Having Anger Issues? Try “Shredding” Your Feelings

Instead of anger management classes, all you may need is a pen, some paper, and a trash can. 
After journaling your feelings, try shredding them.
After journaling your feelings, try shredding them. / Dina Belenko Photography/Moment via Getty Images

Toddlers may be onto something: Destruction really does help relieve feelings of anger in a meaningful way, a new study published in Scientific Reports finds. But before you book an appointment at your nearest rage room, some reflection is necessary.

People have been looking for healthy outlets for their angry feelings for millennia. To test the rage-reducing effects of writing down one’s thoughts and then throwing them away, researchers in Japan experimented with two different exercises. First, they had college students write a short essay about how to solve a common social problem, such as smoking in public. They then told the participants that their essays would be returned to them graded. But instead of personalizing the essay feedback, the researchers automatically gave every participant low ratings in all of these categories: intelligence, interest, friendliness, logic, respectability, and rationality.

To rub salt in the wound, they even wrote the following on each paper: “I cannot believe an educated person would think like this. I hope this person learns something while at the university.”

Each participant was told to sit and silently absorb their grade for two minutes. Researchers then instructed them to write down every thought they had about receiving the feedback, paying special attention to how it made them feel, with assurance that no one would read the paper.

Here comes the interesting part: Some participants were told to put their reflections through a shredder, some were told to throw them in the trash can, and some were told to keep them. Researchers observed that those who shredded or threw away the paper found it much easier to let go of their self-reported feelings of anger. Those who were told to hold onto their notes held onto their anger as well; the journaling exercise helped this group, but not nearly as much . And there was no meaningful difference between throwing the paper away and shredding it, either. The mental benefit seems to have come from the person ridding themselves of the physical object embodying their feelings.

This impact seems to be a reversal of the “magical contagion” or “celebrity contagion” effect: the psychological belief that “objects contain some remnants of their previous owners.” Here, after the person imbues the paper with their emotions, the thinking goes, destroying the paper has a reverse impact by ridding them of the emotion as well.

People have used this method throughout history. The researchers in the study reference the Japanese festival of hakidashisara at the Hiyoshi shrine in Kiyosu, where visitors smash small plates representing things that make them angry. And writing a letter just to burn it is a well-known spiritual and therapeutic practice for letting go of complicated feelings.

The applications of these findings are immediately apparent. After all, this is a trick that anyone can try, and its impact goes beyond the individual. Equipping people to process their anger in a productive way can reduce cases of violence [PDF] and improve the mental and physical health—not to mention the relationships—of those who suffer from anger management issues. 

The study has implications for other emotions as well. It’s not unreasonable to think that other difficult feelings like sadness, envy, loneliness, or anxiety may be alleviated through a similar exercise. At the very least, we know that journaling [PDF] alone is usually a good first step. If you prefer to vent digitally, it remains to be seen if using the virtual recycling bin has the same benefits.