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Express Yourself

Scream and Yell and You’ll Feel Better… or Will You?

Catharsis theory, derived from the Greek word katharsis, meaning to cleanse or purge, suggests that “acting aggressively or even viewing aggression is an effective way to purge angry and aggressive feelings”. This links directly back to Freud who proposed that repressed emotions could manifest as psychopathology and that the treatment for hysteria involved the discharge of negative emotions associated with the original trauma. Adherence to this view led practitioners to suggest those who experienced rage express it overtly by punching a pillow, smashing crockery or yelling inside their car. It may feel good at the time but is it really the best advice?

A study by Bushman (2002) suggests it may not be. He compared two groups of angered subjects, a rumination group who were urged to hit a punching bag while they thought about the person who had wronged them and a distraction group who were encouraged to think about getting fit. Each group was then asked to report how angry they felt and given the chance to administer loud blasts of noise to their offender. The author concludes ’For reducing anger and aggression, the worst possible advice to give people is to tell them to imagine their provocateur’s face on a pillow or punching bag as they wallop it, yet this is precisely what many pop psychologists advise people to do. If followed, such advice will only make people angrier and more aggressive’. Helping our dysregulated clients manage strong feelings requires something different and relational rather than a punching bag and box of old china.


Bushman, B. (2002)Does Venting Anger Feed or Extinguish the Flame? Catharsis, Rumination, Distraction, Anger, and Aggressive Responding. PSPB, Vol. 28 No. 6, June 2002 724-731 © 2002 by the Society for Personality and Social Psychology, Inc.

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