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Catharsis in Psychology – History and Therapy

Imagine going through a stressful event. An ending of a relationship or a loss of a job. These events generally might cause stress, trauma, anger, or frustration.

When events or people cause us to feel these feelings, we often feel the need to release our emotions. This release of emotions is termed catharsis. This release of emotions can be done through physical activity or any other non-harmful form of activity.

catharsis in psychology

Catharsis originates from the word, ‘katharsis’, meaning purification or clarification. This term is used in psychology, dramatics as well as in general everyday life as well.

It is a type of release of emotions that is relatively healthy and generates positivity in an individual’s life. It is a method that releases pent-up emotions, helps a person gain more insight, and provides an opportunity to reflect on their own selves.


Catharsis came from the school of psychoanalysis. Josef Breuer was a mentor and colleague of Sigmund Freud. He was one of the first people to use catharsis in a psychological context.

He used hypnosis on his patients to recreate their trauma situation. Patients were allowed to freely express their emotions about the repressed trauma, causing catharsis. This free expression usually ended their symptoms, mostly hysteria.

Hydraulic Model of Anger

Another explanation of catharsis comes from the hydraulic model of anger. This model states that frustration leads to anger and anger usually builds inside a person, just like hydraulic pressure builds in an enclosed environment until it is released.

This model believed that we need to express the anger in some way or else it will burst into the form of an unhealthy rage or outburst.

Different Forms of Catharsis

  • Exercise: Any sort of exercise or physical activity such as punching bags can be a constructive way to release pent-up emotions. It also releases hormones that enhance a person’s mood.
  • Creativity: Creating art through painting, sketching or any other method could also help in releasing emotions in a healthy and productive manner.
  • Writing: Apart from creating art, one can even write their thoughts out, or write an essay or poem to release emotions. This could be an interesting activity that helps one express themselves in a healthy manner.
  • Reading: Apart from writing, reading a piece of article or book can also help people in feeling emotions and expressing them through smiling or crying during the character’s journey.
  • Venting to friends: An individual can also release emotions by seeking social support. He or she can talk to their friends about the distressing event. Hearing their thoughts out loud could help them gain some insight into any distorted thoughts as well.
  • Music: A lot of individuals sing or listen to soothing music to relax and release their negative emotions. It can be a therapeutic activity.
  • Humour: People often suggest that laughter is the best medicine. Venting out emotions through jokes or watching a light show to laugh it out can also help.

Catharsis in Therapy

Psychoanalysis and hypnosis are not the most common practices in today’s world, but catharsis is still used in various treatment methods.

Psychodynamic therapy is a form of therapy that originated after psychoanalysis. One of the important factors of this therapy is analysing inferior complexities in clients. Here, catharsis can be used to understand past traumatic events that might have caused an inferiority complex and to work on those beliefs toward building self-esteem.

Another therapy that uses catharsis is primal therapy. This therapy focuses on a person’s childhood issues and trauma and helps them release the emotions behind these traumatic events.

A common technique used in this therapy is to redirect a person’s emotions toward an empty chair. The empty chair is perceived to be a parent or elder figure. By redirecting emotions towards the chair and freely expressing them without judgment, the client goes through catharsis, further leading to a clean and peaceful mind.

Disadvantages of Catharsis

  • Research has not fully supported the effectiveness of venting. Expressing emotions by talking about them in detail is known as venting. It is a form of catharsis and has not been completely validated by research yet.
  • Catharsis can also be presented in the form of aggressive acts or outbursts. These outbursts could be passed off as catharsis and people can get a leeway out of this while the victims of aggression could be harmed or hurt.
  • Research has found that expressing anger or aggression through aggressive outbursts does not truly lessen it. It might even lead to more aggressive behaviour.
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