Does catharsis induce mindcoolness?
Does shouting curses at a hated person’s picture help to “release poisonous anger”? Does smashing a car with a sledgehammer help to “blow off steam”? Does a full-intensity round on the heavy bag help to “cleanse the soul”? Would it make you a better, freer, more authentic human being if you exercised emotional discharge on a regular basis? Should you practice catharsis to optimize your mental health?
Think about a man who rarely or never expresses anger. He must be stifled, emotionally repressed, right? And to grow free from his self-inhibition, he should express his anger in a safe environment, right? This is the idea of therapeutic catharsis: that aggressive behavior relieves the psychological pressure created by pent-up anger. Spoiler alert: If you believe this nonsense, you have been successfully deluded by the pseudopsychology presented in the mass media and self-help industry.
Many modern self-improvement seminars are built on the illusion of cathartic release. You pay for the seminar. You clap and jump and yell and “release your stifled emotions.” You are taught that this is what authenticity, what freedom feels like, and you feel empowered—at least until you revert to your normal self, longing for the next seminar to re-spike your emotions.
There is nothing wrong with feeling good at a seminar (although you might get the same feelings cheaper at a metal/hardcore show), but the underlying narrative is simply false. It assumes that there is some kind of emotional vessel in the human bodymind that gets filled with anger (“bottled-up anger”), filled by negative experiences, filled over days, weeks, months, or even years, until it explodes or the anger is vented. In reality, no such vessel exists. Emotions come and go. They do not settle in the human soul, they do not accumulate, they do not require expression to pass. By their nature, emotions come and go on their own.
However, instead of venting emotions, cathartic anger expression could still break patterns of compulsive emotion suppression—if only by adding a new strategy (namely, expression) to one’s emotion regulation arsenal. But there are at least four problems with that:
- Why would it have to be a cathartic process of screaming, shouting, bag-punching, and pillow-pounding, rather than, say, calmly verbalizing the anger or writing about it?
- How is physical expression better than well-researched emotion regulation strategies such as acceptance and reappraisal?
- Would reliance on catharsis, which involves a powerful bodily experience, not even discourage the use of abstract cognitive strategies?
- Most importantly, to what extent can cathartic release, which typically happens in a safe environment without negative consequences and without a real trigger of anger, actually break a chronic pattern of anger suppression?
From my personal experience, I can tell you that years of untargeted screaming and being aggressive in the gym did in no way alter how I express my anger towards other people.
What does the science say?
Looking at the immediate effects of physical catharsis,* the scientific consensus is clear: it does not mitigate, but increase anger. Here are some key studies:
- In Hornberger’s (1959) experiment, participants were first insulted and then asked either to pound nails with a hammer or to do nothing for ten minutes. Rather than having a cathartic effect, the aggressive act of pounding nails increased hostility toward the insulter.
- Geen and Quanty (1977) reviewed all the data available by that time and concluded that catharsis makes people not less, but more aggressive; Warren and Kurlychek (1981) found the same.
- Bushman (2002) had participants write an essay about abortion, for which they received fake negative feedback—”poorly organized,” “unoriginal,” “bad writing style,” “unpersuasive arguments,” “one of the worst essays I have read!”—by another participant, who did not exist. With the anger induced by this bogus criticism, participants hit a punching bag while thinking either about the other participant or about becoming physically fit; some did not punch the bag at all. Afterwards, they all played an aggressive game where they could punish the alleged other participant with blasts of loud white noise. The results: Thinking about the other participant while hitting the bag (i.e., catharsis) did not reduce, but increase self-reported anger and game-related aggression. Hitting the bag generally increased aggression, whereas those who did nothing but sit quietly for two minutes after they read the criticism were the least aggressive. The authors concluded that “venting to reduce anger is like using gasoline to put out a fire—it only feeds the flame.”
- In a similar study, Bushman and colleagues (1999) found that people who hit a punching bag were more aggressive afterwards, even if—and especially if—they had been led to believe that catharsis is highly effective. Therefore, catharsis does not even work as a self-fulfilling prophecy; and not only does it not work: it makes people who believe in it even more aggressive.
Catharsis does not “release trapped anger.” On the contrary, catharsis produces and reinforces anger. By yelling out loud, we trigger our body to activate the sympathetic nervous system, putting us in a fight-or-flight state, which, among other things, gives us an adrenalin rush. This has everything to do with basic human physiology and nothing with freedom, personal development, spiritual growth, or psychological healing. Yet, of course, it is a nice trick for self-help gurus to sell seminars and therapeutic charlatans to sell counseling.
The trick works because, despite being counterproductive for anger management, physical catharsis feels really good. It feels good to yell, smash, and go berserk without having to worry about negative consequences—not, however, because emotion expression is freedom, but because movement feels good and because aggression feels good. After all, aggressive behavior boosts testosterone, which is a hormone that feels good to have.
Try lifting heavy weights while yelling on every rep like a rabid maniac—let it all out! Again, you are not “letting out” anything, except air and loud noises. In reality, you are building up anger and adding to your aggression, to your feeling of power, to your sense of strength.
It feels good to be aggressive, and if there are no negative consequences or moral judgments to worry about, it even feels good to be angry. This is why so many people in a frenzy of rage actually want to be feeling that way—they want their anger. It makes them feel positive, powerful, and alive, at least for the moment. Compare that to someone in a whirl of anxiety who would give everything to stop feeling anxious. How many people take medication against anger, compared to anxiety? I would even hypothesize that once anger feels bad, it has already turned into shame or guilt, and that that is the negatively valenced emotion, rather than the anger itself.
Finally, catharsis might induce mindcoolness, though not by “releasing anger,” “letting off steam,” or “cleansing the soul.” These mythical metaphors have nothing to do with how emotions really work. Catharsis can cool the mind only by deflecting attention away from emotional thoughts and toward action, movement, and bodily exertion. To the extent, however, that an aggressive behavior is cognitively associated with aggressive ideas, catharsis will heat up the mind by triggering thoughts of anger, hate, and retaliation. Thus, to enter a state of mindcoolness, forget about catharsis, forget about anger, forget about feelings, and be serenely aware of your body taking action, exerting itself aggressively in the present moment.
- Catharsis does not release trapped emotions, cleanse your soul, or set you free; it probably cannot even break chronic patterns of emotion suppression.
- According to experimental studies, physical catharsis is a counterproductive practice in aggression: instead of reducing anger, it reinforces it.
- Aggressive behaviors like yelling and punching feel good because they elevate testosterone levels and trigger a fight-or-flight response.
- Anger might actually be a positively valenced emotion, related to a sense of strength and vitality.
- Catharsis may cool the mind by deflecting attention toward physical activity, but it may also heat the mind by means of cognitive association.
* For other, non-physical forms of catharsis (e.g., verbalizing hostility, expressive writing, or playing video games), scientific studies have produced mixed results.
Bushman BJ (2002). Does Venting Anger Feed or Extinguish the Flame? Catharsis, Rumination, Distraction, Anger, and Aggressive Responding. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin 28(6), 724-731.
Bushman BJ, Baumeister RJ, Stack AD (1999). Catharsis, Aggression, and Persuasive Influence: Self-Fulfilling or Self-Defeating Prophecies? Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 76(3), 367-376.
Geen RG, Quanty MB (1977). The catharsis of aggression: An evaluation of a hypothesis. Advances in Experimental Psychology 10, 1-37.
Hornberger RH (1959). The differential reduction of aggressive responses as a function of interpolated activities. American Psychologist 14, 354.
Warren R, Kurlychek RT (1981). Treatment of maladaptive anger and aggression: Catharsis vs behavior therapy. Corrective and Social Psychiatry and Journal of Behavior Technology Methods and Therapy 27, 135-139.
- Is Suppressing Emotions Bad For You? (Jocko Willink Vs. Science)
- On Being an Aggressive Alpha Male
- How Anger Arises in the Body
- The Truth about Testosterone: Aggression, Sex, and Social Status
- Why Every Man Should Practice Aggressive Sports
- To Control Your Emotions, Understand and Label Them (Affect Labeling)