The Greek term katharsis means “purification” or “cleansing.” Catharsis in Psychology is often referred to as a release of emotion, leading to powerful healing, recovery, or enlightenment.
It is understood that in order for catharsis to occur, intensity in emotional experience must increase, hence the need for release. In the moment of release, one can feel profound relief. Following a cathartic experience, there can also be an intellectual component, involving valuable insight gained through the process, leading to continued healing. The expectation is that the outcome of a therapeutic catharsis would be a positive, healthy change. Consider the metaphor of a pot of water reaching its boiling point, then settling. Emotions must build in intensity to the point of nearly boiling over. In doing so, one can experience a form of emotional cleanse, with a noticeable reduction in severity of the undesired feelings.
The history of the term catharsis in Psychology dates back to psychoanalytic theory. Sigmund Freud believed that unconscious desires and conflicts can build, potentially resulting in pathology or unhealthy release of emotion. According to Freud, this emotional release is connected to a need to resolve these unconscious conflicts. Freud’s colleague Josef Breuer first identified catharsis as a therapeutic technique to treat hysteria. His belief that was through hypnosis, patients could recall and express repressed, painful emotions. His experience was that patients found relief from their symptoms after going through the cathartic exercise.
These early practitioners defined catharsis as “the process of reducing or eliminating a complex feeling by recalling it to conscious awareness and allowing it to be expressed.”
While this pure form of psychoanalysis is not commonly used or widely supported by current scientific research, it seems they were onto something. Many current therapeutic approaches focus on the healing process of expressing and discharging emotions connected to traumatic events. If we expand the meaning of the term “catharsis,” there is plenty of research indicating that providing a controlled channel and outlet for previously unaddressed feelings or conflict in emotion can improve mental health. Dealing with difficult feelings is a common therapeutic objective in Psychology.
We can broaden the understanding of catharsis even further. People reference catharsis in daily life, not just psychological constructs. It is often used to describe a freeing experience – quitting a job in which you were happy – ending a difficult divorce – standing up for yourself or speaking your mind. It can be used to represent closure, the ending something negative and the beginning of something better in life. A cathartic experience can represent overcoming negative emotion and letting go of it.
Catharsis can be used in Psychology by proactively immersing people deeper into an emotional experience. Cathartic activities can serve as catalyst for a release, after which individuals experience relief, contentment, or reduction of negative symptoms. While scientific studies on cathartic therapeutic interventions produce mixed results, we have highlighted some activities commonly used to create a cathartic experience. Examples vary from activities you can experience on your own to exercises advised in a controlled, therapeutic setting.
Journaling and self-monitoring is likely the most common form of cathartic experience utilized, with well proven benefits. Many psychologists suggest journaling for purposes of growth, gaining insight, finding clarity, and releasing negative thoughts and emotions. It provides an opportunity to reflect on emotion, process, and tends to improve emotional regulation. It often leads to awareness around patterns in our lives that we would not otherwise recognize. Getting emotional and cognitive clutter out of your head and onto a piece of paper can you feel psychologically lighter.
Art can be an effective way for people to tap into deep emotions. For some, engaging in an art activity such as painting or drawing can intensify their emotional experience. In the moment, one can have a “flow” experience, feeling a loss of self consciousness, a feeling of connection, and a loss of sense of space and time. During “flow” people can have a purely emotional experience, without as many external distractions.
Music has a way of creating a unique emotional experience for people. Music effectively sets the tone and the mood. It can spark real and vivid emotions of all types. Consider how “sad” songs can have an impact on one’s affect, causing crying, tears, or a general feeling of malaise. Fast-paced songs can elicit a strong experience of excitement, often used for preparation before athletic events.
This technique can be used in therapy to re-create and stimulate intense emotions related to a particular experience. It is intended to be immersive, creating as much of a real experience as possible. Participants would generally start with acting out the event. It may feel scripted or unnatural at first. However, given time and space, some people can really tap into these concerning feelings, and work through them with professional guidance.
Individuals who have gone through a traumatic event or a crisis may undergo exposure therapy. This activity is recommended under the supervision of a mental health professional. Individuals with PTSD can benefit from reliving the trauma in order to tone down the intensity of the trauma induced symptoms. For some, even entering the environment in which the trauma occurred can serve as exposure therapy. The setting alone can often be a trigger for the feelings to immediately surface.