Catharsis is an emotional release that helps us to release unconscious conflicts. In fact, the term comes from the Greek word “katharsis”, meaning “purification” or “cleansing”. In Psychology, the catharsis involves a kind of emotional purge, so that we can restore our psychological balance. It is an intense and intimate process that is often liberating since we not only express content that we repressed but we give it a new meaning, we incorporate it into the story of our life and we manage to turn the page.
What is emotional catharsis according to psychoanalysis?
The term catharsis goes back to Ancient Greece, although it acquired prominence in Psychology thanks to Sigmund Freud and Josef Breuer. The latter developed a psychological treatment to address hysteria that he called cathartic. The therapy consisted in having the patients remember traumatic experiences while they were under hypnosis. Breuer discovered that when people expressed the emotions they had repressed for a long time, they experienced relief from their symptoms.
Freud also believed that emotional catharsis could play an important role in alleviating symptoms linked to anxiety. According to his psychoanalytic theory, the human mind is composed of three key elements: the conscious, the subconscious and the unconscious. Everything we know is found in the conscious mind. The subconscious contains things that we are not fully aware of but that we can raise awareness of if we pay them attention. Finally, the unconscious is the part of the mind that contains the great reserve of thoughts, feelings and memories that are outside our consciousness, usually with a great emotional charge.
Freud thought that many conflicts and traumas are hidden in the unconscious, from where they continue to exert their influence on our decisions, behavior and well-being. That is why he resorted to psychological techniques such as the interpretation of dreams and free association to access these contents. He defined catharsis as “The process by which we reduce or eliminate a conflict by activating it in the consciousness and allowing it to express itself”.
From this perspective, catharsis would be an awareness of things that are damaging us but that operate below the threshold of consciousness. In fact, in current psychoanalysis the catharsis is considered as the discharge of the effects linked to traumatic events that had been repressed, returning them to the consciousness to re-experience them and get rid of their negative or limiting influence.
This means that, although catharsis contains a powerful emotional component, it also has a strong cognitive component that allows us to acquire new knowledge or perspectives assuming and leaving behind emotional wounds.
Therefore, emotional catharsis:
– Makes us feel better by releasing negative emotions and,
– Leads us to a positive change in our “ego” allowing us to integrate these repressed contents.
Why is it important to express emotions?
Society often exerts a repressive role on emotions. It is considered bad to express “negative” emotions, that way is encouraged their repression, which leads us to bury them in the depths of the unconscious.
However, emotional expression is part of a mature and balanced “ego”. Every emotion that we experience and express is part of our essence. Thanks to them we can know each other better. Emotions act as compasses that instantly indicate reactions of pleasure or rejection, so they should never be repressed, it is only necessary to learn to express them assertively.
A repressed emotion will end up generating a conflict that will be encased in the unconscious, simply because we have not processed the message of that emotion and we have not used it adaptively. On the contrary, assimilating emotions, especially “negative” ones, will allow us to understand and use them in our favor to grow.
Is catharsis always beneficial?
By becoming part of the popular vocabulary, catharsis has become blurred. Many think, for example, that doing catharsis to release anger means hitting the pillow or stay in a room screaming loud. It has been shown that this type of expressive resources is counterproductive and ineffective in the long term.
A very interesting study conducted at Iowa State University analyzed what was the best strategy for venting anger. These psychologists asked a group of angry people to hit a punching bag thinking about the person who had angered them and to others was asked to think they were getting in shape. A third group sat in a room doing nothing.
Then, they were given the opportunity to administer strong bursts of noise to the person who had angered them. It was discovered that the people who hit the punching bag thinking about who had angered them were not only still very angry but also behaved more aggressively. On the contrary, those who calmed most were those who sat quietly.
The physical ventilation of emotions can help and have a small cathartic effect but it is necessary to go a step further. If mere physical catharsis were a constructive practice, the work of psychologists would be much simpler. To heal and resolve conflicts it is not enough to act and experiment, it is necessary to work at the conceptual level with the image of the “ego”.
That means that to achieve the positive change that is pursued with catharsis it is necessary to reflect on those emotions, so that we can integrate them into our self-concept.
Also keep in mind that the only emotion that is aired with catharsis is not anger. The sadness we experience after the loss of a loved one, when it is repressed, continues to hurt. On the contrary, when it is expressed, it is overcome faster. It has been shown that crying is cathartic, almost always. In fact, catharsis in Psychology is used primarily to relieve the pain and suffering associated with a trauma.
A study conducted at the University of Illinois found that catharsis causes changes at the physiological level that can help us find emotional balance more quickly. These psychologists appreciated that ventilating emotions generates a decrease in blood pressure and changes the rhythm of breathing, which could help calm us down. In fact, when we are angry we breathe at a different rate than when we are calm or sad. Each emotion has its breathing rhythm, so that when our mental state changes, our breathing changes immediately. Therefore, by regulating our breathing we can also control emotions.
How to make catharsis to generate a lasting positive change?
- Connect with your feelings. First of all, it is vital that you accept all your emotions and feelings. You should avoid the idea that there are “negative” emotions that you should not experience. All emotions are valid and do not make you worse or better person. It is not what you feel, but how you channel it. Therefore, do not try to repress or fight against those emotions. Connect with them so you can listen to the message they should convey to you. Sometimes behind anger lies sadness, for example, or the feeling of impotence. But you cannot resolve the conflict if you disconnect from your emotions.
- Find the way to make catharsis that works for you. What can be cathartic for some is not for others. Therefore, you must find the emotional expression strategy that works best for you. It is not always necessary or advisable to hit a pillow, keeping a therapeutic diary can be a way to exorcise your problems. Art is also an excellent cathartic tool.
- Do not forget the cognitive element. Catharsis is composed of two aspects: the emotional release that generally has a strong somatic component and the cognitive element, which involves reflection on what happened. If you limit yourself to emotional liberation, you will stop halfway. It is necessary that you reflect on the origin of those emotions that disturb you and, above all, that you find a way to express them assertively, without hurting yourself and without harming the others.
Last but not least, do not force your healing rhythm. Sometimes some contents are hidden in the unconscious because we do not have the necessary psychological tools to face them and bringing them to consciousness would be extremely painful. Assume catharsis as a therapeutic process of self-healing and self-acceptance in which each day you will take small steps.
Verona, E. & Sullivan, E. A. (2008) Emotional Catharsis and Aggression Revisited: Heart Rate Reduction Following Aggressive. Emotion; 8(3): 331–340.
Bushman, B. J. (2002) Does Venting Anger Feed or Extinguish the Flame? Catharsis, Rumination, Distraction, Anger, and Aggressive Responding. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin; 28(6): 724-731.