The Role of Catharsis in Psychology

Woman experiencing catharsis

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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.

Catharsis 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.

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."

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.

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Article Sources

  • American Psychological Association. (2007). Dictionary of Psychology. Washington, DC: Author.

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