Release Based Cathartic Therapy: Cautions and Considerations


Catharsis therapy is based on the idea that bringing painful memories to consciousness with emotional discharge is the best way to recover from old wounds. Deliberately re-living a traumatic event by dredging up memories or releasing emotions through catharsis is more likely to re-traumatize the body/mind than to heal it…the body/mind cannot distinguish between re-living and the real thing. Each time it will summon its defensive mechanisms in the same way that it would if the event were real. The cathartic approach perpetuates the effects of trauma (Levine 1995).

Some body centered therapists although well intentioned have adopted an old belief called the hydraulic theory of mind (Nichols and Zax 1977). This theory postulates that there is an excessive amount of fluid behind a client’s eyes that needs to come out and it’s up to the therapist to facilitate that release. But viewing clients as having pathologically dammed up unexpressed emotions only impedes the therapeutic process (Warme 1980).

Catharsis was historically associated with both purging the body and spiritual purification. The founder of the cathartic method, Aristotle, wrote about the catharsis of one’s passions, especially pity and fear, through music and tragedy. It was not until the 19th century that psychologists began to reinterpret what Aristotle meant by catharsis, and it is there that the roots of the current practice of provoking emotional release can be found. Pierre Janet (1859-1947) created a treatment for the mental disinfection of traumatic memories by mental liquidation (Jackson 1994). These treatments were specifically designed for discharging emotions. He also called this a moral fumigation.

There is an equally rich history in religion, theater and music for the release of emotions (Scheff 1977). However, even Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung came to the conclusion in the later stages of their careers that catharsis and emotional release were not primary factors in the therapeutic treatment, but rather a secondary component (Jackson 1994). There are four categories of catharsis: abreaction, integration, inclusion and significance or spiritual catharsis (Blatner 1985). The catharsis of abreaction is the experience of re-living a traumatic event along with its associated memories. An essential principle in facilitating catharsis is that the client is not simply re-experiencing the original trauma by abreaction. The therapist must anchor the awareness in the context of right here and right now. Hyperarousal from past trauma is experienced in the nervous system as a current event, even if a memory is present. When I work with a client during a catharsis, I look to see if he can be anchored; can he witness his experience from the inside rather than over-identifying or being totally in the emotions? “Can the adult in you see the experiences you are having right now?” This is a question I often ask my clients. “Where are you within all of that?” is another question. The focus of contemporary therapy is helping the client self-regulate their emotions from the inside rather than releasing them.

Integration is an expansion of one’s sense of self to include new experiences that were previously incompatible. I cannot reject my past or get rid of it by surgery or therapy. I can only integrate it to a higher level of functioning. To thoroughly understand integration requires knowledge of the variety of coping and defense mechanisms that clients use to shield themselves from experience.

The catharsis of inclusion includes the need to feel love and friendship. It is a deep and powerfully significant part of psycho-social functioning. Any therapist, whether psychology- or body-oriented, should never underestimate the need for inclusion as a source of motivation for all sorts of behavior. My sense of self naturally expands beyond my skin to include whatever groups or individuals I identify with in my life. For many reasons, people often feel alienated from others and this brings them to therapy. The therapeutic exchange of “helping and being helped, self-disclosure and empathy and forgiving and being forgiven are some of the components of the greater process of inclusion” (Slavson 1951).My experience has taught me that many of the currently popular approaches to healing trauma provide only temporary relief at best. Some cathartic methods that encourage intense emotional reliving of trauma may be harmful. I believe that in the long run, cathartic approaches create a dependency on continuing catharsis and encourage the emergence of so-called false memories. Because of the nature of trauma, there is a good chance that the cathartic reliving of an experience can be traumatizing rather than healing (Levine 1997, p 10).

Spiritual catharsis is the fourth type of catharsis. It occurs when a client feels a greater degree of wholeness, unitive consciousness, God, a higher power, a deeper power, etc. These states have historically been referred to as religious conversion, ecstasy, receiving the Holy Spirit, being Saved, mystical, an epiphany, etc. However, these states must be integrated into daily life and the ordinariness of existence. I may have an extraordinary realization and still abuse my kids when I get home. It is important to help clients work through or discover the meaning of such events and how to evoke deeper consciousness of the numinous on their own (Scheff 1977).

Emotional release work has two aspects to it. The first is the somatic element and the second is the cognitive element (Le Doux 1989). When a therapist focuses only on somatic sensate level, the work is only half done. The same can be true in psychotherapy, which tends to focus only on the cognitive (abstract) aspect of the emotions. Ideally then, a therapy that offers deep insight into change processes would offer somatic and cognitive integration. However, emotional release work is sometimes viewed as a quick fix and as a substitute for ongoing psychotherapy or more sophisticated body-centered approaches such as Somatic Experiencing, Bodynamics, Hakomi Integrative Somatics, Somato-Sensory Integration and Biodynamic Craniosacral Therapy. This is especially important in the case of repetitive shock trauma and deeper psychophysical problems.

The expression of affect in therapy becomes an end in itself, rather than a welcome by-product of the process of resolution of intrapsychic and interpersonal conflicts. Patients are encouraged and even exhorted to vent their feelings and express their impulses. At worst, unconscious conflicts and urges unacceptable to the patient are exposed triumphantly as soon as they are recognized by the therapist; partly in an attempt to elicit as much affect as possible and thereby drain the psychic abscess. The highly questionable implicit assumption is that catharsis contributes to internalized, lasting change.

…Furthermore there is danger that some patients’ defenses will not be merely penetrated but totally overrun, with adverse therapeutic results; the defenses may not reconstitute in adaptive fashion since the interpretative focus has been on the unconscious impulse and not on the coping mechanism; to deal with high levels of affect there may be prolonged regression, such as emergence of paranoid or schizoid symptoms or intense dependency upon the therapist. Even where these do not occur the message is transmitted to the patient that free expression of feeling and gratification of sexual and aggressive impulses are in themselves therapeutic. This encourages various forms of acting-out which often have adverse consequences for the patient and for others (Lowy 1970).

I would like to invite you to my next couple of trainings that I will be doing.  The first is called Biodynamic Work with CVS: The Heart, Face and Circulation.  This course will take place in Austin, Texas, February 18-21, 2016.  Please contact Ryan Hallford at to reserve your spot.

The next opportunity will take place at Cortiva Institute in Scottsdale, Arizona.  This course is called Craniosacral Therapy for Head Injuries: Rebalancing the Cerebrovascular System.  The course will take place February 26-28, 2016.  Please contact Kallie Gough at for registration information.  I look forward to seeing you soon.

One thought on “Release Based Cathartic Therapy: Cautions and Considerations”

  1. Abid bazmi says:

    catharsis is the purification of soul from old pains. it gives new life free from depression and bad thinking. there are many benefits of catharsis in routine life if we do it daily.

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