The Role of Catharsis in Psychology

Woman experiencing catharsis

i love images / Getty Images

Table of Contents
View All
Table of Contents

A catharsis is an emotional release. According to psychoanalytic theory, this emotional release is linked to a need to relieve unconscious conflicts. For example, experiencing stress over a work-related situation may cause feelings of frustration and tension.

Rather than vent these feelings inappropriately, the individual may instead release these feelings in another way, such as through physical activity or another stress-relieving activity.

The Meaning of Catharsis

The term itself comes from the Greek katharsis meaning "purification" or "cleansing." The term is used in therapy as well as in literature. The hero of a novel might experience an emotional catharsis that leads to some sort of restoration or renewal. The purpose of catharsis is to bring about some form of positive change in the individual's life.

Catharsis involves both a powerful emotional component in which strong feelings are felt and expressed, as well as a cognitive component in which the individual gains new insights.

In Psychoanalysis

The term has been in use since the time of the Ancient Greeks, but it was Sigmund Freud's colleague Josef Breuer who was the first to use the term to describe a therapeutic technique. Breuer developed what he referred to as a "cathartic" treatment for hysteria.

His treatment involved having patients recall traumatic experiences while under hypnosis. By consciously expressing emotions that had been long repressed, Breuer found that his patients experienced relief from their symptoms.

Freud also believed that catharsis could play an important role in relieving symptoms of distress.

According to Freud’s psychoanalytic theory, the human mind is composed of three key elements: the conscious, the preconscious, and the unconscious. The conscious mind contains all of the things we are aware of.

The preconscious contains things that we might not be immediately aware of but that we can draw into awareness with some effort or prompting. Finally, the unconscious mind is the part of the mind containing the huge reservoir of thoughts, feelings, and memories that are outside of awareness.

The unconscious mind played a critical role in Freud’s theory. While the contents of the unconscious were out of awareness, he still believed that they continued to exert an influence on behavior and functioning. By using psychotherapeutic tools such as dream interpretation and free association, Freud believed that these unconscious feelings and memories could be brought to light.

In their book Studies on Hysteria, Freud and Breuer defined catharsis as "the process of reducing or eliminating a complex by recalling it to conscious awareness and allowing it to be expressed." Catharsis still plays a role today in Freudian psychoanalysis.

The American Psychological Association defines catharsis as "the discharge of effects connected to traumatic events that had previously been repressed by bringing these events back into consciousness and re-experiencing them."

In Everyday Language

The term catharsis has also found a place in everyday language, often used to describe moments of insight or the experience of finding closure. An individual going through a divorce might describe experiencing a cathartic moment that helps bring them a sense of peace and helps that person move past the bad relationship.

People also describe experiencing catharsis after experiencing some sort of traumatic or stressful event such as a health crisis, job loss, accident, or the death of a loved one. While used somewhat differently then it is traditionally employed in psychoanalysis, the term is still often used to describe an emotional moment that leads to positive change in the person’s life.


Catharsis can take place during the course of therapy, but it can also occur during other moments as well. Some examples of how catharsis might take place include:

  • Talking with a friend. A discussion with a friend about a problem you are facing might spark a moment of insight in which you are able to see how an event from earlier in your life might be contributing to your current patterns of behavior. This emotional release may help you feel better able to face your current dilemma.
  • Listening to a song. Music can be motivational, but it can also often spark moments of great insight. Music can allow you to release emotions in a way that often leaves you feeling restored.
  • Creating or viewing art. A powerful artwork can stir deep emotions. Creating art can also be a form of release.
  • Exercise. The physical demands of exercise can be a great way to work through strong emotions and release them in a constructive manner.

A Word From Verywell

Catharsis is an important topic in psychology. This emotional release can also be an important therapeutic tool for coping with fear, depression, and anxiety. If you are coping with difficult emotions, talking to a mental health professional can help you to explore different techniques that can lead to a catharsis.

Was this page helpful?
Article Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Sandhu P. Scientific American. Step Aside, Freud: Josef Breuer Is the True Father of Modern Psychotherapy. 2015.

  2. Encyclopeadia Britannica. Sigmund Freud. Psychoanalytic Theory. Updated October 31, 2019.

  3. Breuer, J., Freud, S. (1974). Studies on Hysteria. Harmondsworth: Penguin Books.