What Is Catharsis? Definition, Psychology Applications, And Why It Feels Good

Updated April 23, 2021
Medically Reviewed By: Whitney White, MS. CMHC, NCC., LPC

You may have heard the word "catharsis" thrown around more than a few times in your lifetime, or you might have heard of an experience being "cathartic." Many people understand that it is a word to describe a good feeling, but it goes further. Catharsis, as a concept, has a very long history, and this article will discuss how this word is defined in different contexts, provide examples of events that can be considered cathartic, and explain why it has a positive effect on us.

The History of Catharsis

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Catharsis has a deep history behind it; in this section, you will see how this concept has evolved over time and eventually made its way into modern treatment practices later on.

The Traditional Meaning of Catharsis

Catharsis is a term and concept that dates to the Ancient Greeks, which can essentially be translated to "cleansing" or a "purification." [1]

To be more specific, the renowned philosopher Aristotle described catharsis as "the purging of the spirit of morbid and base ideas or emotions by witnessing the playing out of such emotions or ideas on stage."

Aristotle's concept of catharsis primarily applied to the theater arts, specifically, tragedies. By watching a tragic play, a person might feel sad initially but will feel good afterward because they release their own feelings by experiencing emotions during the play. The same idea could also be applied to music, according to Aristotle.

Aristotle also believed that catharsis could help "moderate passions and strong emotions, therefore restoring the balance in one's heart" and that this process created "wise and reasonable men." [1]

Another famous Greek figure known for his use of catharsis was Hippocrates. However, his usage of the term involved a medical sense of the word rather than the psychological and feel-based approach used by Aristotle. Hippocrates associated catharsis with physical release and healing and stated that purging functions such as menstruation, diarrhea, and vomiting are all examples of cathartic processes. [1]

The Modern Definition of Catharsis

Aristotle and his definition of catharsis existed well before the formal development of psychology as a field; however, some modifications would be made later without changing its core meaning.

Regarding the later catharsis definition, psychology associates this term with Sigmund Freud, the father of modern psychology. According to the American Psychological Association, catharsis in psychology refers to "the discharge of previously repressed effects connected to traumatic events that occur when these events are brought back into consciousness and re-experienced." [2]

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Collaborating with Freud, Josef Breuer helped bring catharsis to the scientific forefront by developing "cathartic therapy." In fact, this method predates psychoanalysis, the methodology that Freud is the most well-known for.

The pair hypothesized that the psychological symptoms that people display are based on repressed memories, and through hypnosis, they were able to retrieve these negative events from them. According to Freud and his observation, "each hysterical symptom immediately and permanently disappeared when we had succeeded in bringing clarity to light the memory of the event by which it was provoked and in arousing its accompanying effect." [1]

While there had been some results with cathartic therapy, this concept would later be abandoned and rejected by Freud himself, citing that it was ineffective for bringing about change overall. [3]

However, Freud putting an end to cathartic therapy would allow him to start focusing on what would be called psychoanalysis. Despite Freud's rejection of his old techniques, today's practitioners of psychoanalysis still use catharsis to help individuals better understand themselves. [1] [3]

The Use of Catharsis in Psychology

While Freud and Breuer's creation of cathartic therapy became a thing of the past, and even psychoanalysis would fall out of favor of other techniques and movements within the field of psychology, the concepts of catharsis, retrieving memories, and discharging emotions would still be a core value of many other psychotherapy methods that would follow.

Here are some forms of therapy that do this [3]:

  • Primal Therapy
  • Psychodynamic Therapy
  • Emotionally-Focused Therapy (EFT)
  • Psychodrama
  • Exposure & Response Prevention (ERP)

Let's start going over them to show you how catharsis works in these different psychotherapy techniques by beginning with the first one in the list.

Primal therapy focuses on a person's earliest memories of suffering and attempts to release them. One example of this is having the client redirect their negative feelings towards an imaginary parent sitting in the session. By doing this, the patient may finally express go of the emotions that have been pent up for years. [3]

Psychodynamic therapy is an older method that followed psychoanalysis that often focuses on the inferiority people feel and its roots. By addressing deep-rooted issues that promote feelings of inferiority, people may focus on self-improvement instead.

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Emotionally-focused Therapy is typically used for relationships, and it seeks to improve couples' emotional intelligence. Together, they can share and relive their past issues, and become more understanding and sensitive to each other's feelings, as well as find new ways to solve problems as they arise. [3]

Psychodrama goes back to the roots of catharsis involving Aristotle and implements acting to bring purification. However, instead of watching a play, the individual acts out the troubling events of their past, giving them more perspective. Also, it is unnecessary to perform on a stage, or any person for that matter, to release these feelings, but the assistance of a therapist can help you process everything.

Exposure & Response Prevention is a specific type of cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) that essentially involves desensitizing a person to people, objects, or events associated with trauma. For example, a person who is struggling with symptoms of PTSD, such as avoiding his or her triggers, will gradually be exposed to the subjects that cause them to re-experience traumatic memories. Eventually, they will realize that the threat is in the past and become less responsive to triggers.

Other Examples of Catharsis

While watching a play, a movie, or listening to your favorite music have already been established to be cathartic for many people, other activities can prove to be helpful.

In addition to these other forms of media, reading literature can also be cathartic for the same reasons that watching a play or movie can. Stories can allow the reader to release their emotions and feel positive afterward.

Secondly, physical activity is another way to experience catharsis, and it is a broad category with numerous examples. Combat sports, like certain martial arts, or even just punching a bag can assist in discharging emotions, like anger. It's important to note that some research indicates that by using aggression to release anger, even in harmless situations like using punching bags, that the mind may begin to associate violence with anger, which could lead to problems later.

Art, whether it is drawing, painting, making music, or creative writing, to name a few examples, can all be therapeutic. All of these provide an outlet for people to express themselves, and just by seeing, reading, or hearing the art, you can often get an idea of what the person was feeling at the time. Some artists will openly discuss what their piece meant to them and how it helped release their emotions.

Conclusion: Why Catharsis Feels Good

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Catharsis has two main components; one involves the emotional discharge, and the other is the cognitive awareness one. Many people often focus on one side more than the other, while these two values contribute to the cathartic experience. [1]

When we release the emotions that we were holding onto, we bring them into awareness. This helps bring about insight about us, in addition to simply getting things off our chests. It gives us a sense of control over how we feel, and sometimes it feels as if a burden has been lifted. This creates the positive experience that everyone associates the word catharsis with and stays true to its traditional meaning - cleansing, purging, or purification.

While we can find cathartic activities, digging up the issues from the past can be difficult to do on your own. Emotional repression can be realized and understood with the help of a therapist, who can guide you and help you process the feelings that you are having.

Many mental conditions stem from the past. With Regain, licensed counselors are available to help you overcome any issues you may be facing by helping you understand yourself better and giving you new ways to think and respond to your memories.

Experiencing the feeling of catharsis can come fast and easy for some people, but it can take some time and effort for others. Nonetheless, you can release your past problems with assistance and start living a better today and tomorrow.

References

  1. Powell, E. (2008). Catharsis in Psychology and Beyond: A Historical Overview. Retrieved from https://www.semanticscholar.org/paper/Catharsis-in-Psychology-and-Beyond-:-A-Historic-Powell/8209acea45d32a4e84d596701aca9b9adb17feba
  2. American Psychological Association. Catharsis. Retrieved from https://dictionary.apa.org/catharsis
  3. Harell, T. (2018, September 20). 16 Examples Of Catharsis Psychology. Retrieved from https://www.betterhelp.com/advice/psychologists/16-examples-of-catharsis-psychology/
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