What Is Catharsis?

Woman experiencing catharsis

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Catharsis is a powerful emotional release that, when successful, is accompanied by cognitive insight and positive change. 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.

Stress, anxiety, fear, anger, and trauma can cause intense and difficult feelings to build over time. At a certain point, it feels as if there is so much emotion and turmoil that it becomes overwhelming. People may even feel as if they are going to "explode" unless they find a way to release this pent-up emotion.

Rather than venting 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.

Therapeutic Uses of Catharsis

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. Freud believed that people could achieve catharsis by bringing these unconscious feelings and memories to light. This process involved using psychotherapeutic tools such as dream interpretation and free association.

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.

Catharsis 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 than 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.

Examples of Catharsis

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 music. 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.
  • Psychodrama. This type of therapy involves acting out difficult events from the past. By doing so, people are sometimes able to reassess and let go of the pain from these events.
  • Expressive writing and journaling. Writing can be an effective mental health tool, whether you are journaling or writing fiction. Expressive writing, a process that involves writing about traumatic or stressful events, may be helpful for gaining insight and relieving stressful emotions.
  • Various therapy approaches. Catharsis plays an important role in emotionally focused, psychodynamic, and primal therapies.

Remember that exploring difficult emotions can come with risks, particularly if these experiences are rooted in trauma or abuse. If you are concerned about the potential effects of exploring these emotions, consider working with a trained mental health professional.

Some researchers also believe that, although catharsis might relieve tension in the short term, it might also serve to reinforce negative behaviors and increase the risk of emotional outbursts in the future.

If you or someone you know is in emotional distress or crisis, the 988 Suicide & Crisis Hotline (formerly the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline) is available 24 hours a day throughout the U.S. Call or text 988, or visit 988lifeline.org.

A Word From Verywell

Catharsis can play a role in helping people deal with difficult or painful emotions. 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 catharsis.

7 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.
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By Kendra Cherry
Kendra Cherry, MS, is the author of the "Everything Psychology Book (2nd Edition)" and has written thousands of articles on diverse psychology topics. Kendra holds a Master of Science degree in education from Boise State University with a primary research interest in educational psychology and a Bachelor of Science in psychology from Idaho State University with additional coursework in substance use and case management.