Catharsis, Overreacting, and Psychological Health

FROM THE LECTURE SERIES: Understanding the Mysteries of Human Behavior

By Mark Leary, Ph.D., Duke University

Catharsis allows you to express anger as aggressively as you wish to maintain your psychological health. However, the scientific society believes it often justifies overreacting and hurts our psychological health. Read on to find out if catharsis really helps us.

A woman freeing her mind from toxic thoughts
Catharsis refers to the process of purifying and purging emotions and negative feelings. (Image: Andreza Suang/Shutterstock)

Catharsis refers to the expression of your feelings, especially when you are suppressing anger or other negative feelings. The term was first used in psychology by Sigmund Freud but originally dates back at least to ancient Greece.

This is a transcript from the video series Understanding the Mysteries of Human Behavior. Watch it now, on The Great Courses Plus.

According to catharsis, if you feel angry enough to break a few things around you, you should do that. Pop psychologists say if you feel like breaking someone’s ribs to express your anger, break glasses and tables instead and shout into your pillow. Suppressing emotions can indeed be unhealthy, but what if you bust the windows of somebody’s car, just because they drove into the street faster than you? Is it the right reaction, or are you overreacting?

Learn more about Why Self-Control Is So Hard

Overreacting and Its Reasons

When a person’s reaction to an unimportant event is extreme and overpasses the event’s real value, they are overreacting. For example, when you shout horrible insults at a waitress merely because your hamburger had pickles and you wanted it without. More than a personality trait, overreacting is a result of evolution.

Evolutionary psychologists believe that overreacting has its roots in a higher chance of survival. Animals that immediately kill intruders in their territory, avoid all risks and threats before any harm is done. Thus, protecting oneself against a potential threat is one reason for overreacting.

Also, people sometimes overreact to trivial signs of disrespect and unfairness to show that they cannot be exploited. The third reason why people overreact is that they are focused on only one thing. No matter how unimportant that event is, when this happens, people lose their ability to control themselves and think about consequences. No social norm, logic, moral standard, or concern for other people can stop overreacting.

Lastly, overreacting can be more common in one society compared to another, due to social acceptance and even encouragement. To conclude, many acts of catharsis may be overreactions that can harm one’s social life.

Learn more about Why We Have Emotions

The Relationship between Catharsis and Overreacting

Catharsis can be a good excuse and even a green light for some people to overreact. Overreacting to many things per day can lead to, and at the same time result from, anger issues.

Crying woman taking antidepressant pills, sitting on sofa
Catharsis can harm your psychological health. (Image: Prostock-studio/Shutterstock)

Those who suffer from chronic anger problems significantly magnify the importance of everything that happens to them. People who overreact do the same, even though they do not have chronic anger problems. They often engage in a catastrophizing thinking process, where they exaggerate the seriousness of a problem in their mind.

Learn more about Where People’s Personalities Come From

Catastrophizing and Its Effects

As explained, catastrophizing is the process of seeing events much more serious than they objectively are. Hence, it leads to overreaction. Condemnation and blame usually trigger overreaction, as they both are catastrophized. Research shows that condemnation fuels anger, hatred, and aggression. It makes us see the person who condemns us as a worthless awful person, whereas they might only be careless and inconsiderate.

So people overreact because of catastrophizing, and then they justify it by catharsis. Nevertheless, does catharsis really benefit our psychological health and social life, if its foundations are wrong thoughts and exaggerated anger?

The Effects of Catharsis on Psychological Health

Studies have examined the psychological health of people who react cathartically very often. Despite what Freud believed, catharsis triggers more thoughts and emotions of the same nature.

For example, if you are angry and you start shouting and throwing things, you activate more aggressive thoughts, emotions, and behaviors. Every time we have a particular thought or emotion, networks of associations are activated in our brain. Thus, having angry thoughts or expressing anger activates cognitive associations that affect anger. This can lead to chronic anger problems, which is not at all healthy.

Unfortunately, the media and pop psychology encourage catharsis and ask people not to suppress their emotions, especially anger. But the scientific community has concluded that expressing anger strongly and irrationally does not help control anger at all. In fact, doing nothing is better for controlling anger and maintaining psychological health. There is nothing wrong with feeling angry and acting assertively when an issue needs to be solved. However, when anger is expressed, especially in an overreaction, more problems are created.

Man sitting sadly outside office in city background
Catharsis leads to overreaction and, consequently, more problems. (Image: worradirek/Shutterstock)

Overreacting was built into our nature to increase our chance of survival. Consequently, it feels natural to shout and express anger strongly, to make others behave as we want them. But in our complicated human societies, taking the norms into consideration is much more beneficial than breaking all of them and hurting others. Thus, we need to control our negative emotions instead of cathartically expressing them, to maintain both our psychological health and social life.

Common Questions about Catharsis

Q: What is an example of catharsis?

An example of catharsis is when a person flips the table and breaks everything around them because they are angry. Any expression of emotions not to suppress them can be an example of catharsis.

Q: What is the purpose of catharsis?

Catharsis was believed to help people release the emotions they suppress and lead to their psychological health.

Q: What is catharsis in psychology?

Catharsis in psychology refers to any act of expressing emotions in order to feel relieved and maintain psychological health. However, today’s science believes it is not at all good for psychological health.

Q: What did Freud believe that catharsis did?

Freud believed catharsis could release all the suppressed emotions that can hurt one’s psychological health.

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