The catharsis hypothesis definition

Catharsis is a process of acute or lasting negative experience that suddenly turns into a positive one after reaching its highest intensivity.

The traditional concept of “catharsis” was developed in the ancient Greek philosophy of art. In ancient Greece, the word ‘catharsis’ meant “cleansing”, particularly of negative feelings.

Aristotle developed a theory of how one can influence, change, transform the inner world with the help of art. Catharsis played a central role in this theory.
According to it, after listening to music or observing artworks, a person can cleanse the mind and get free from horrible feelings. In other words, theater plays, paintings, sculptures, literature, can induce anger or despair that are later replaced with calmness and an enlightened mood.

In psychoanalytic literature, the term “catharsis” first appeared in the Study of Hysteria (Studien uber Hysterie, 1895) by Joseph Breuer and Sigmund Freud. Breuer sought relief from the symptoms of hysteria by encouraging hypnotized patients to revive or recall forgotten childhood experiences – often but not always traumatic – and the feelings associated with them.

Freud suggested that previously suppressed memories and the associated negative emotions can be transitioned from unconsciousness to consciousness in a hypnotic state. After that, they can be processed and discharged. As a result of a so-called affective discharge, the symptom disappears.

Let’s define catharsis in Psychology

In modern Psychology, outside the psychoanalytic tradition, the word ‘catharsis’ means stress relief or release of emotions, including those associated with conscious experiences.

Particularly, implosive therapy attempts to evoke strong feelings in order to achieve cathartic stress relief. Sometimes the same thing is called “acting out” or “venting.”

Catharsis is a central concept in psychodrama and an important aspect of most models of psychotherapy and crisis intervention.

Examples of catharsis

People experience catharsis not only after observing artworks that evoke strong feelings, but also in everyday life. Probably, everyone of us had situations at home or work when it’s impossible to express negative feelings towards someone or something. In this case, they get bottled up and keep existing without being realized.

But when an opportunity to express such deep negative emotions occurs, one may burst into tears or start shouting. This way, suffering from restraining emotions for a long time stops and a person feels much better. So after the anger is completely released, some positive feelings arise.

Final thoughts on catharsis hypothesis

Summing up, the catharsis hypothesis refers to the idea that anger can be reduced by aggressive action or fantasy. It transforms deep feelings like anger and frustrations into positive ones. 

The process of cathartic discharge is manageable. Mental health experts resort to catharsis when treating patients with emotional disorders.

Experiencing catharsis is important for harmonizing mental state. It plays a certain role in aesthetic education, spiritual growth and psychological development of the individual.

Svitlana Drach

Svitlana Drach

Psychology4u.net team member

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