Known in Greek as Kathairein or Katharsis, this term has a variety of means from a cleansing to a process of releasing emotional pressure through aggressive or violent processes. In psychology, it has the denotation of revisiting an event in your life through psychoanalysis where you express the said event in its original emotions (whether it be anger, fear, sadness, etc.). There are variety of meanings and uses of the word in modern days, and back in antiquity there were other means than today.
The term is also somewhat controversial among psychologists. While there have been studies and psychologists that have claimed that Catharsis (under the connotation of releasing emotional tension through psychoanalysis—digging up repressed memories through dialogue with a therapist) has therapeutic effects on the patient, other psychologist have claimed that it just fuels the fire of negative emotions. Dr. Stephen A. Diamond addresses this argument in his article on Catharsis. He claims that only releasing a little bit of that emotional pressure really doesn’t do much for the patient but merely “primes the pump.” Dr. Diamond says that to really create a therapeutic effect on the patient, they must dig deep into the subconscious and find the root of their emotional pressure. When done so, expose those deep emotional events to release the heavy pressure. His analogy to address this idea is that of digging for natural gas or oil. To mine oil fields, you have to dig deep or else you will release pressure in a certain spot but the overall pressure of the oil field will remain. This just shows that releasing some of the negative emotions can “lead to more” negative emotions simply because the root of the negative emotions was not exposed.
Catharsis does not need to be physical. It can be done through dialogue (this is psychoanalysis). But it is important to note as Dr. Diamond says that the dialogue must elicit emotions. It cannot be just a casual conversation about emotions, but more of a confession setting.
In conclusion, one must look to testimonials and practical examples of the practice of catharsis to decide if it is a successful method of therapy. I have witnessed the positive effects of catharsis through musical expression and psychoanalysis. It is very emotional and can be uncomfortable and painful for the person experiencing catharsis, but the effects are positive and can create release.
Various definitions of Catharsis
- The process of releasing, and thereby providing relief from, strong or repressed emotions. (Oxford Dictionaries)
- The purging of the emotions or relieving of emotional tensions, especially through certain kinds of art, as tragedy or music. (dictionary.com)
- Elimination of a complex by bringing it to consciousness and affording it expression. (Merriam-Webster Dictionary)
- A purification or purgation that brings about spiritual renewal or release from tension. (Merriam-Webster Dictionary)
- A purifying or figurative cleansing of the emotions, especially pity and fear, described by Aristotle as an effect of tragic drama on its audience. (thefreedictionary.com)
- Catharsis is getting rid of unhappy memories or strong emotions such as anger or sadness by expressing them in some way. (Collins Dictionary)
- A mechanism that generates the rational control of irrational emotions. (Wikipedia)