Catharsis & Psychology: Is It Useful, And Can It Help Me Overcome Relationship Trauma?

By: Lydian Shipp

Updated November 05, 2021

Medically Reviewed By: Karen Devlin, LPC

Sometimes we hear people describe an experience as cathartic. By that, they usually mean that they experienced catharsis—an emotional release —by doing something they found to be emotionally cleansing. Examples of behaviors that some people find cathartic include releasing emotions by crying, having a particularly profound conversation with someone that leads to letting go of long-held negative feelings, taking a meaningful trip, or even engaging in a physical or artistic activity (including expressive writing or listening to music) that may be particularly profound or healing for an individual.

The idea of catharsis has been used throughout history. For instance, ancient religions often used the spiritual act of repenting to “purge and purify” their souls. Ancient medicine worked on cleansing the body by purging it of diseases. In the late 19th century, “catharsis” began to be used as a psychological term. Today, the American Psychological Association uses two definitions for catharsis. The first definition is more general and describes catharsis as “the release of the release of strong, pent-up emotions.” The second definition of catharsis is “the discharge of previously repressed effects connected to traumatic events that occur when these events are brought back into consciousness and reexperienced.” According to this theory, an unconscious memory may be released, and then negative emotions, effects, or behaviors associated with it can be positively changed or eliminated.

Memories and negative effects of trauma can certainly be very real. There is also hope, though. These memories and past experiences, along with their effects, can be managed so that people can find a path to heal and live a more positive life.

Trauma, Memories, and Catharsis

Freud’s Theory of Repression and Catharsis: In the late 19th and early 20th century, Sigmund Freud, who is considered the founder of psychoanalytic theory, developed the concept of repression. He theorized that memories are unconsciously repressed and exist in the unconscious part of the mind as a defense mechanism—so that by not remembering something consciously, a person can protect themselves from the pain associated with the memory.

Repressed Memories: Freud proposed that people could be relieved of emotional distress and experience catharsis. He said that catharsis could result from abreaction: bringing forgotten or forbidden memories from the unconscious mind to the conscious. Freud proposed that this could result in emotional release and discharge of anxiety and distress.

Freud used hypnosis to promote abreaction and catharsis, but he eventually abandoned this practice because he found it ineffective. Furthermore, remembering something traumatic that may have been forgotten may not lead to an immediate or simultaneous release of negative emotions, as Freud theorized. It may heighten negative emotions in the short term. Still, identifying the memory can be a step towards recovering from trauma. Negative emotions can be managed with effective treatment, and learning to cope with trauma can lead to healing.

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Unconscious memories: Significant life events are often not easily forgotten. Some may be happy; others may be sad or upsetting. For instance, people will usually remember when a loved one died and the feelings of grief they experienced. However, there are times when a person may not remember something profound or traumatic that they experienced, even when the effects of the trauma are very real and present.

Some theories may explain why a person may not remember some significant events in their lives:

  1. In a case of dissociation, a person’s mind may disconnect from the present to protect themselves from emotions related to past experiences of something distressing or traumatic. A person may detach to alter, block, or blur the memory of an event.
  2. A person may deny or not accept a mental image of something traumatic that they experienced.
  3. A person may forget an experience until the memory of it is triggered later.
  4. New information. As new information or life experience is gained, memories can take on more significant meanings. For instance, a person might remember being left alone as a child, but they might not recognize until they are older that they experienced neglect.

Is Catharsis Useful for Overcoming Relationship Trauma?

If catharsis is understood as a release of emotions and tensions, it may be helpful as a part of a path to healing. Negative emotions can take their toll on both the body and mind and relationships and behaviors. Acknowledging negative emotions and learning how to manage them or let them go can help you feel better. However, overcoming relationship trauma will likely involve more than releasing strong emotions. It may involve learning healthy ways to heal from trauma’s effects and treating symptoms related to trauma.

Understanding Relationship Trauma

Trauma can result from abusive relationships, whether the abuse was emotional, physical, or both. Some experts have introduced the term Post-Traumatic Relationship Syndrome (PTRS). While those experiencing Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder may engage in avoidance to detach or numb themselves from distressing flashbacks, memories, and intrusive thoughts, people who experience trauma from relationships may consciously relive or replay memories as they analyze the relationship.

If you or a loved one is experiencing or has experienced relationship abuse or domestic violence, please seek help. The National Domestic Violence Hotline is free and confidential and offers support 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year. The number is 1-800-799-SAFE (7233). You can also text “START” to 88788 or use the live chat option on the website at TheHotline.org. The Hotline provides essential tools and support to help survivors of domestic violence live their lives free of abuse.

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Symptoms of Relationship Trauma

Symptoms of relationship trauma may include flashbacks, nightmares, ruminating (finding yourself repeating the same negative thoughts), fear, and physical symptoms such as shaking, a racing heart, or sweating. The body may be in a state of hyperarousal because it feels in danger, even if the trauma was in the past. This can lead to restlessness, irritability, anger, anxiety, panic, difficulty concentrating, and sleep disturbances. Relationship disturbances may also be present, such as believing you don’t deserve healthy relationships, having difficulty trusting others, feeling anxious or insecure in relationships, isolating yourself from others, or a loss of interest in physical intimacy.

Trauma from Relationships in Childhood

Sometimes a memory of trauma (such as abuse or neglect) from a childhood relationship is recalled later in life because of dissociation from the memory or delayed memory. Survivors of abusive relationships in childhood may experience physical and mental health effects, such as grief, anxiety, shame, guilt, depression, worry, helplessness, alcohol or drug abuse, hopelessness, and difficulty forming healthy attachments. They may have heightened stress or “fight or flight” response that, when chronic, can negatively affect many parts of the body, from the lungs, heart, and blood pressure to fat storage and sleep. With treatment, however, symptoms can be managed, and healthy change can take place.

Therapy to Recover from Trauma

To recover from trauma, therapy can be a positive step towards healing. A therapist can help develop an individualized, personalized, effective plan for recovery. In therapy, you may learn ways to address your symptoms and tools to improve your self-esteem and the way you view relationships, others, and the world. A therapist may also help you understand that what occurred was beyond your control, which can be an important step in releasing feelings of guilt or shame.

Medication for Managing Symptoms Related to Trauma

In addition to talk therapy for healing, effective medications can treat trauma symptoms, such as anxiety and depression. They may help with mood and regulate the “fight or flight” response associated with anxiety and trauma. A physician can discuss medication options with you, such as your primary care doctor or a psychiatrist.

Self-Care After Trauma

In addition to therapy, medication, or both, there are many self-care steps you can take on the path to recovering from trauma:

Connect with others. Connecting with people and avoiding isolation can offer you a sense of support. Joining a support group can help you understand that you aren’t alone. Group therapy or support groups can provide a space to learn ways to cope, move forward, and feel connected to others.

Accept your memories and feelings. Instead of avoiding memories and feelings, it can help to accept them, identify them, and then develop ways to address them and move forward positively.

Engage in physical activity. Physical activity can reduce stress and promote the release of endorphins (“feel good” hormones).

Refrain from alcohol or drug use. Not indulging in alcohol or drugs can be wise. They cannot truly numb pain or erase memories, and they can cause dependence problems in the long term.

Focus on what you’re grateful for and what you consider important. Consciously paying attention to what is good in life can help with healing.

Relax and do enjoyable activities to reduce stress and boost mood. Deep breathing, meditation, and progressive muscle relaxation can ease anxiety.

Prioritize sleep. Developing a healthy, regular sleep pattern and routine can lead to restful sleep, good for emotional regulation.

Nourish your body (and your mind). Healthy eating habits and a nutritious diet can help you feel better physically and emotionally.

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Should You See a Therapist for Relationship Trauma?

The decision to go to therapy is a very personal one. If a person has experienced relationship trauma, therapy can be an extremely useful tool for recovery. A trauma-informed therapist—a therapist who is trained and has expertise in trauma recovery—can support you and guide you with an effective, individualized treatment plan. A counselor specializing in relationships may also be a good resource for recovery and learning healthy ways to move forward.

At ReGain, you can connect virtually with licensed mental health professionals, including those who offer trauma-informed care or are specialists in relationship therapy. There are many benefits of online therapy, including affordability, accessibility, and therapy from a location that you find comfortable and convenient. Therapy can inspire healthy change, promote healing, and help you enhance your quality of life. Catharsis, when translated from its Greek origin, means “a cleansing or purging.” Hope, happiness, and healthy relationships can become a reality.

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