Catharsis and abreaction in the history of psychological healing

Psychiatr Clin North Am. 1994 Sep;17(3):471-91.


With roots in ancient religious practices of purification and cleansing and in ancient medicine's purgings, Plato evolved a verbal catharsis for diseases of the soul, and Aristotle developed a catharsis of the passions through tragic drama. Through the centuries, most cultures have had recognized contexts in which emotions were evoked, heightened in intensity, and ultimately released or discharged; and cathartic procedures can be detected in many cultures' healing practices. The late decades of the nineteenth century saw the emergence of numerous psychological healings with a cathartic basis. Catharsis came to mean the lively remembering of a traumatic experience in addition to the emotional release; and the term abreaction frequently was used to refer to the emotional release. Subsequently, the notion that the recovered traumatic memories needed to be integrated with the rest of the patient's mental life became a third significant element. The significance of these three factors has been debated vigorously; but, whether it has been some combination of them or merely the emotional discharge, there has been a cathartic element in many twentieth-century approaches to psychological healing.

Publication types

  • Historical Article
  • Portrait

MeSH terms

  • Abreaction*
  • Catharsis*
  • Europe
  • Greece
  • History, 16th Century
  • History, 17th Century
  • History, 18th Century
  • History, 19th Century
  • History, 20th Century
  • History, Ancient
  • Humans
  • Psychotherapy / history*
  • Rome
  • United States