Monday, 3 March 2014

Catharsis - Just Let It Out

Scrabble letters spelling out "Aaargh"
Cathartic Scrabble - the angry geek's release


Noun. In sense 2 also katharsis. Plural -tharses. Early 19th century.
[modern Latin from Greek katharsis, from kathairein cleanse, from katharos pure. In sense 2 also from Aristotle's Poetics.]

1 MEDICINE. Purgation. E19

2 (A) purification of the emotions by vicarious experience,
especially through drama, or, in psychotherapy, by abreaction. M19

Raaaaarwgh! Have you ever been so angry that you could just ... just ... just ... rraaaargh! That's it - let it all out. Don't keep all that negative energy bottled up inside you. Release! Punch a cushion. Scream at the top of your lungs. Throw a banana. Poke a stranger. These will cathartically release your rage, giving a much needed vent to energy that would otherwise overload your synapses and discombobulate your chakras. Or so the theory goes ...

If we're talking about Freudian and not Aristotelian catharsis (Aristotle posited that witnessing a tragic play gives release to the pent up negative emotions of the audience), it's the theory that negative emotions should be vented, otherwise the pressure will gradually build up and cause psychological harm to the individual. To vent these emotions, Freud first used hypnosis and then later a technique called free association, in which subjects talked through and relived bad experiences so that they could again experience and give vent to negative and long repressed emotions (a process called abreaction).

It's an elegant and appealing notion; all of us are familiar with the cathartic experience of "letting it all out" or "having a good cry," and the Greek root of catharsis appropriately links it to the feeling of being cleansed, purged of all this negative energy. The scientific evidence for catharsis, however, and particularly the aggressive offloading of negative emotion, does not support the theory. While cathartic actions often feel good, studies suggest they're merely triggering the brain's reward mechanism, thus making later outbursts even more likely. Thus, it seems, aggression and violence beget more aggression and violence. Who'd of thought? So stiffen that lip and repress those negative emotions, for, as my dear mother always said, "A situation is never so bad that losing your temper won't make it worse." Well said, Mum.

Is there anything you do for catharsis?

Do you feel better or worse after you've punched a cushion?

Unrepress those memories and blow off some steam by leaving a cathartic comment in the box below.


  1. Your mum's advice on temper should be tattooed on our arms.

    Ok, MY arms.

    I once assaulted my car dashboard after hearing on the radio that a man had escaped from an open prison. I felt, strongly, that the whole situation could have been avoided if someone in charge had closed the prison. The actual target of my anger happened not to be the man, the prison or my dashboard.

    I take pictures of posters in shops advertising expensive guff-faux-medicine and send them to intelligent people, knowing that it will make absolutely no difference to the general population.

    I also pet my cat, an outrageously stupid animal who sometimes aggressively protects his food from his own tail, but who, in his defense, isn't that bothered about homeopathy as long as it tastes of tuna, doesn't get annoyed unless he has a rather good reason, and doesn't listen to the car radio.

    So, taking his lead, I'm going to start sipping milk, licking random parts of myself at random moments, and marking my territory.

    1. I always think when the media talks of someone "escaping" from an open prison, they're giving way too much credit to the criminal

      No one is ever going to make a film called "The Great (Open Prison) Escape".

  2. I yell a lot and I curse like a sailor. In Greek. It is very cathartic, although people who've only seen my extremely patient self get shocked. But patience has its limits, especially when it's misconceived as you being a pushover. But, yes, it feels good to get it all out. How do you blow off steam, Ed?

    1. *let! What is it with me and typos today!

    2. So what might a Greek sailor say.....for example......y'know.......if anything ever happens to my cat?

      (On paper, will it look like my mathematics homework?)

    3. I can't use inappropriate language on Lexicolatry, but, to use a Greek idiom, "the Nile won't be able to rinse it off".

      Clueless, I would love to have seen you assaulting your dashboard.

    4. It really wasn't that impressive. I think I inadvertently hit the hazard lights and then felt guilty for a week, because there wasn't a hazard.

    5. I guess that's why we have the... "moodza" gesture in Greece, because you can take it out on other drivers/pedestrians without causing unnecessary harm to your dashboard and/or feelings of guilt for hitting the hazard lights for no reason.

    6. Fascinating, Evi!

      I'm afraid I'm really not a "blow off steam" type of guy (and if you were correcting 'blow off steam' to 'let off steam', we say both) - I can't ever remember losing my temper, I rarely swear, and the few times in my life I've shouted at people, it's been in a situation of controlled assertiveness rather than outright anger.

      And no, I don't tend to shout at other drivers, give them the finger, or accidentally activate my hazard lights.

    7. There's a joke about it too. An American spends 2 weeks in Greece and he has rented a car to go around. When he goes back to the US, someone asks him "How was Greece?". He says "Oh, amazing! The Greek drivers are so polite, they waved at me all the time!"

      And, coincidentally, I saw this and came back to paste the link: (it's funny because it's so accurate!)

      Sorry, I'm cramming your comment section, but I loved this post.

    8. You see, Evi, I'm glad you posted that link, because clearly that couple are stuck in a very tragic (and loud) negative cycle; every time they aggressively vent their frustrations, they're feeding their brains' reward mechanisms (especially if they immediately have ice-cream after), thus making future outbursts all but inevitable.

      Also, I'm feeling rather smug because a BBC news article came out today saying that angry and hot-headed people are at significantly greater risk of having a heart attack or stroke. Oh yeah ...

      *struts his significantly lower heart attack risk all over the shop*

  3. Your mum was indeed a wise woman Ed.
    My parents said something pretty similar, so us kids learned to keep our emotions at bay.
    I learned to hold my breath and count to ten at a young age!
    I still do that to this day! But when I'm really, really upset/angry, I cuss real good in Maori!
    When our kids got to the teenage years, we bought a punching bag and set it up in a quiet part of the house.
    It was well used!

    1. There have been interesting studies into the analgesic effects of swearing. However, if you're an inveterate swearer, the effect is less. Therefore, as someone that virtually never swears, I'm hoping it's become something like a super-power waiting to be activated, turning me into "No Pain Boy" or something on the day that I finally turn the air blue with cussing.

  4. Catharsis by shouting, showing the bird, throwing things, punching whatever?! Nope. Can't say I have.

    I can't - it's really can't not don't - "blow off steam" that way - in fact, I have a recurrent panicky thought I might get assaulted and I'm not even sure if I can scream ahahahah I'm laughing so in a way it can be a catharsis in itself laughing at something that frightens you...

    I don't lose my temper, I don’t swear, and never get really angered. I'm a pit bull - as Evi can assert - in defending my point of view... it's not like I'm (always) turning back to fights, discussions or whatever... but if you don't calm down and listen to my point of view - I will yours to the point of sometimes people asking "are you listening?" because I don't interrupt while they posit theirs - we'll have to postpone this talk. For later. Maybe. If it's worthy. (I must have had temper issues on former lives ahahahah so my catharsis is working on not saying or going to the point of no return.)
    Take Care,

    1. Very true, Teresa - being calm does not equal being a pushover.

  5. A word for when I lose the plot every now and then. I try not to but I do have a rant at idiot's on the road who clearly can't drive properly....unlike me :-). I have found being cathartic gets things accomplished at times. When in the past I've been Soooo mad I've gone and done....(wait for it)....The Ironing! Weird...I know

    1. Doing the ironing when you're angry? Very constructive. I like that a lot. I lay on the couch and play video games when I'm angry.