Release Based Cathartic Therapy: Cautions and Considerations

Today I would like to start posting on emotional release work. I wrote this as part of my dissertation a few years ago and it is still relevant. All of the references will be posted in the final blog of this series.

Since the days of Mesmer, certain forms of therapy in the West have also mobilized intense emotions. In mesmeric sessions, the female patients sat about the baquet (a container filled with magnetized water) holding hands and pressing their knees together to facilitate the flow of magnetic fluid, and , touching the diseased parts of their bodies from time to time with iron rods that had been dipped into the baquet. Then the assistant magnetizers entered, strong handsome young men who massaged the ladies in various ways and stared intently into their eyes, to the accompaniment of “a few wild notes on the harmonica…or the piano-forte, or the melodious voice of a hidden opera singer…Gradually the cheeks of the ladies began to glow, their imaginations became inflamed; and off they went, one after the other, in convulsive fits.” Some of the convulsions lasted more than three hours. Then Mesmer, dressed in an elegant silk robe, would solemnly enter and touch each patient with his magnetic white wand, quickly restoring them “to sensibility and sometimes to health” (Frank 1961, p. 251).

Emotions have many meanings. They represent a visceral change in terms of the physiology of the gastrointestinal system (Donaldson 1971). Emotions are neurological events (Ekman et al. 1983, Heller 1990). Emotion is an observable behavior. It is a feeling. It is a need. It is an instinct, and many people are instinct impaired. It is an intelligence (Goleman 1995). It is a significant experience. It is an energy. It is meaning (Hillman 1971). It is a developmental process. Emotions are both organizing and disorganizing forces. Emotion is a hypothetical construct (Lewis & Haviland 1993). Emotions are posture and structure (Keen 1970, Rolf 1980, Feldenkrais 1948). Emotions are social interactions (Schacter & Singer 1962). Clearly, there are many meanings to emotions, how they are constructed and their purpose.
Emotions are vital sources of information about self identity and individual needs as well as behaviors necessary to get those needs. Emotions can motivate us to act in self-correcting ways as long as they are expressed appropriately rather than holding on to them. Whatever emotions might be, they are certainly a source of connection between the mind, the body and the stimulus to act (Dafter 1996). Theorists have suggested that the number of primary emotions vary from six to nine, from which there is a wide range of more subtle affective experience (Plutchnik 1980).
It is important to make distinctions between emotional release and an affect. An affect may be an emotion, a behavior, a feeling, a mood linked to an image usually from a traumatic experience. Further distinctions must be made between those terms and abreaction which is the short form of saying emotional release. Catharsis is a stronger form of abreaction that includes specific memories and reliving an event. Emotional release is usually accompanied by crying and/or body movement. Emotional release or abreaction also has an equally important cognitive component (Safran & Greenberg 1991). I am neurologically wired to experience sensations and generate feelings. Cognition is one link between sensation and emotions. I constantly sense the physicality underlying my emotions. Next it is necessary to communicate what I feel. Processing my feeling states with others is crucial to healing. Finally I am driven to understand the meaning of my feelings/emotions. There are no negative emotions. There are only blocked emotions which are considered an impediment to health and healing. (Spiegel, Bloom & Kraemer 1989).
Any single act of emotional release or catharsis only provides temporary release or pleasure. It is important to understand how physical energy stagnates in the body and that there are sophisticated processes for redistributing and organizing it. This process corresponds to the complex of motivations, values and beliefs that clients have and the many situations in which they would be involved (Schafer 1970). Please bear in mind during this chapter that the point of view being presented is that the majority of health professionals question the validity of catharsis (Biaggio 1986).
Massage therapists often witness their clients releasing emotions, which may lead them to want to facilitate such releases. This would be a dual relationship—massage and psychotherapy–which may be challenging without some depth of training and knowledge of the psychology of client/therapist relationships. Recently, techniques such as holitropic breath work, rebirthing and somato-emotional release (SER) have given massage therapists an opportunity to intentionally invite emotional responses in clients. These therapies are the vestiges of the pop psychologies of the 1960’s. When the culture turned the corner in the 1960’s, it dramatically entered the information age in which the stability of the 50’s and 60’s changed to chaos, speed and a world economy or global village. This chaos resulted in significant body adaptations and compensation. These are syndromes, viruses, anxiety, depression, rare diseases, cancer, and many other physical problems. Catharsis therapies were an important part of therapy in that era, especially for the rigid minds and bodies of the 1950’s, but they’ve lost their relevance for the post-modern contemporary client struggling with deep metabolic problems. Today what is greatly needed is a training of gentleness and kindness rather than release and catharsis.


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.