-Gerald Schoenewolf, PhD
What started out as an experiment in somebody’s garage has turned into a growing business where people pay anywhere from $20 to $500 (and more) for the privilege of smashing furniture, demolishing dishes, shredding mannequins or at times even destroying custom-made rooms designed to be replicas of a real room. Some people think this is a good trend, some think it is harmful.
The trend was started by Donna Alexander in Dallas. The first group to come to her garage and break things was comprised of friends and co-workers. Then, in 2011, she quit her job and opened a 1000-square-foot room in downtown Dallas—called simply the “Anger Room.” Soon other versions of the Anger Room opened around the world, including in Houston, Australia, Niagara Falls and Toronto.
Business increased, according to Alexander, during the recent U.S. Presidential Election, when mannequins of Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton were often requested for venting and destruction sessions. Customers in Dallas demolished two Clinton mannequins, requiring replacements. Trump’s mannequins took a bigger beating. “We’ve gone through at least three of the male mannequins that we have to dress up as Donald Trump,” Ms. Alexander reported.
Customers can customize their anger-room settings. Customers of the Anger Room have paid to re-enact a scene from the 1999 movie “Office Space,” in which the main characters, three angry computer programmers, beat a printer to death with a baseball bat. The company can customize the space any way customers want it, and charges according to how much it costs to arrange the space.
Typically, staff members make runs through neighborhoods in Dallas and pick up furniture and other items that people throw out for garbage pickup. There is no shortage of chairs, tables, desks, beds, mirrors and kitchenware. Customers use various weapons in their venting sessions—bats, metal bars, two-by-fours or golf clubs. Knives, guns, and other weapons using projectiles are not allowed. Customers are also provided with protective gear such as helmets, pads and gloves.
Alexander notes that quite often couples come in for mutual destruction sessions, at times customizing a room to replicate their bedroom. It appears that destroying things as a team brings the couple closer together. The theme of such sessions seems to be that “a couple that flays together stays together.”
However, one psychologist interviewed in an article about this phenomenon expressed the opinion that such venting might be harmful. “Although it’s appealing to think that expressing anger can reduce stress, there is not much evidence of that,” says George M. Slavich, a clinical psychologist and director of the Laboratory for Stress Assessment and Research at the University of California, “On the contrary, the types of physiological and immune responses that occur during anger can actually be harmful for health.”
Slavish has a point. Anger, especially chronic anger, can be harmful to the immune response, as the continual arousal of stress hormones in the body takes its toll on our physiology and weakens the immune system. Also, venting in and of itself does not lead to resolution or cure. It may make you feel better for a while, but eventually the anger and other negative feelings will return. It is the same for running or weight lifting or boxing; they can relieve your stress temporarily but unless it is done regularly the stress will return.
However, historically the psychotherapy community has devised various methods of helping clients release their stress, whether it is related to anger, fear, jealousy or some other feeling. The work of Wilhelm Reich and Alexander Lowen led to the creation of a school of therapy called, “Bioenergetics,” in which clients at times beat mattresses or pillows with tennis rackets. However, the object of such exercises in therapy is not just venting. Bioenergetics is an ongoing process of releasing stress and negative energy that, over time, is intended to lead to resolution.
When one hits a pillow or screams at it, using it as a surrogate for someone toward whom one has animosity, the goal is to start with the anger that lies at the surface, and then to reach the hurt and sadness that lies underneath. In addition to physical exercises, Bioenergetics also uses breathing exercises combined with sounds to release pent-up angst. During the course of the sessions the therapist attempts to guide the clients towards re-experiencing traumatic events in their lives and releasing them.
When such an exercise vents anger in order not just to release it but to get to the root of the problem, which sometimes harks back to traumatic events in early childhood, the anger, fear, jealousy, or rage dissolve and the wound is soothed if not healed. One gets in touch with deeper feelings of hurt and sadness and has transformative experiences (sometimes called catharses) that enable much-need self-objectivity as well as forgiveness of both others and yourself.
When people reach this state and can let go of their needless cares and woes, they will have a true release, as opposed to temporary venting, and their immune system and physiological processes will be helped, not hindered.