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Catharsis, Latin from the Greek Katharsis 'purification', is a sudden emotional breakdown or climax that constitutes overwhelming feelings of great pity, sorrow, laughter, or any extreme change in emotion that results in the renewal, restoration and revitalization for living.
Catharsis is a form of emotional cleansing first defined by the Greek philosopher Aristotle. It refers to the sensation, or literary affect, that would ideally overcome an audience upon finishing watching a tragedy. The fact that there existed those who could suffer a worse fate than them was to them a relief, and at the end of the play, they felt ekstasis (literally, astonishment), from which the modern word exstasis and ecstacy are derived. While seemingly related to schadenfreude, it is not, however, in the sense that the audience is not intentionally led to feel happy in light of others' misfortunes; in an invariant sense, their spirits are refreshed through having greater appreciation for life.
Catharsis in psychotherapy
The term catharsis has also been adopted by modern psychotherapy, particularly Freudian psychoanalysis, to describe the act of expressing, or more accurately, experiencing the deep emotions often associated with repressed memories of traumatic events in the individual's past which had originally been adequately addressed or experienced due to defence mechanisms such as repression or denial.
Modern psychological opinion is clear on the usefulness of cathartic aggression in anger management. "Blowing off steam" may reduce physiological stress in the short term, but this reduction may act as a reward mechanism, reinforcing the behavior and promoting future outbursts.
Catharsis is also an emotional release associated with talking about the underlying causes of a problem (it was first mentioned by Aristotle: catharsis associated with audience watching tragic plays)
Abreaction is a related psychoanalytical term for the realise of tension that comes from reliving an experience in order to purge it of its emotional excesses; a type of catharsis, which is the APA Thesaurus preferred term.
In the early years of psychoanalysis such discharge of emotional energy as repressed memories become conscious was regarded as a principle therapeutic agent .
Abreaction can occur spontaneously or during psychotherapy or hypnosis. Josef Breuer developed the procedure from 1880 onwards and along with Freud named it in 1893. The efficacy of this approach has been likened to "lancing a boil". Exposing the wound releases the "poison" and allows the wound to heal. In the same way that the lancing process is painful, re-living the trauma can be highly distressing for the patient, and memories of the pain can be physically felt.
The therapy has attracted critics such as Richard Chefetz who questioned it in a paper in 1997. Many have questioned the reliability of the recalled memory.
Early in his career, psychoanalyst Carl Jung expressed interest in abreaction, or what he referred to as "trauma theory", but later found it had limitations concerning the treatment of neurosis. Jung stated that: "though traumata of clearly aetiological significance were occasionally present, the majority of them appeared very improbable. Many traumata were so unimportant, even so normal, that they could be regarded at most as a pretext for the neurosis. But what especially aroused my criticism was the fact that not a few traumata were simply inventions of fantasy and had never happened at all".
Jung believed that the skill, devotion and self-confidence regarding the way the analyst did his work was much more important to the patient than the rehashing of old traumatic emotions.
It can also describe the effect producing an outlet for violence by acting as a form of release for violent behaviour. For example in forms of media or in a dream.
Other medical uses
The term catharsis has been used for centuries as a medical term meaning a "purging." Most commonly in a medical context, it euphemistically refers to a purging of the bowels. A drug, herb, or other agent administered as a strong laxative is termed a cathartic.
Another meaning under the heading of 'purging' can concern body and soul : in religion, it concerns efforts made to come to terms with guilt and sin, as by penance such as by chastisement (in modern use of that word, the meaning of punishment has taken over from the original sense of purification), such as practiced by flagellants; a testimony to the age of this use is the very name of the Cathars (a medieval sect).
- Bushman, BJ, RF Baumeister, and AD Stack (1999-03). Catharsis, aggression, and persuasive influence: self-fulfilling or self-defeating prophecies?. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 76 (3): 367–376.
- (2007) Aggressive offenders' cognition: theory, research, and practice, John Wiley & Sons. URL accessed 2010-10-10.
- (2004) "Catharsis: does "getting it out of one's system" really help?" Human Aggression, Springer. URL accessed 2010-10-10.
- Denzler, Markus, Jens Förster and Nira Liberman (2009-01). How goal-fulfillment decreases aggression. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology 45 (1): 90–100.
- Dictionary of the history of ideas: Catharsis
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