Freud was wrong about catharsis

Why does the “talking cure” pioneered by Sigmund Freud and his students help relieve anxiety, depression and other mental illnesses?

Freud famously taught that psychotherapy helped the patient achieve catharsis, or purging of the emotions. This was helpful, Freud thought, because he imagined that our emotions exist in a closed hydraulic system like a steam engine and that we need to relieve the pressure from time to time to remain healthy. Learn to express your anger or recover your repressed memories, the theory says, and you’ll be cured.


But is that really the way psychotherapy works? University of California, Riverside psychologist Sonja Lyubomirsky, in her great book The How of Happiness, cites research that refutes the catharsis hypothesis.

Researcher James Pennebaker instructed people to write in a journal about their emotional traumas, and discovered that afterwards they were happier and healthier. In the months following their writing sessions they made fewer visits to a doctor and reported less depression and distress. (Lyubomirsky, page 164).

But was this due to catharsis? Well… no. The The key seemed to be finding the meaning of the trauma. Lyubomirsky says:

…writing about the experience in a journal forces you to organize and integrate those thoughts and images into a coherent narrative. Language by its nature is highly structured; indeed the very act of writing sentences may prompt you to think in causal terms, thereby triggering an analysis that could help you find meaning, enhanced understanding, and, ultimately, a sense of control. For example, Pennebaker and his colleagues found that the more people used causal words (e.g. because, infer, cause) and insight words (e.g. understand, realize, see) over the course of their writing sessions about a distressing topic, the bigger the improvements they experienced in their health. (Lyubomirsky, page 165).

You can hear Lyubomirsky talk about her book in this Feb. 18, 2009 interview on the Writers on Writing radio show broadcast from the University of California, Irvine. The Lyubomirsky interview is in the second half of the show, so you’ll want to fast-forward past the first 33 minutes.

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Human happiness

This entry was posted in Academic podcasts, Books, Health, Idea of the week, Psychology, Writing and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to Freud was wrong about catharsis

  1. Ashana M says:

    It seems to me our continued cultural belief in the benefits of catharsis does us a great deal of harm. It prevents people from persisting with the work of making meaning from trauma because they expect that merely expressing the emotions of the trauma will help. Thanks for drawing attention to this so clearly.

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