This week’s blog is inspired by the news in my area of Texas.
In my social media stream this morning I saw a video from the Dallas NBC affiliate covering a woman, who is a librarian; working with what the video states is “over 400 children” each day, going to a business to “blow off steam.”
This business charges people for the experience of entering a controlled environment wearing safety gear to destroy anything inside said controlled environment. The owners tell the news station that it’s the same as boxing or jogging.
The librarian (who works with children) is shown entering the destruction room and using a ripped off manikin arm to bludgeon a life-size human shaped object, which looks like another manikin.
The camera flips away to an interview with her where she states that it’s a good way for her to get rid of “excess energy” or “frustration”. She then tells us that being a librarian she plays things close to the vest, which can be stressful. We’re told that she is channeling her “inner kid”. She states that she gains a sense of power or confidence from smashing things as well.
I don’t doubt that she does feel strong after destroying things.
Whether or not this is an effective coping mechanism or an effective exercise “no different than jogging” are the issues.
More than a decade ago researchers examined what expressions of anger do with human behavior. It was thought that maybe punching a bag or pillow after becoming angry would lessen aggression in people. The opposite was true. People who expressed anger violently after becoming angry were more aggressive than people who did nothing after becoming angry.
So, how does that happen? It seems like our “common sense” tells us that when we’re angry if we somehow store and then release we’d magically feel better. It turns out that anger doesn’t work that way - and neither do our brains.
We can go back to Pavlov’s dogs for this (bells being tied too food, being tied to a behavioral outcome - salivation). We punch a bag when angry, we solidify the connection (or make it) between anger and aggression or violence. The connections that we make between our emotional states and behavior are an important part of what determines our actions.
The research shows us that doing absolutely nothing with anger is better than becoming aggressive to get rid of it. The feeling of “confidence” that the subject in the video describes after having demolished things is where we turn focus to now - it proves the science right. She gets a good feeling from destruction that arises out of what she calls “excess energy/frustration” - her own statements are proof that she is absolutely creating and strengthening the link in her own brain between aggression and anger, and even aggression and power (“confidence”). Most mental health professionals know that aggression is largely about power.
As for this being a valid form of “exercise”, I’m going to say no. It doesn’t look to be as much work as even a solid round of mindful vinyasa yoga - an exercise that actually supports health and sound coping skills for uncomfortable feelings. Exercise can be very helpful to managing stress, improving health, decreasing depression, etc. - but exercise that also doubles as a means of making poor or negative connections between certain emotions and behavior seems like a risky business.
Certainly, too risky a business for a person working with children to take, in this professional’s opinion. The science tells us that her aggression will increase as she continues to express it, and that isn’t a good thing.
It is April already as I write this. It’s Counseling Awareness Month. People in Dallas are aware of the smash-things business as a coping mechanism. Are they aware of the research in support of or against that practice? It doesn’t seem so. Are they aware about science and researched backed counseling techniques and interventions that can help people live healthy and joyous experiences without need for destruction? It doesn’t seem so - or maybe it just isn’t important enough to make it onto the news.
Channel 5, NBC Dallas/Fort Worth did not interview or provide any information about whether or not this was the effective coping skill the business owner and the user in the video are marketing it as. That is irresponsible reporting in this counselor’s opinion - but we also play a role.
It’s time to make some noise, my counselor friends. I know we’re all tired from conference. I know we’re all working hard. This month I’d like to see us working loud too. It’s one month - 30 days. Make some noise. Find some issues like this one or others in your area and shake some trees with your voice.
For my favorite study on this topic check out:
Busman, B., Baumeister, R., & Stack, A. (1999). Catharsis, Aggression and Persuasive Influence: Self-Fulfilling or Self-Defeating Prophecies. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. Vol. 76, No. 3, pp 367-376.
Whitney White is a counselor working in Texas in multiple settings with diverse populations. Some of her areas of passion are anxiety, non-suicidal self-injury, and compassion fatigue. With an integrated approach utilizing client strengths, she supports others in achieving their best self. For more information please visit counselingbywhitney.wordpress.com. The thoughts expressed in Whitney’s blogs do not represent her employers.