold can cause a stress response in another person! When you vent, it triggers other people. Before you know it, you’ve singlehandedly created an echo chamber of stress that winds its way back to you, but this time amplified. Did you know that calm, positive thinking, and kindness are also contagious?
- Venting and your personal brand. You feel bonded and connected to people during and after venting, but if you vent too much, you can be perceived as too dramatic or negative. Colleagues and loved ones might begin to avoid you because they now associate you with stress and negativity. This hurts your personal brand can have a negative impact on your career.
- Damage in the long run. Venting feels great in the moment, but it can actually make you feel worse in the long run. This is because venting can increase your stress and anger rather than reduce them. At the same time, venting doesn’t resolve the underlying causes of your stress. Cooling yourself off, regaining perspective, and expressing your stress in positive ways can be more healing in the long run.
- Addictive venting. The more you vent, the more it becomes a habit. When it becomes a habit, you’re acutely attuned to the negative things in life. Since your brain is now more primed to register stressors, it is more challenging to appreciate the more calming or positive facets of work or life. Instead of letting stress become a habit or an addiction, you can choose what to focus on and what to talk about.
- Health hazard. Because venting puts us in a stressed state, when you vent consistently you are putting yourself in a chronic stress state. The mind registers a threat when you only notice and vent about how bad things are at work. This leads to a physiological stress response to fight or take flight—in a chronic fashion. This has a negative impact on your physical and emotional health. Our bodies are not built to experience ongoing stress.
What to do instead
Now that you’re an expert on the pros and cons of venting, you should see that venting, although handy in short bursts, is not the optimal way to handle stress in an ongoing way. Instead, more strategic approaches can be more effective at relieving and preventing stress without any of the negative consequences. Fortunately, there are 10 options.
- Vent on a timer. If you have a habit of venting, chances are you will be tempted to continue to do what is automatic and comfortable. Instead of ripping off the Band-Aid in one fell sloop, try a more gradual approach. Here is how: Once you realize that you are venting, set a mental or real timer and allow yourself five more minutes to vent. Then, when the timer goes off, shift your focus, and start talking about what's going well. Repeat this sequence until it feels automatic and comfortable. Sometimes a short time of indulging in what is automatic and comfortable can serve as a bridge to new habits.
- Confide in somebody who can help you. Think of somebody you trust, and who can actually help you. Share with them a quick summary of what is on your mind, and where you would ideally like matters to be instead. Be sure to select somebody who is in a position to improve your situation. For example, if you have a work situation that is causing you stress, bring it up with your manager, the facilities staff, the office manager, or human resources. They might be able to fix the problem, especially if you are courteous, to the point, and well-meaning. The next time you find yourself wanting to vent, ask yourself if there is a possible solution, and ask yourself who might be able to help you.
- Avoid causing unnecessary conflict. When we’re stressed, we often let our emotions get the best of us, which can lead to unnecessary conflict and a higher likelihood of venting. In my upcoming book, I discuss a powerful strategy for avoiding unnecessary conflict. Here’s what to do: The next time you feel stressed and begin to react verbally, pay close attention to your tone of voice. Is it sharp? Is it negative? Do you raise your voice? Try to reframe your mind so that you are more approachable and have a warmer tone. Why not throw in a relaxed smile as icing on the cake? Try to ask questions before proposing solutions. And celebrate diverse and creative viewpoints.
- Troubleshoot, problem-solve, and experiment on yourself. When you vent about something you can change, empower yourself by problem-solving and running experiments to improve the situation. Map out your options, decide on one or two scenarios, take small steps, and test them to see what works best. Doing something is better than doing nothing. Transition from feeling powerless to feeling powerful in being able to change the situation. For example, if you find that your work environment is loud or distracting, try experimenting with wearing headphones to drown out the noise and stop people from approaching you. Or, book a conference room. Or, sit in the lobby, or the park.
- Build a stress matrix. Create a table with sequential days on the far-left column, three or four variables you are experimenting with across the top such as sleep, distractions at work, contact with a toxic colleague, and venting, as well as a global stress on the far right. Fill in the chart to include your levels of success on a scale of 1-5 with each variable on each given day. This will allow you to track your progress, and what variables make the most impact on your global stress scale. It will also help you decide what to spend your time and effort on. Do more of the things that make you less stressed, and fewer of the things that stress you out.
- Look for humor. Humor can be a powerful force when used properly. When we laugh, dopamine and endorphins are released, which ward off our stress hormones. In my upcoming book, Stress-Less Leadership (Entrepreneur), I also discuss a useful strategy for finding humor. Here’s what to do: Think about your hobbies, vacations, and the recent situations you’ve encountered. What is or was humorous about them? For example, did something unexpected happen on your daily commute? Make a joke about it. Self-humor is very effective. In addition to helping us ward off stress, it has the added benefit of helping us gain respect from others. This might seem counterintuitive, but when we allow ourselves to be vulnerable, we humanize ourselves and establish a connection to others.
- Vent in your journal. Writing your experiences down will help you identify your conscious or unconscious mental processes. How often are you stressed and expecting the worst? Writing will also help you to process your emotions and make sense of what you're feeling. Recording things that bother you will help you to release those stressors and move on more quickly. Over time, you will gain insights and perspective as you read your journal entries from a couple of months ago. You might even chuckle at what seemed stressful a couple of months ago, and is now resolved and almost forgotten.
- Record your gratitude. There’s enormous value in expressing gratitude. Research by leading gratitude researcher Robert Emmons has found that gratitude boosts happiness and reduces depression. A powerful partner to your stress journal is a gratitude journal. A gratitude journal can offer many added benefits in terms of helping you create a mental habit of noticing the positive in life and being thankful. This is a thought pattern that's virtually the opposite of complaining. Research has shown that gratitude can literally rewire your brain in a positive way. And, over time, you'll have created a record of all the things in life that make you happy, which you can read over at any time. Talk about a pick-me-up.
- Practice mindfulness. People who are able to stay in the present moment longer tend to complain less. Focusing on the present involves letting go of your stress about past events or future ones. Mindfulness a powerful habit to practice. You can practice it in many different ways, but a simple way to start is to focus on your breathing. The next time you feel stressed, take a deep breath in and listen to your breath as you inhale and exhale. Focus on how it feels in your chest.
- Practice other stress-relieving habits. Finding other stress-relieving habits that work can help you to feel less upset by challenges you face at work. This can bring you added resilience and happiness in your life. Ask other people what they do to relieve their stress.
Venting is pervasive in the workplace. According to Kristin Behfar of the University of Virginia, as reported by Fortune, the average employee either vents or hears someone else vent about four times a day. As you now know though, venting can be a double-edged sword. Oftentimes, a well-intended rant can create new problems. Fortunately, you can prevent the negative fallouts of venting by using the 10 strategies discussed above. In doing so, you’ll reduce and prevent your stress, and avoid destructive venting.
Nadine Greiner, Ph.D.is a San Francisco based executive coach, HR consultant, and speaker. She believes that the world needs great leaders, and has dedicated her career to helping them. Her book, Stress-less Leadership: How to lead in Business and Life was published by Entrepreneur Press.