The English word catharsis comes from a Greek word that means "cleansing" or "purification." The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines catharsis as the following:
purification or purgation of the emotions (such as pity or fear) primarily through art; a purification or purgation that brings about spiritual renewal or release from tension; or, elimination of a complex by bringing it to consciousness and affording it expression.
We see here the two main areas in which catharsis is used: in an artistic sense and in a psychological sense.
In his work called Poetics, Aristotle refers to catharsis in reference to the effects of tragedies on an audience. A tragic play evokes "terror and pity," bringing these emotions to the surface and thus purifying the audience of them. For instance, in Romeo and Juliet by William Shakespeare, the death of the two lovers would be a cathartic moment. In the film Titanic, the cathartic moment would be when Jack dies on the piece of floating ice to save Rose. These moments, though tragic, provide audiences with intense emotional release.
The Psychology Dictionary says that catharsis
in psychoanalytic therapy, refers to the therapeutic discharge of all affects connected with grief, loss, or any traumatic event. It returns these events back into one's consciousness, while allowing the release of strong yet long pent-up emotions which may have been previously repressed.
Catharsis as a therapeutic technique was first defined by Josef Breuer, a colleague of Sigmund Freud. He used hypnosis to help patients recall traumatic experiences from their pasts.
Catharsis is also used to describe emotional moments that help people change in a positive way. After tragedies have occurred, people use various methods to bring on catharsis, even outside formal psychological therapy. For example, a cathartic release of emotions can be brought about through music, painting, writing, exercise, or volunteering to help others.