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Opinion: When ‘growling’ is good for you

Photo illustration. Growling, yelilng, stress, anger. Credit: PEXELS
Photo illustration. Growling, yelilng, stress, anger. Credit: PEXELS

Fun stress-reliever's grounded in brain science.

The day had started innocently enough for my wife and me and our three-year-old son as we set off to run a few errands. The list had not seemed too long, but our willingness to be cooped up in the car faded quickly. As I pulled into a parking space my wife acknowledged our festering grumpiness. Turning to look at me she asked, “Want to growl?”

Giving it some thought, I replied, “Yes!” and then turned to my son to ask for his help. “Michael, I want you to help Mommy and me by saying ‘1-2-3 go!’ Then, she and I are going to growl like lions and tigers and bears for five seconds. Okay?” He nodded eagerly. My wife’s bemused expression was evident as we turned to face each other. From his car seat behind us, Michael started the count. On cue, my wife and I growled loudly, the sound amplified by the closed car windows. No sooner had we finished than we both broke up laughing. When we turned to see how Michael was reacting to his parents’ strange behavior, we saw he had a big smile on his face as he excitedly exclaimed, “Again! Again!”

In the more than 30 years since that sunny spring Saturday, I have utilized this five-second solution many times. On rare occasions, I have found I needed a second growl before the sound of laughter signaled that my grumpy mood had yielded. I have never needed a third growl, though.

During that same time, I have shared this simple strategy with a countless number of my psychotherapy clients. In my work as a clinical psychologist, much of my therapy work focuses on helping people identify how the meaning we attach to events determines how we feel, not the event itself. Helping them find ways to get out of a bad mood quickly is also important. Why? The part of the brain right behind your eyes is known as the “executive command center.” Among other tasks, it is where we generate alternative solutions and evaluate their probable effectiveness, safety, desirability, etc. When you feel angry, “the lights go dim” in this area, compromising your ability to handle these important tasks well. By contrast, this part of the brain has a much easier time doing its work when you are in a good mood.

Paul W. Schenk, Psy.D.
Paul W. Schenk, Psy.D.

Credit: contributed

Credit: contributed

So why do I think growling works? Here is what I tell my clients:

1. Like checking a baby’s diaper to see if it needs changing, a quick growl helps each person discover how much irritability/frustration/anger has managed to accumulate, often outside of conscious awareness.

2. Neither person needs to know, understand or acknowledge what the bad mood is about, or even admit if he/she is in a bad mood.

3. Growling takes very little time.

4. There are no “victims”. You are growling with the other person, not at the other person.

5. Physical safety is guaranteed because neither touches the other.

6. There are no long lectures or pointed index fingers.

7. Because no words are spoken, no one can owe an apology for using hurtful words or foul language.

8. Age and gender are irrelevant. (I have never found a better way for a child to convey so safely and effectively to a parent that he/she is feeling this way. It doesn’t even require labeling what the feeling is.)

9. Laughter helps the executive command center work better.

I teach this five-second strategy to probably every family I see in my private practice. It has always resulted in people laughing when they stopped growling. With the mood in the room improved, finding a good solution to the problem at hand is a lot easier.

A few years ago, I even taught this simple technique to six vice presidents and their president at a corporate retreat. On cue, the president and I and the three pairs of vice-presidents simultaneously let loose growling. When the growling stopped, the room filled with laughter. About six months later, one of the vice presidents and I passed each other in the hallway. “Hi, Dr. Schenk,” he said. Then with a big smile on his face he added, “Thanks for teaching us ‘the growl.’ We still use it. It works!”

It’s been a long time since that family growl in our car. That day, the three of us didn’t need to know why growling worked to quickly dissipate the growing emotional tension in the car. It was enough to enjoy that it did. I know my son still remembers that day because of something that occurred when he was in high school. As I sat at the computer one evening, he came into the room to let me know he was headed out to visit a friend. Reading my body language, though, the first thing he said was, “Dad, you look like you could use a good growl.” I did a quick “feeling check” and concurred that he was correct. I turned to face him and we let it rip. Once again, the laughter filled the room as soon as the growling stopped. I didn’t need to tell him what I think he already knew: By inviting me to growl with him, he reduced the risk of my using him – unfairly – as a “grounding rod” to release any irritability I had been accumulating that day. Just as walking across a room wearing a wool sweater in dry winter weather will reliably generate static electricity that discharges to the next person you touch, so too does emotional “static” as we move through the day!

Have you already figured out who you’ll ask to join you for your first growl? Trust me on this one. You’ll be doing each other a favor!

Paul W. Schenk, Psy.D., is a clinical psychologist based in Dunwoody. He can be reached at www.drpaulschenk.com, where he invites readers to send short videos of their “growl.”