Catharsis: Definition and Meaning from Psychology

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

This term gained much importance in the world of psychoanalysis when first Breuer Resulted in a type of therapy based on the release Emotional, and later Freud Developed this method in his psychoanalytic theory.


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

In this article we will explain what catharsis is and what role the release of emotions plays in the mental functioning and psychological well-being of the 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 Ages dissident of the Catholic church, which reached its greatest diffusion in the south of France

Subsequently, this term was used by the medical field 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 a spiritual purification.

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

Thus, through what he called catharsis, the viewer was released from his negative emotions to see how other people had the same Weaknesses and made the same mistakes as they.

Finally, in the late nineteenth century, psychoanalysts Sigmund Freud and Josef Breuer adopted this term to refer to a type of psychotherapy Which was based on the liberation of the emotions, purifying the mind of thoughts and feelings rooted and harmful.

Catharsis and psychoanalysis

Phrases from sigmund freud

Cysarsis was a method that was initially coupled with hypnosis and consisted in subjecting the patient to a state in which he recalled scenes Traumatic

When the patient was subjected to this state and remembered the traumatic moments of his life, he was able to discharge all the emotions and effects Harmful that caused those traumas.

We must take into account that psychoanalysis is based on the subconscious (that information that is in our mind but we are not aware of it) To explain the psychological problems.

Thus, therapies of psychoanalysis were linked to work on the subconscious and one of the methods was what is known as catharsis, Which was used once the patient was hypnotized.

Hypnosis, which many understand as a magic technique in which the therapist manages to control the patient's mind when he looks 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 he"does not know or can not remember nothing".

Hypnosis is a technique that is based on inducing an extreme relaxation in which the person ignores any external stimulus and focuses all his Attention in your thoughts.

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

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

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

In fact, Freud I thought that the psychological alterations occurred when we did not overcome some traumatic event of our lives and this one stayed Integrated into our subconscious in the form of emotions and misfits.

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 that we have (catharsis).

However, the cathartic method has not always been linked to hypnosis since Freud realized that he was often unable to induce these states In very nervous patients.

In this way, he began to use catharsis independently of hypnosis, and consisted of talking about the traumatic events of the life of a Person so that it could release their innermost emotions.

Emotional catharsis

happy woman

If anything has taught us the Freud's psychoanalytic theory And the method of catharsis that he used for psychotherapeutic technique to solve problems Psychological 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 often the uncontrolled expression of emotions is not well seen, since they also play a role communicative.

People often teach us that it is not okay to cry in public or that people see us Emotionally evil . Many times we try to give an image of Strength and well-being before others, without showing our weaknesses.

This often causes us to make efforts to hide our emotional responses, and we can even fall into the dynamic of repressing them and living with The autopilot, trying to ignore the feelings we have every day.

If we look at this process that we can live in a habitual way many of us have similarities with the theories of Freud that postulated that beings Humans tend to keep important emotions and feelings in the subconscious.

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

On that day the emotions overflow, we can no longer control them and our State of mind Can be altered, even initiating a depressive state u Another type of psychological disturbance that causes us discomfort.

This is precisely what is known as emotional catharsis, the moment when your emotions overtake 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"is given by a series of experiences and periods of our life in which we have not done all the Emotional expressions we needed.

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

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

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

That is to say: it is much better to have an emotional lifestyle in which we can be releasing 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 has a high therapeutic value, so if we do it on a regular basis we will have A better psychological state, but if we never do, our mental health can be greatly harmed.

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

We have to achieve a state of mind that allows us to live every emotion in every expression, accepting it, valuing it and avoiding thoughts that we Prevent us from being a sentimental person.

And how can we get it?

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

It is not worth beginning to express our emotions without any kind of contemplation, since a bad emotional expression can cause us so many or more problems Than the absence of emotional expression.

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

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

So, having a place in the world where you can get rid of all your emotions without any kind of prejudice or fear is a therapeutic tool Highly effective.

This is something that costs us a lot to perform for humans, but we must keep in mind that all controlled emotional expression is therapeutic, since Allows you to accept your emotions, 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 well-being psychological.

Humans live constantly exposed to events and situations that can produce negative emotions, can disturb us or can Make feel in a concrete way.

That is why it makes no sense to fear our own emotions, since these are part of our life and our way of being, and if we ignore them, Perhaps we will overburden our mind with repressed sensations.

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

Social catharsis

football field

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

The cathartic theory from the point of view of social psychology is based on the function performed by aggressive scenes and violent content 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 detrimental element to growth Staff, 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 role Very important in the socialization of people.

In fact, the content that is exposed in the media participates in the internalization of values And standards, so it acquires a lot of Relevance in predicting certain behaviors in the people who make up society.

In this way, as it 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 diffusion of violence in the media has a high psychological value for the society.

This current explains that exposure of violence and aggression in the media functions as catharsis for people who consume or visualize Said means.

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

In other words, when a person sees violent scenes on television, simply by visualizing them, he releases his aggressive emotions, so that Who can perform an emotional release (a catharsis) of his aggressive feelings.

In this way, the exposure of violent content on television would be defended, since these favor the expression of aggressive emotions and allows Avoid violent conduct.


  1. Aristotle. The man of genius and melancholy. Problem XXX, 1. Barcelona: Quaderns Crema, 1996.
  2. Freud S."Psychoanalyse"and"Libido Theorie". Gesammte Werke XIII. 1923: 209-33.
  3. Laín Entralgo P. The cathartic action of tragedy. In: Laín Entralgo P. The adventure of reading. Madrid: Espasa-Calpe, 1956. p. 48-90.
  4. Klapper, Joseph. The social effects of mass communication. In introduction to the Study of Communication. Com. Ed. Series Iberoamericana. Mexico. 1986. Pp 165-172.

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