Merriam-Webster Logo
  • Dictionary
  • Thesaurus
  • Scrabble
  • Spanish Central
  • Learner's Dictionary


noun, ca·thar·sis \kə-ˈthär-səs\

Simple Definition of catharsis

  • : the act or process of releasing a strong emotion (such as pity or fear) especially by expressing it in an art form

Source: Merriam-Webster's Learner's Dictionary

Full Definition of catharsis

plural catharses play \-ˌsēz\

  1. 1 :  purgation

  2. 2 a :  purification or purgation of the emotions (as pity and fear) primarily through art b :  a purification or purgation that brings about spiritual renewal or release from tension

  3. 3 :  elimination of a complex by bringing it to consciousness and affording it expression

Examples of catharsis in a sentence

  1. She has learned to have her catharsis, take a deep breath and move on. … she does not dwell on the negative anymore. —Selena Roberts, New York Times, 24 June 2001

  2. … malevolence is expressed in his decision to absent himself from the courtroom, thereby denying some victims of his torture the catharsis of compelling him to hear their stories of survival. —George F. Will, Newsweek, 25 May 1987

  3. … there's the need for catharsis. If you play it all back a second time, you may wear away some of the pain, as you wear away a record with replaying. —Anatole Broyard, New York Times Book Review, 14 Nov. 1982

  4. As soon as we emerged from the gates of the White House, I became aware of that sea of faces. … I wanted to cry for them and with them, but it was impossible to permit the catharsis of tears. —Lady Bird Johnson, 24 Nov. 1963, in A White House Diary, 1970

  5. Acting is a means of catharsis for her.

  6. Painting is a catharsis for me.

Word History of catharsis and cathartic

Catharsis and cathartic both trace to the Greek word kathairein, meaning “to cleanse, purge.” Catharsis entered English as a medical term having to do with purging the body—and especially the bowels—of unwanted material. The adjective cathartic entered English with a meaning descriptive of such a physically cleansing purge. It didn’t take long for people to start using these words figuratively in reference to emotional release and spiritual cleansing.

Origin of catharsis

New Latin, from Greek katharsis, from kathairein to cleanse, purge, from katharos

First Known Use: circa 1775

Medical Dictionary


noun ca·thar·sis

Medical Definition of catharsis

plural catharses also katharses \-ˌsēz\play

  1. 1:  purgation

  2. 2:  elimination of a complex by bringing it to consciousness and affording it expression—compare abreaction

Variants of catharsis

also katharsis \kə-ˈthär-səs\play

Seen and Heard

What made you want to look up catharsis? Please tell us where you read or heard it (including the quote, if possible).


the range of perception or understanding

Get Word of the Day daily email!


Take a 3-minute break and test your skills!


Which of these is a synonym of nonplus?

disapprove perplex reduce soothe
Name That Thing

Test your visual vocabulary with our 10-question challenge!


Test Your Knowledge - and learn some interesting things along the way.