One of the things that I have always loved about martial arts is the cathartic effect it has. I can be in the worst mood, and all I need is a good hour of solid training to purge the strong emotions that are dragging me down.
At least, this was what I thought was going on. There have been some very interesting discoveries made in psychological research that are shedding light on the realities of catharsis. From a Greek word that means “cleansing” or “purging”, catharsis is a psychological theory that has gained a lot of traction in popular culture. Simply put, the idea is that negative emotions build up if not released and that the best release is through expression. So if you are angry, expressing your anger by yelling or hitting something should make you feel better. And in general, I think people believe this to be true. I certainly have held to this belief in examining my experience in martial arts (which is, of course, filled with yelling and hitting things).
Part of how this became so fixed in people’s understanding of emotions was a result of Sigmund Freud. His theory was that acting aggressively, or even simply viewing aggression, would release pent up aggression in his patients and thus cleanse them of the harmful emotions. This lead to the “hydraulic” model of anger that predicted bottled up frustration would become anger. Unvented anger would then erupt in an explosion of rage if the pressure wasn’t effectively released. So, as the theory goes, letting anger out in small, controlled bursts prevents destructive buildup.
So, if this is true, a person’s experience of anger should decrease if they are offered opportunities to vent through small expressions of aggression or opportunities to view aggression. Research studies do not seem to support this theory, though.
In one of the first studies of the cathartic effect, participants received insults during a session with researchers. Then, half of the participants spent 10 minutes hammering nails, the other half did not. Afterwards, they were all given a chance to discuss the person who had insulted them. Surprisingly, those who hammered nails (an activity perfectly designed to express anger), were more critical of their insulters than those who did not.
Cognitive neoassociation theory has a different view. This theory states that negative experiences give rise to negative emotions (fear or anger) which then give rise to negative thoughts. These feeling and thoughts become knit together, along with associated actions (aggressive behavior, for instance). As one aspect of the negativity is stimulated, the whole network draws energy. If you have a bundle of anger, and something happens (an experience) that makes you angry, the whole bundle becomes stronger. By the same token, the theory predicts that angry behavior, such as hammering nails after being insulted, will increase the feelings of anger and strengthen the memory of that which made you angry in the first place.
Additionally, cognitive neoassociation theory predicts that anything that increases your thinking around negative emotions, like contemplating how much you hate your boss, will compound this process. This type of thinking is called rumination. It includes any inwardly directed attention, particularly when focused on the source of one’s bad mood, and is encouraged by proponents of catharsis theory. Ever wanted to hit a punching bag because of a rough day at work? Wouldn’t it be better if you taped a picture of your boss on that bag?
Apparently not. In one study, college students read a story about a professor who treated a student unfairly. To increase their anger, they were told to put themselves in the shoes of the student in the story. Half of the participants then wrote on a topic related to their emotions and understanding of how they think. The other half wrote about completely unrelated, irrelevant topics. Afterwards, members of the group that wrote on a ruminating topic showed much higher levels of anger than did those who wrote on unrelated topics.
Similarly, another test distracted half of its participants with math problems after they received insults. Those who did the math problems also had lower levels of anger than those who did not.
Finally, a study using 600 college students began with all of the participants receiving insults from a fictional fellow student about something they had written. They were then divided into rumination, distraction and control groups. The rumination group was given a punching bag and told to hit it as long as they wanted. While punching the bag, they were told to think about the person who had insulted their writing. Additionally, a picture of the person they were told had insulted them was displayed during the session.
Members of the distraction group were also presented with a punching bag, and told to hit as long as they wanted, but were told to think about becoming physically fit. They were shown a picture of an athlete from a health magazine.
The control group was not given a punching bag. Instead participants sat with a researcher who simply worked on a computer and did not interact with them.
At the end, they were questioned to evaluate their levels of anger. They then participated in a “contest” with the fictional student who they were told was in another room. The contest was a staged reaction test where participants pushed a button as quickly as possible after a cue. If they were faster than their fictional adversary, then their imaginary opponent received a sound blast through headphones. The intensity of the blast was determined beforehand by the participant and was used to determine their level of aggression towards their insulter.
The results? Those in the rumination group showed the highest levels of anger and aggression, showing that venting did not create a better mood. Those who were in the distraction group had less anger, but similar levels of aggression. The control group showed significantly less anger and aggression.
So where is the cathartic effect that I’ve been enjoying for more than two decades of martial arts training? For me, the answer lies in two experiences I remember from my first weeks as a white belt student. The first was while I was stretching before class. I was new in the Dojang, and I really didn’t know many people. So, I was in a corner by myself, listening to other students chatting about their day and generally catching up. Suddenly, my instructor came out of his office and called everyone to attention. He told us that we were there to train, not socialize. He appreciated the fact that there were such great friendships in the school, but the chatting should wait for after class. Before class, we should be preparing our bodies and minds for training.
What my instructor told the class set the tone for my experience of training from then on. I developed a habit of using mental preparation and meditation to set the tone for my workouts, something that both insured my full focus and separated my training from the distractions of everyday life.
The second event was a class I was not excited about. I was going through a very difficult breakup which had me in a very bad mood. To make it worse, I had wrecked my motorcycle on the way to the Dojang. I was okay, but my brand new bike had a lot of cosmetic damage. Needless to say, I was not in the mood for training.
The class was grueling. Afterwards, while changing out of my soaked Dobok, I knew I had been in a bad mood but could not remember what about. I felt good. Well, at least until I got back out into the parking lot and saw my motorcycle. But even as the memory of why I had been upset returned, I didn’t find my mood becoming as dark as it had been before training.
Reflections of these events play out in all of my memories of my most “cathartic” training sessions, and I realize as I look back that my moods would change for the better when I trained not because of venting, but because I was able to separate myself from my bad mood. I was focused on my training and not on the emotion I had been feeling earlier. This gave me a more objective perspective on things afterwards and made it easier for me to let go of anger and fear.
Meditation can also be helpful toward this end and has been a central part of my martial arts experience.
I recommend that you find something that provides a similar benefit for you. Of course, I am biased towards martial arts and will always encourage people to try it out for themselves. But in the end, it is important for you to find something that works for you, whatever it turns out to be.