Catharsis: Definition and Meaning from Psychology

Catharsis is a Greek word meaning purification and it is used in psychology to explain the process of liberation of negative emotions.

This term gained great importance in the world of psycho@nalysis when Breuer first originated a type of therapy that was based on emotional liberation, and later Freud developed this method in his psycho@nalytic theory.


However, this term has not only been used by psycho@nalysis and is used to define the therapeutic effect of emotion expression, as well as psychological therapies that use the emotional release in times of blockage.

In this article, we will explain what catharsis is and what role liberation of emotions plays in mental functioning and psychological well-being of people.

Definition and history of catharsis

The word catharsis derives from Cathars meaning “pure”. This was the name given to a religious group of the middle age dissident of the  Catholic Church, which reached its greatest diffusion in the south of France

Subsequently, this term was used by the field of medicine to refer to the physical cleansing of the body. In medicine, a purgative has a  cathartic effect insofar as it eliminates harmful elements such as parasites or intoxications.

Years later, Aristotle used this same term in his works to refer to spiritual purification.

In fact, the well-known Greek philosopher linked this term to the literary tragedy, arguing that when a spectator saw a tragic play, he visualized his own weaknesses of spirit and positions of conscience in the actors.

In this way, through what he called catharsis, the viewer freed himself from his negative emotions when he saw how other people had the same weaknesses and made the same mistakes as them.

Finally, at the end of the 19th century, psycho@nalysts Sigmund Freud and Josef Breuer adopted this term to refer to a type of psychotherapy that was based on the liberation of emotions, purifying the mind of deep-rooted and harmful thoughts and feelings.

Catharsis and psycho@nalysis

Sigmund Freud's phrases

The catharsis was a method that at first was coupled with hypnosis and consisted of subjecting the patient to a state in which he recalled traumatic scenes.

When the patient was subjected to this state and remembered the traumatic moments of his life, he managed to get rid of all the emotions and the harmful effects caused by these traumas.

We must bear in mind that psycho@nalysis is based on the subconscious (that information that is in our mind but we are not aware of it)  to explain psychological problems.

Thus, the therapies of psycho@nalysis were linked to work on the subconscious and one of the methods was what is known as catharsis, which used to be applied once the patient was hypnotized.

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Hypnosis, which many understand as a magical technique in which the therapist manages to control the patient’s mind when looking at a pendulum,  is not really such an extravagant technique as this description shows.

In fact, with hypnosis, he can not control the patient’s mind, which does not enter a vulnerable state where it does not “learn or be able to remember anything”.

Hypnosis is a technique that is based on inducing extreme relaxation in which the person ignores any external stimulus and focuses all their attention on their thoughts.

In fact, many of us can experience a state of hypnosis at any time without being induced by anyone.

Those moments in which you seem to be in your world, you do not realize what is happening around you and you are very immersed in your own thoughts that define the hypnotic state.

Therefore, the catharsis consists of inducing a state like this and exposing the patient to traumatic scenes so that he can release all those emotions, which according to the psycho@nalysts, had anchored in the subconscious and produced their discomfort.

In fact, Freud thought that the psychological alterations occurred when we did not overcome some traumatic event of our lives and this was integrated into our subconscious in the form of miserable emotions and feelings.

That is why Freud postulated that the best way to cure psychopathologies (especially hysteria) was to induce the expression of those emotions that we are not aware we have (catharsis).

However, the cathartic method has not always been linked to hypnosis since Freud realized that many times he was not able to induce these states in very nervous patients.

In this way, he began using catharsis independently of hypnosis and consisted of talking about the traumatic events of a person’s life so that he could release his innermost emotions.

Emotional catharsis

happy woman

If something has taught us Freud’s psycho@nalytic theory and the method of catharsis he used for a psychotherapeutic technique to solve psychological problems is that the expression of emotions plays a fundamental role in the psychological well-being of people.

In fact, in the society in which we live, the uncontrolled expression of emotions is not well seen, since at the same time they fulfill a communicative role.

People often teach us that it is not okay to cry in public or that people see us emotionally badly. Many times we try to give an image of strength and wellbeing before others, without showing our weaknesses.

This means that we often make efforts to hide our emotional responses and we can even fall into the dynamics of repressing them and living with the automatic pilot, trying to avoid the feelings we have on a daily basis.

If we look, this process that we can live in a regular way many of us has similarities with Freud’s theories that postulated that human beings have a tendency to keep important emotions and feelings in the subconscious.

This can cause us to accumulate emotions and feelings not expressed and reach a time when we can not do more, we feel tired and we want to leave everything.

That day the emotions overflow, we stop being able to control them and our mood can be altered, initiating even a depressive state or another type of psychological alteration that causes us discomfort.

This is precisely what is known as emotional catharsis, the moment when your emotions exceed you.

At that moment we feel controlled by emotions, without strength to face them and without security to continue with our lives and we lose our self-control.

If we look at this “emotional explosion”, it is given by an accumulation of experiences and periods of our life in which we have not made all the emotional expressions that we needed.

In addition, emotional catharsis is often accompanied by self-demanding thoughts or ideas of strength that prevent us from assuming that at a certain moment we are emotionally unstable.

However, contrary to what may seem, this emotional catharsis is not harmful but is that it is very beneficial for our mental health, as it allows us to release feelings through our emotional expressions.

In spite of this, healthier than performing an emotional catharsis is to avoid reaching the point where we need it.

That is to say, it is much better to have an emotional lifestyle in which we can release our emotions than to reach a point where we have  accumulated so many that we have to release them all at once.

As we have been repeating, the release and expression of emotions have a high therapeutic value, so if we do it in a habitual way we will have a better psychological state, but if we never do it, our mental health can be very damaged.

To enhance our emotional release, we must acquire a lifestyle that defends the expression of every emotion and feeling we have at any time.

We have to achieve a mental state that allows us to live every emotion in every expression, accepting it, valuing it and avoiding thoughts that prevent us from showing ourselves as a sentimental person.

And how can we get it?

To do so, it is necessary to find ways to express emotions that are healthy and do not harm us or harm us or others.

It is not worth starting to express our emotions without any kind of regard since a bad emotional expression can cause as many or more problems than the absence of emotional expression.

The goal must be, then, to find those behaviors that allow us to express our emotions in a healthy way and that do not cause harm to anyone.

In addition, it is very important to know where to express them, shout them, cry, talk and control them.

So, having a place in the world where you can free yourself of all your emotions without any prejudice or fear is a highly effective therapeutic tool.

This is something that it is hard for us to realize humans, but we must bear in mind that all controlled emotional expression is therapeutic, since it allows you to accept your emotions, to be able to talk about them and manage them properly.

In fact, this concept that we are explaining is not far from what he calls emotional intelligence.

Not being afraid of suffering, emotions or the way we express our feelings is the first step to achieve psychological well-being.

Human beings live constantly exposed to events and situations that can produce negative emotions, they can disturb us or they can make us feel in a concrete way.

That is why it does not make sense to fear our own emotions, as these are part of our life and our way of being, and if we ignore them, we may overload our mind with repressed sensations too much.

Therefore, it is very important to develop a style of emotional expression that benefits us and learn to release our feelings and emotions at appropriate times and places.

Social catharsis

football field

Finally, to end the review of the term of catharsis, I would like to refer to those theories that postulate the existence of social catharsis.

The cathartic theory from the point of view of social psychology is based on the function performed by aggressive scenes and violent contents in the media.

Traditionally, the exposure of scenes and violent content in the media has been debated and criticized.

In fact, from social psychology, it was often argued that violent and aggressive content could be a highly harmful element for the personal growth of children, and could encourage the development of violence in childhood.

It is evident and widely recognized by professionals who investigate this type of phenomena that the role of the media plays a very important role in the socialization of people.

In fact, the content that is exposed in the media participates in the internalization of values ​​and norms, so it acquires a lot of relevance when it comes to predicting certain behaviors in the people who make the society.

Thus, as defends Bandura, it is understood that consumers of this type of media absorb the content that is exposed directly,  so if violence appears on television, people who see it will also become more violent.

However, there is a current that defends the opposite and postulates that the dissemination of violence in the media has a high psychological value for society.

This current, explains that the exposure of violence and aggressiveness in the media works as catharsis for people who consume or visualize these media.

According to what is postulated as «cathartic theory», violent scenes on television serve the viewer to release their aggressiveness without having to carry out any aggressive behavior.

Put another way: when a person sees violent scenes on television, with the simple act of visualizing them, he releases his aggressive emotions, so that he can perform an emotional release (a catharsis) of his aggressive feelings.

In this way, the exhibition of violent contents on television would be defended, since these favor the expression of aggressive emotions and avoid the performance of violent behavior.