What is Catharsis?

By Charlotte Nickerson, published May 13, 2022 | Fact Checked by Saul Mcleod, PhD


Catharsis is the expression of formerly repressed feelings in order to overcome problems associated with them. The term is commonly used in connection with psychoanalysis, where it is believed that underlying problems cannot be resolved unless the emotions connected with the are also discharged.

Key Points

  • The word catharsis describes the relief of built up tension, or strong emotions. In psychology, catharsis is thought to be beneficial in terms of reducing stress and anxiety.
  • The followers of the psychoanalytic school, such as Josef Breuer, believed that catharsis could be achieved through the process of psychoanalysis. This involved the patient talking through and deconstructing past experiences.
  • Catharsis is at the core of many modern therapeutic methods, such as psychodynamic and cognitive behavioral therapy.
  • There are a vast number of catalysts for catharsis in everyday life, including loss, art, writing, and exercise.
  • Some have questioned whether some types of catharsis, such as venting and ruminating, can improve mental health, even arguing that they may have detrimental effects.

The Meaning of Catharsis

Catharsis is an emotional release. The term, in ancient Greek, translates literally to "purgation" or "purification."

In psychoanalytic theory, the word catharsis has been used to refer specifically to the discharge of previously repressed affects or emotions connected to traumatic events that occur when these events are brought back into someone's consciousness and re-experienced.

A related concept is abreaction (Powell, 1995). Later, therapists and psychologists saw catharsis as an outburst of emotion leading to a sense of profound enlightenment.

In modern psychology, however, the term has taken on a lighter meaning, defined as any form of expressing and releasing feelings and emotions.

It is this articulation of emotion that psychologists posit to lead to healing and positive mental health. For example, an artist throwing paint at a canvas or a boxer punching a punching bag in an act of range may not be considered to be acts of catharsis (Powell, 1995).

The introduction of catharsis in the psychological sense dates to Josef Breuer (2009), a colleague of Sigmund Freud.

Breuer practiced a form of therapy that involved hypnotizing his patients to help release repressed, traumatic feelings.

He thought that by allowing patients to consciously express these feelings, they would be cured of hysteria.

The concept of catharsis later would become foundational to Freud's psychoanalytic theory. Freud believed that healing can only occur when meaningful, unconscious thoughts and feelings are brought into consciousness (Guinnagh, 1987).

Therapeutic Uses

The aim of psychotherapy is attempting to unmask and express feelings in order to make progress with particular issues.

For example, someone attending a psychotherapy session may have a moment of realization when they realize how their family relationships have contributed to their adult relationship problems (Nichols & Max, 1977).

Particular branches of therapy use catharsis in different ways. Psychodynamic therapy uses catharsis to bring repressed emotions and memories into a person's consciousness.

For example, a patient in psychodynamic therapy may use art to express painful emotions that they feel unable to put into words.

The therapist may encourage the patient to express their emotions in this way because it can provide a non-threatening way for the patient to confront difficult feelings.

In psychoanalysis, the therapist investigates the client’s unconscious through free association, word association and projective tests. They identify the unconscious conflicts and help the client to bring them to the surface (catharsis). They then help the client to work through and deal with

Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) may use catharsis to help a person identify any negative thought patterns that are causing them distress, so that they can learn how to reframe these thoughts in a healthier way (Nichols & Max, 1977).

In Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, the therapist may encourage their patient to openly express any pent-up anger they feel towards someone who has hurt them in the past.

The therapist would then help the patient to see how holding onto this anger is harmful and counterproductive, preventing them from moving on with their life.

In contrast, the act of expressing and releasing this anger can lead to a sense of relief and peace.

In Everyday Language

The definition of catharsis in psychology is different from how the word is used in everyday language.

In general, people use the term "catharsis" to describe any form of emotional release, such as crying or yelling.

However, psychologists define catharsis specifically as the discharge of previously repressed emotions connected to traumatic events (Powell, 1995).

It is important to distinguish between the two definitions because not all forms of emotional release are considered cathartic in a psychological sense.

For example, someone who cries after watching a sad movie may feel better afterwards, but they have not discharged any previously repressed emotions.

On the other hand, someone who cries while recalling a traumatic event may be experiencing catharsis because they are releasing emotions that have been repressed (Powell, 1995).

Exercise

Mood is often heavily influenced by physical elements. Exercise, it has been shown, can often improve mood and lessen anxiety.

Additionally, however, it can cause people to experience feelings which otherwise may not be expressed.

People often speak of using exercise as a way of "working through"n their emotions. For example, someone may have an argument with their spouse and family member, and be left upset.

After expressing their emotions through vigorous exercise, these people often feel markedly better and able to take a wider perspective on the issue (Nichols & Efran, 1985).

Art

Catharsis is an act that is both expressed by and integral to creative works. A painter, for example, may use their work as an act of emotional processing and articulation.

Art can also be cathartic for those who view it. This is because the media can bring about feelings that help people in making progress with their personal issues.

For example, someone may see a movie that gives rise to feelings about an estranged child and this may cause them to rethink their behavior toward their son or daughter (Nichols & Efran, 1985).

Loss

One common powerful catalyst of catharsis is loss. This loss can result from anything from the dissolution of a marriage to the death of a loved one.

These strong emotions following a loss can cause someone to plunge into despair, fill them with gratitude, or cause them to reevaluate their life.

For example, one common practice after the death of someone is a funeral and the act of spreading ashes.

These ceremonies, by allowing those close to the deceased to openly express grief and sadness, may allow those participating to release their pent-up emotions and accept the loss.

Similarly, the act of writing and giving a eulogy may serve a similar purpose, provoking those giving and listening to it to become grateful for the former presence of someone in their life (Nichols & Efran, 1985).

Writing

Yet another way of expressing emotions cathartically is through writing, such as in a journal.

By using a journal, people can create a visual aid that helps them to look at their emotions and break them down into smaller parts, thus improving their processing and ability to cope with a situation (Nichols & Efran, 1985).

Evaluation

Freud considered the expression of unconscious emotion to be the key to mental health.

This is one element of Freud's ethos that remains popular today. Indeed, one of the biggest goals of psychotherapy is to help people communicate what and how they are feeling.

Nonetheless, catharsis, though often helpful, is not always the best solution. “Stuffing" and ignoring feelings is generally not beneficial.

Unexpressed emotions build up inside of people and manifest in various problems, such as depression and anxiety, psychologists generally agree.

When people are able to express their emotions in appropriate ways, their well being, in the view of most psychologists, improves (Scheele, 2001).

Indeed, almost every therapeutic intervention in modern psychology toots the importance of honesty and facing one's emotions.

Techniques that are common, such as cognitive behavioral therapy and psychodynamic therapy, argue that healing does not occur when feelings are avoided or minimized.

Freud and Bauer's treatment of emotions both involved catharsis. While certain trauma treatments may not focus explicitly on uncovering unconscious feelings, treatments for these conditions still often try to elicit thoughts and feelings associated with trauma so they can be dealt with accordingly.

Furthermore, the treatment of anxiety often relies on the confrontation of anxious emotions. Cognitive behavioral therapy, for example, treats anxiety by asking people to challenge their worries and encourage them to perform behavior that will evoke their anxious feelings (Scheele, 2001).

Nonetheless, there are many expressions of catharsis that may actually make one's mental health worse. Venting, for example, is similar to the modern meaning of catharsis.

Unfortunately, venting — be it through vocalizing feelings or expressing oneself through aggression — has not been shown to be associated with positive outcomes (Scheele, 2001).

Rumination is another concept similar to catharsis that can be detrimental to one's mental health.

Rumination occurs when someone continuously thinks about or expresses their positive emotions. Often, rumination is used as a way of coping with anxious thoughts, in a similar way to emotional processing.

However, rumination does not work in alleviating anxiety (Sansone & Sansone, 2012). In addition, some believe that the concept of catharsis may give people permission to behave inappropriately.

Be it acting aggressively to express anger or in a psychologically hurtful way to express resentment or sadness, this can be passed off, these critics have argued, as catharsis.

However, those who advocate for catharsis argue that expressing anger does not have to result in behavior that is offensive or harmful to others.

For example, someone could punch a pillow oor burn a letter instead of threatening a person or destroying property.

Nonetheless, scholars argue that anger and aggression do not dissipate just because it is expressed cathartically (Bushman, Baumeister & Stack, 1999).

About the Author

Charlotte Nickerson is a member of the Class of 2024 at Harvard University. Coming from a research background in biology and archeology, Charlotte currently studies how digital and physical space shapes human beliefs, norms, and behaviors and how this can be used to create businesses with greater social impact.

Fact Checking

Content is rigorously reviewed by a team of qualified and experienced fact checkers. Fact checkers review articles for factual accuracy, relevance, and timeliness. We rely on the most current and reputable sources, which are cited in the text and listed at the bottom of each article. Content is fact checked after it has been edited and before publication.

This article has been fact checked by Saul Mcleod, PhD, a qualified psychology teacher with over 17 years' experience of working in further and higher education. He has been published in psychology journals including Clinical Psychology, Social and Personal Relationships, and Social Psychology.

Cite this Article (APA Style)

Nickerson, C. (2022, May 13). What is Catharsis. Simply Psychology. www.simplypsychology.org/catharsis.html

References

Breuer, J. O. S. E. F. (1957). Freud S: Studies on hysteria. The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, 2, 1893-1895.

Bushman, B. J., Baumeister, R. F., & Stack, A. D. (1999). Catharsis, aggression, and persuasive influence: Self-fulfilling or self-defeating prophecies?. Journal of personality and social psychology, 76(3), 367.

Guinagh, B. (1987). Sigmund Freud’s Use of Catharsis and Cognition. In Catharsis and Cognition in Psychotherapy (pp. 27-39). Springer, New York, NY.

Nichols, M. P., & Zax, M. (1977). Catharsis in psychotherapy. Gardner Press.

Nichols, M. P., & Efran, J. S. (1985). Catharsis in psychotherapy: A new perspective. Psychotherapy: Theory, Research, Practice, Training, 22(1), 46.

Powell, Esta. "Catharsis in psychology and beyond." (1995).

Sansone, R. A., & Sansone, L. A. (2012). Antidepressant adherence: are patients taking their medications? Innovations in clinical neuroscience, 9(5-6), 41.

Scheele, B. (2001). Back from the grave Reinstating the catharsis concept. The psychology and sociology of literature: In honor of Elrud Ibsch, 35, 201.