What Is The Psychology Of Catharsis?

Medically reviewed by Melissa Guarnaccia, LCSW
Updated May 15, 2024by BetterHelp Editorial Team
Please be advised, the below article might mention trauma-related topics that include suicide, substance use, or abuse which could be triggering to the reader.
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A string of unfortunate events or a traumatic experience can cause a feeling of turmoil that continues to build. Eventually, you may reach a point where you feel like there’s so much repressed emotions bottled up inside that you become overwhelmed. When this happens, understanding the psychology and  concepts of catharsis can be helpful. 

Below, we’ll explore the meaning of catharsis and 16 ways you can make it work for you.

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Pent-up emotions from the past can affect your mental health

What is catharsis in psychology?

The concept of catharsis dates to the ancient Greeks. Originally used to describe physical purging techniques, the word was eventually used by Aristotle to explain the way the audience at a tragic play felt so much emotion build up, then finally release.

The term catharsis comes from the Greek word “katharsis,” which refers to purification or cleansing. The definition of catharsis is “the discharge of previously repressed affects connected to traumatic events that occurs when these events are brought back into consciousness and reexperienced.” Although Freud didn’t coin the term catharsis, he popularized it in psychology.

Freud’s psychoanalytic theory led him to develop the concept of defense mechanisms, such as denial, projection, repression, deflection psychology, etc. Freud believed that repression and other defense mechanisms are our way of coping with unconscious conflicts, such as tension between our unconscious feelings. Understanding and resolving these conflicts is a primary goal of psychoanalytic theory. 

According to Freud, this process can be facilitated by a therapeutic technique known as free association, during which a client expresses thoughts as they arise. Through this method the psychoanalyst can develop new insights into an individual’s repressed feelings. Freud believed that by bringing to conscious awareness—and then releasing—emotions that have been repressed, we can experience positive change.

When used in everyday language, the word catharsis may refer to any expressions of emotion. When used by modern psychologists, though, catharsis typically means discharging repressed emotions—like anxiety, stress, anger, or fear—that are related to a traumatic experience. In recent years, catharsis in social psychology has been adapted to become more applicable to modern times and situations. Catharsis psychology techniques can serve as positive outlets for people who are experiencing stress, anger, and strong emotions, and many people have relied on it to successfully release these feelings.

Why it is important to express feelings

We often experience painful emotions that are hard to process. Sadness, disappointment, frustration, and other difficult feelings can produce emotional distress that we might not want to address. While repression (an unconscious process) and suppression (a conscious process) may provide relief in the moment, these defense mechanisms can cause difficult emotions to worsen. Avoiding strong feelings can also lead to new challenges, like mental illness and weaker social bonds. For example, research shows that suppressed anger is connected to depression and a perceived lack of social support

Conversely, there is evidence that emotional expression can produce psychological, social, and even physical benefits. Many experts, though, believe that certain forms of emotional expression are maladaptive. For example, it is thought that individuals who express anger in aggressive ways may exacerbate their feelings. Finding the right types of outlets for your emotions may help you experience the release associated with catharsis.

Emotional catharsis methods

There are many ways to discharge emotions or experience catharsis. The following examples are broad categories, each of which can include many ways to achieve emotional catharsis.

Music 

Throughout history, music has been used to help people cope with their emotions. Music is often in itself an emotional or cathartic experience. When you feel sad and listen to a sad song, you may feel better, or at least more understood. Music can bring a sense of catharsis as it releases those sad feelings and clears the way for more positive emotions. 

Psychodrama 

Psychodrama is a type of therapy in which participants act out troubling events from their past. As the person in question becomes involved in the scene of their past hurt, they may relive the feelings they overlooked back then, finally experiencing them fully and letting them out in catharsis.

Art

Creating art can have a cathartic effect, too. Every art medium has the power to help both amateur and professional artists release emotions in catharsis. One person may spatter paint on a canvas, flinging away their anger as they do. Another might draw heavy black slashes with a charcoal pencil. Regardless of the medium, creating art can be a cathartic experience.

Primal therapy

In primal therapy, the goal of catharsis is to release a person’s earliest negative childhood memories. The therapist may instruct the client to express feelings they’ve been hiding for years by directing their anger toward an imaginary parent or family member sitting in an empty chair.

Reliving Traumatic Events

It is often advisable to only relive traumatic events under the supervision and guidance of a licensed therapist. In therapy, you may be guided through a past traumatic event and reach catharsis when you’re able to talk about it without reacting as usual. As you’re confronted with the details of an environment where you once felt threatened, you may experience those feelings freely through catharsis, knowing that the threat is in the past. 

Writing

Writing can be highly therapeutic, providing an outlet for you to process your feelings and develop a new perspective on your everyday life. Many psychologists and mental health programs encourage journaling for this very reason. Whether you’re writing directly about your experiences in a journal or creating poetry to express your emotions, the cathartic moment can be just as compelling.

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Reading Literature And Watching Films

Writing and acting can provide catharsis, but so can experiencing the results of those creative endeavors. When you read a well-written book, you may find that the author expresses a familiar feeling so clearly that it brings up feelings that you thought had long been buried. The cathartic release can be the same with a well-acted movie.

Volunteering

Sometimes, when someone has a difficult experience, they deal with it by volunteering to help others. This also involves community activism, which can provide catharsis as well. Giving support to others can boost positive feelings in yourself. 

Psychoanalysis

Sigmund Freud developed this psychoanalytic method, and much of his work centered on bringing about catharsis to promote psychological healing. Nowadays, psychoanalysts use catharsis, but often only as the first step in helping clients understand themselves so they can make healthier decisions.

Psychodynamic Therapy

A psychodynamic therapist typically encourages an individual to talk about past experiences and emotions. One of the goals of psychodynamic therapy is to go deeper than the person usually does in their everyday life so that they can experience catharsis with the root problems of their present difficulties.

Emotion-Focused Therapy

Through emotion-focused therapy mental health professionals can help individuals or couples reach catharsis and improve their relationships. It works by allowing clients to develop emotional intelligence. This can happen as clients re-experience past hurts, put them into perspective, and find catharsis in new ways to respond to them.

Rituals

Throughout human history, people have used rituals to cope with mental and emotional challenges. This kind of catharsis can happen individually, or it can happen in groups. There are different categories of rituals, including spiritual and religious rituals.

Humor

Humor can help people release their emotions, often in a raucous burst of laughter. To achieve this kind of catharsis, you can watch TV or a movie, listen to a comedian, or read humorous texts to get a good laugh. Sometimes, you may find that you cry when releasing your emotions via laughter, vice-versa. Both can be truly cathartic experiences.

Confession

Telling your life story with all of your secret thoughts, actions, and experiences can release emotions that you only vaguely knew were there. This may also be true in religious ceremonies, even though the main goal isn’t usually emotional release or catharsis.

Exercise

Although catharsis is an emotional release, it can bring about many other changes in the body as well. The cardiovascular, respiratory, gastrointestinal, and musculoskeletal systems are all affected as pent-up emotions are released. Some people find that they can achieve catharsis by exercising or doing something physically demanding that promotes the same types of physical changes.

Making Noise

It can sometimes be productive to let emotions out by creating noise. You might play an instrument or even scream into a pillow. This can be a cathartic experience by allowing you to fully let go.

Getty/PeopleImages
Pent-up emotions from the past can affect your mental health

How therapy can facilitate emotional release

Achieving catharsis on your own can be helpful, but sometimes it may be more useful to speak with a therapist. This can be especially true when you’re coping with a lot of anger. If you’ve been through trauma or ongoing abuse,* it may be more productive to talk to a therapist who can help you cope with your emotions safely and reach catharsis in a guided environment. 

A therapist might also use catharsis as a therapeutic tool to help you cope with fear or a phobia. Once you’ve released your bottled-up emotions, you may develop new ways of dealing with the present.

Online counseling with BetterHelp

If you feel hesitant to visit a therapist in their office, you might consider online therapy, which numerous studies have shown to be effective. With BetterHelp, therapy sessions can be conducted via video chats, phone calls, instant messaging, or any combination thereof. A therapist may be able to help you discover the source of your difficulties, which may prove to be a cathartic experience. 

Online counseling can be effective in improving a variety of mental health conditions. For example, one study found that people who used BetterHelp experienced a significant decrease in the severity of depression symptoms. Research also shows that online therapy can be effective for phobias, anxiety, substance use, and bipolar disorder. 

Through online therapy, you may better understand the catharsis definition, learn emotional processing tips and experience feelings.

Below are a couple of reviews of qualified therapists who have helped others find emotional release using a variety of cathartic methods.

Counselor reviews

“Lori has been absolutely amazing to work with. In just a couple months she has helped me process, resolve and release some issues I had been holding onto and trying to let go of for a very long time. She listens with full presence and non-judgement, and responds with total understanding. I feel very safe in our sessions to speak my truth, and Lori also challenges me to see things in new ways I hadn’t previously considered. I am incredibly grateful to have found Lori, and I really value the time I get to spend with her. Lori really cares about the well-being of her clients, and she does a great job of helping her clients feel that care and support, which has really helped me to feel safe and grow :)”

“I have only been seeing Heather for a couple of weeks, but she has already been extremely helpful. She makes me feel like I am heard and that my feelings and experiences are valid. I would highly recommend her to anyone who needs to be listened to and receive competent and helpful feedback and guidance.”

Takeaway

In psychology, emotional catharsis can sometimes help people overcome emotional repression, anxiety, depression, fear, and trauma. If you’re interested in learning more about catharsis, you can speak with a l licensed therapist, whether in person or online. With online therapy, you may find that you can face your past, release pent-up emotions, and discover new ways to think about your memories. It isn’t too late to address a problem that’s been holding you back. While traumatic events can be difficult to talk about, online therapy offers a safe environment in which you may be able to open up more comfortably. Take the first step toward achieving catharsis and reach out to BetterHelp today.
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