Catharsis in its simplest form is the purge of emotion through work, especially through forms of art such as drama. It is often a discharge of stored up emotions that otherwise would not have an acceptable way of release. In essence, it is a way for the mind to deal with something through cathartic release. Catharsis also represents the physical discharge of matter from the body, especially the clearing of the bowels.
The English word catharsis is a relatively recent word conceived from the Greek adjective καθαρός and the verb καθαίρειν, katharos and kathairein respectively. Both mean to cleanse and to purge and represent close similarity to another correct form of catharsis – katharsis. In the sense of physical excrement, the word catharsis was first utilized in 1803 as part of Medical and Physical Journal, “Causing vomiting, catharsis, or diabetes.” The definition of catharsis meaning the purification of emotions first came to use in 1867 within John Addington Symonds’ letters.
Historically, the topic of catharsis has been thoroughly discussed by various Greek philosophers. Aristotle uses the word frequently in Poetics, his work of dramatic theory, to describe the effect of tragedy in a drama on the audience. However, he never actually gives a definition for the word, leading to different interpretations by various scholars. One interpretation is the definition for the word used today. It came about by studying the earlier works of Aristotle. Prior to Poetics, Aristotle used catharsis as a medical metaphor for the purge and release of bodily fluids and emotion. Such is the reason purgation and purification is the associated definitions with catharsis.
Catharsis is also associated with behaviour that allows for the purgation of emotion from our bodies or minds. For example, philosophers have thought that one of the reasons horror movies appeal so much to people is because it is a way for us to purge our inner evils. This way, our feelings are manifested instead of being trapped, unhealthily within ourselves. Similarly, enjoyment of violent activities such as full contact sports is a form of catharsis for our violent urges.
In psychoanalysis, catharsis is used as a form of medicine where victims of traumatizing experiences were hypnotized so they could revisit their trauma. By revisiting their trauma, there was a tendency for the victims to express the original emotions felt at the time of the trauma that was by now forgotten or repressed. This led the victim to be relieved of the trauma – catharsis through abreaction.
"catharsis, n." OED Online, accessed November 21, 2012, Oxford University Press.
"Aristotle: Poetics." Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy, accessed November 21, 2012