“When I was younger, I used to say, 'I'm not making music. I am getting catharsis for emotion.'”
Catharsis; the process of releasing, and thereby providing relief from, strong or repressed emotions.
Have you ever felt like you’d had enough?
Some people are like pressure cookers, building up steam until they explode in a spectacularly messy display.
Many more of us will have been in situations where we feel we have lost control and the ‘straw that broke the camel’s back’, as they say, is often quite a minor thing! Objectively we might look on the situation and wonder why we became so emotional about it at all.
When we fail to process our emotions in a healthy way they build up and unfortunately they can then explode out of us at unexpected or inappropriate moments. The recipient of our response may not be the cause of our negative emotions at all. In fact they often aren’t, they are just in the wrong place at the wrong time.
After we have let loose, we may feel better. This is, however, often momentary, as a common reaction to having lost control is to feel guilty about it, or embarrassed and upset with ourselves. Some also argue that when we give vent to our feelings in this way on a regular basis, it may become our go-to response and we don’t process. we just allow the pressure to build then blow off steam; this is relief, not resolution.
If we, in turn, have been the recipient of such an outburst we can feel attacked and the injustice of the situation looms large. We may invoke our warrior and respond with aggression of our own and we quickly end up in conflict. We may become a victim to the situation and lament about the unfairness of it all. We might sell ourselves out and apologise even though it has nothing to do with us or we could get upset. In all of those responses, we are adversely affected by the outburst.
You will see here that both parties are responding unconsciously and this creates a negative situation for all.
The word catharsis comes from the Ancient Greek Katharsis which translates as purification or cleansing. In terms of psychotherapy it refers to a letting go of intense emotions that have been repressed coupled with an increased awareness of our own thoughts feelings and behaviours – the unconscious responses becoming conscious
Freud believed that catharsis was helpful as it illuminated those repressed emotions (which may be connected to an adverse event or are cumulative, due to a lack of healthy processing) which are undoubtably influencing our responses whether we are aware of them or not.
When we are conscious and we truly see our responses. We can process all our emotions and free ourselves from the effect of those that are unconscious.
Healthy processing of our emotions involves acknowledging they are there and undertaking a robust analysis, looking at what has prompted it within us. Here, ideally think in terms of internal processes. What in our psyche prompted the emotion? What does it tell us about the core beliefs that we hold about ourselves? If the emotion highlights a negative core belief we can set the intention to question that belief and reframe it. We can challenge negative thoughts about the Self and the situation and consciously choose positive behaviours.
Alternatively, if the processing is too difficult and we are not ready, we can accept our emotions and still move into conscious choice regarding our behaviours.
Catharsis then can be a deeply beneficial psychotherapeutic tool that helps us process our everyday emotions and prevent melt downs.
For those with repressed emotions connected to adverse past events or trauma (PTSD) please skip to the end of the tool and access help and therapy rather than doing this alone.
If you feel your temperature rising, or you are getting upset at little things, take the time to engage in catharsis. In fact, consider making time for this like you do physical activity or other acts of self-care to prevent emotions building up in the first place.
If you do feel particularly explosive it is worth expending some energy and good ways to do this include:
Dancing it out to your favourite song
Running it out
Boxing it out you can do this either sitting or standing
Singing it out at the top of your voice
This may be all you need, or all you can manage at this time and that is ok. The exercise will generate endorphins and singing stimulates the Vagus nerve and activates the relaxation response. Whichever you choose, it does feel like a release. Decide to accept the emotion is there, and move on. Set the intention to process the emotion in the future even if you do not feel ready right now.
If you are ready for a deeper level of processing try the next step…
Sitting in a quiet place where you will not be disturbed take a moment to reflect and label your feelings.
Write them down on a piece of paper you may have one or you may have more than one
Choose one of your pieces of paper, hold it in your hands
Close you eyes and tune in to the rhythm of your breathing
The tidal in and out
When you feel ready explore the feeling
Where does it express itself in your body
What is it telling you about what you need?
What is it telling you about what you believe?
When you are ready open you eyes and now write down how you want to feel
Hold that piece of paper in your hands and close your eyes again
Feel your feet flat on the floor
Imagine roots spreading out into the earth anchoring and supporting you
Notice a silver thread that leads from the top of your head up to the cosmos
You are connected to the universe
You are nourished by this
Where does your desired feeling express itself in your body
What do you need to believe to create this feeling?
What thoughts will encourage this feeling in you?
What do you need to do to generate this feeling?
Open your eyes and take your positive body experience with you for the rest of the day
Other ways to process emotions include:
Expressive writing and journaling
For anyone struggling with trauma we would encourage you to access talking therapies. EMDR – Eye Movement Desensitisation and Reprocessing is a particular therapy to help process trauma and PTSD.