Catharsis (A complete guide)

Catharsis is a process characterized by the purging and purification of emotions usually through art or any extreme that results in a feeling of renewal. 

In this blog article, you will learn what constitutes catharsis, examples of catharsis, and how you can use cathartic methods in your everyday life.  

What is catharsis? 

Have you ever run six miles and felt like you “cleared your head”?

Or spent several hours of relaxation by painting a masterpiece of the most beautiful paradise island you could think of?

In the movies, you probably have seen therapy sessions where the patient, usually a child, was drawing pictures of his or her family to express emotions.

All of these examples are situations that make use of catharsis to express emotion. 

Psychoanalytic theory describes catharsis as a way to release bottled up emotions.

These emotions are unconscious conflicts that should be relieved.

For example, if you are experiencing stress over a relationship or work-related situation, you may develop feelings of tension and frustration.

Rather than becoming angry or aggressive, catharsis is a healthier way to relieve your stress, and can involve physical activity or expression through art. 

The term catharsis comes from the Greek word katharsis, which means purification or cleansing.

In literature, the hero of a novel may experience a cathartic release that leads to emotional renewal or restoration.

The purpose of this cathartic release is to bring positive change into the hero’s life. 

Catharsis includes both emotional and cognitive components.

In the emotional part of catharsis, strong feelings are expressed and felt.

In the cognitive part, the individual gains new insights. 

Catharsis helps with letting go of grief and leading to a more hopeful, happy life. It targets all the five stages of grief.

What is the history of catharsis?

The term catharsis has been used since Ancient Greek times, but Sigmund Freud revived it throughout his infamous career.

Freud’s colleague Josef Breuer used the term for therapeutic purposes, specifically for the treatment of hysteria. 

In order to treat patients using cathartic techniques, Breuer hypnotized his patients and asked them to recall traumatic events that they have experienced in the past.

He reported that his patients experienced immense relief from their symptoms once they consciously expressed their emotions regarding past trauma. 

What are some examples of catharsis in our everyday lives?

Catharsis is not a term that was only used by the Ancient Greeks or Freud and his colleagues.

People use this term in daily life to describe moments of deep insight or closure.

For example, someone going through a divorce may describe a cathartic moment as a moment where they found a sense of peace and were able to move past the bad memories and relationship. 

If someone is experiencing a health crisis, job loss, serious accident, or the death of a family member or close friend, they may describe catharsis as a significant part of their healing process. 

Catharsis can also be used as cathartic aggression in anger management therapy.

The term “blowing off steam” refers to the act of reducing psychological distress in the short-term.

This method, however, may not lead to positive outcomes.

If a person feels rewarded in the short-term after blowing off steam, he or she may continue the angry and aggressive behavior just to feel that temporary happiness. 

Interestingly, the term catharsis has been used as a medical term that describes the act of purging.

It can be used to describe a purging of the bowels, and a drug, herb, or other agent that is a strong laxative can be termed a cathartic. 

The term catharsis can also be used in a religious setting.

Catharsis can involve efforts to come to terms with feelings of guilt and committing sins.

Punishment, or penance, can be a way to purify the soul.

There was a sect in medieval times known as the Cathars, and they believed in catharsis as a means to purify the soul after sin. 

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Frequently asked questions (FAQs) about catharsis: 

1.   What is an example of catharsis?

Catharsis is defined by an emotional release.

For example, playing the piano is a catharsis for a tired, overworked student after a long day of studying.  

2.   What is catharsis theory?

Catharsis is a psychoanalytic theory where emotions associated with a traumatic event come to the surface.

The word comes from the Greek term for cleansing or purging, and catharsis involves elimination of negative emotions or behaviors associated with a previously unacknowledged trauma. 

3.   What is the purpose of catharsis?

Catharsis comes from the Greek medical term catharsis, which means purgation or purification.

Aristotle postulated that tragedy occurs in order to cause “terror and pity” for the person experiencing it, and thus effects the catharsis of these emotions.

His interpretation of catharsis, however, has been heavily debated over the last several centuries. 

4.   Does catharsis reduce aggression?

Some studies have shown that when people watch acts of aggression or dream about something aggressive, the emotional pressure they feel is relieved and provides catharsis.

In other studies, however, psychologists have demonstrated that watching or dreaming about aggressive acts actually increases, not decreases, aggression. 

5.   What is a cathartic moment?

A cathartic moment is an emotional discharge where a person achieves a state of moral or spiritual restoration and is liberated from anxiety and stress. 

6.   Is catharsis healthy? 

There is something called the “catharsis myth”, where people believe that venting anger is a healthy thing to do.

The idea behind this is that when we act aggressively or view aggressive content, we release our anger in a healthy and safe way.

This is a myth that has been heavily disproven by research that has shown that catharsis increases anger and aggression rather than decreasing it. 

7.   How does catharsis help you face the trials in life? 

According to the famous Greek philosopher Aristotle, experiencing or reliving the emotional trauma from the death of a loved one, or watching the death of a beloved character in a play (i.e., Romeo and Juliet), serves to provide the audience or person experiencing it some relief and release.

Watching the death of Romeo, for example, would enable the audience members to work through any unresolved feelings of grief or trauma from their own lives. 

8.   What is a cathartic release? 

A cathartic release is a form of emotional release and purification.

A cathartic release can be an experience that is inspired through art.

In psychoanalytic theory, catharsis is the release of the tension, stress, and anxiety that results from conscious awareness and acknowledgement of repressed feelings and memories. 

9.   What did Freud believe that catharsis did? 

Sigmund Freud, a famous psychologist, revived the notion of catharsis.

He believed that trauma and negative emotions that have been repressed for long periods of time can build up inside a person and lead to negative psychological symptoms such as hysteria, which described a nervous outburst.

Freud held on strongly to the belief that expressing negative emotions was significantly healthier than bottling them up inside. 

10. What is the catharsis in Hamlet?

Aristotle described catharsis as a purging of emotions, especially pity and fear.

He specifically used this term as a method for the audience to engage it at the end of a tragic play when the hero falls.

In Hamlet, catharsis is developed throughout the play as seen by Hamlet’s continuous suffering.

Catharsis is eventually achieved in the last scene of the play during Hamlet’s death. 

11.  How is catharsis related to Romeo and Juliet? 

The moment of catharsis in Romeo and Juliet occurs when both Romeo and Juliet kill themselves.

The audience usually cries and feels a sense of pity for the characters, and that moment is referred to as catharsis. 

In this blog piece, you should have learned about the history of catharsis, how catharsis can be used in everyday life, and how catharsis can be a healthy way to cope with life stressors. 

As you will see below by the variety of recommended readings, catharsis can be applied to many areas of our everyday lives, including getting through heartbreak, substance use and addiction, and experiencing mental health disorders.

Recommended Readings

I am not in recovery. I am in discovery: Journaling my mental illness

Journaling is a great way to help process and keep track of your experiences and feelings while you are going through any difficulties, whether it be the debilitating symptoms of mental illness or just regular day to day problems.

This journal can be your form of catharsis, as it contains 94 daily templates to aid in your discovery process. 

The Mindfulness Journal: Daily Practices, Writing Prompts, and Reflections for Living in the Present Moment

As described above, journaling is a great way to give yourself a “cathartic release”.

Whether you are dealing with mental health issues, heartbreak, a problem at work, or any other life stressor, this journal is for you.

This Mindfulness Journal can easily be added into your daily routine and can serve as an outlet for stress-reduction that will help you appreciate every single day and moment.

It includes 365 daily writing prompts divided into 52 weekly mindfulness topics.

The prompts are extremely unique, fun, and engaging, so you will never get bored while journaling.

Additionally, each prompt is on its own separate page so you will have more than enough room for reflection and to write down all of your thoughts, big or small.

Although it is suggested to journal once a day, you can spend as much or as little time as you want on each prompt. 

Catharsis: On the Art of Medicine

Catharsis is a term that most likely originated from the Ancient Greeks, and has been used to describe the cleansing of both the body by medicine and the soul by art.

Andrzej Szczeklik, a world-renowned cardiologist, writes this inspiring book to describe the artistry of being a doctor.

He uses both ancient and contemporary examples as well as mythological and scientific to explore how medicine and art share common roots and challenges.

This book has been described as life-affirming and has the power to enrich the healing work of both patients and doctors. 

Catharsis: A Journey Through Addiction and Mental Health

Mental health disorders, including substance abuse and addiction, are epidemics that are often stigmatized.

This book is an autobiography by Jessica A. Chouinard where she attempts to reconcile many commonly asked questions, such as the following: Is addiction a disease or a personal choice?

Are mental health disorders just as serious as medical conditions? (read: addiction is not a personal choice, and psychiatric disorders are just as much as medical condition as heart disease!).

Catharsis offers insight into these topics and allows the reader to live vicariously through the author who has battled addiction and a co-occurring mental health disorder herself.

Chouinard takes the reader on an intense journey through addiction, trauma, anxiety, depression, relapse, and recovery.

Hopefully after reading this thorough autobiography, you will better understand these disorders that are often stigmatized, misunderstood, and under-treated. 

All She Wrote: Catharsis and Absolution

Having troubles in love?

Paula Light, who sometimes writes under her pseudonym Anna Fondant, writes a metaphorical novel on how to deal with the mess that is post-heartbreak. 

Have more questions or comments about catharsis? Post below! 

References

The Role of Catharsis in Psychology.Very Well Mind. September 14th, 2019. 

Catharsis.Psychology Wiki. 2019. 

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