The word catharsis is defined as the discharge of pent-up emotions so as to result in the alleviation of symptoms or the permanent relief of the condition. Catharsis is commonly known to people as a means of “getting things off your chest,” or simply “venting.” Experts in clinical psychology have found that there is a therapeutic mental health value in catharsis, as people often feel relieved getting their frustrations out and being validated by the person listening to their concerns. As you read this, it is likely that you have had similar experiences in life where you just needed to purge your thoughts and emotions, and when you did you felt better as a result. But what happens when we keep all of our stress, emotions, and thoughts to ourselves? Is there a price that we pay when we refrain from cathartic expression?
“The sorrow which has no vent in tears may make other organs weep”
Henry Maudsley, MD (1835-1918), The Pathology of Mind
Dr. Henry Maudsley was a British psychiatrist who argued that unexpressed emotions may result in physical disease, building from Sigmund Freud’s work in psychoanalysis. Keeping our emotions pent up inside, according to Maudsley, leaves us susceptible to various unexpected aches, pains, and even chronic illness because of the constant stress we experience without purging our emotional thoughts. Without cathartic expression, we never gain any sense of closure, and are therefore left to constantly ponder and think about our worries and problems longer than needed — eventually wearing out other body parts. While this may be a radical concept on the surface, I think we can all look back at a time in our lives where the stress we kept inside made the rest of our body feel worse and work less efficiently.
Purging our stress through catharsis is akin to emptying the pebbles in your shoe while walking along the beach — the pebbles aren’t usually catastrophic in any way, but it sure does feel a lot better when we remove them from our shoe and walk again comfortably without having to direct any attention toward our sore feet.
Catharsis and displaced aggression
When we carry our stress around without lightening our load by means of catharsis, we run the risk of inappropriate emotional outbursts aimed at other people and/or things. Displaced aggression is when we direct our negative energy toward people and things that are not the source of our frustration, but because we have kept our emotions inside for so long we eventually “explode,” almost like a champagne bottle after a good shaking. Snapping at a friend, yelling at the dog, and getting into unnecessary arguments with co-workers are examples of frustration re-routed and directed toward others who had nothing to do with the source of your frustration — but end up being innocent targets because of stewing negative emotions.
The good news is there are plenty of ways to “lighten your load” when it comes to negative emotions, from talking to friends and family, to doing things as simple as privately journaling your thoughts as a means of getting them out of your head. The key idea is to get “out” the stuff in your mind that drags you down, rather than letting the thoughts compound over time to the point where your thoughts turn into angry, and sometimes harmful, actions toward others.
Going through life allowing negative thoughts and energy to build up will almost always result in additional body aches and pains, as well as less-than-desirable interactions with others. It is difficult to give our best to the world when we are bogged down by negative thinking, but the good news is that by regularly engaging in cathartic expression negative thoughts are purged, allowing for a reset with a positive attitude and healthy thinking. Getting negative energy out — be it through journaling, talking to friends, or writing a letter you never send — will not only save the rest of your body from unnecessary illness, but will also lead to better relations with the people in your life.