Mental Health

Cathartic release: how to release ‘pent-up’ emotions in a healthy and productive way

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Lauren Geall
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Are you feeling emotionally ‘pent-up’ after the stress of the last year? Here’s how to find a sense of release, according to a psychotherapist. 

Out of all the things we deal with as humans, our emotions are some of the most complex. Not only are they the driving force behind many of our daily decisions – you might lash out or act impulsively if you’re feeling frustrated or angry, for example – but failing to understand and deal with your emotions can have negative consequences.

You see, while we’re often taught how to “cope” and “move on” from hurtful or upsetting situations, pushing down your emotions when they arise can make them harder to deal with. In fact, a 2011 study from the University of Texas found that, when you avoid or bottle up your emotions, you actually make them stronger. 

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And ‘pushing down’ your emotions can take its toll on your health, too; poor emotional wellbeing can contribute to mental health issues such as anxiety and depression, and cause physical symptoms such as headaches and digestive problems.

In short, being able to express and experience your emotions – and knowing how to deal with any pent-up feelings you might be holding onto, is incredibly important to your overall wellbeing. And that’s where the concept of a ‘cathartic release’ comes in.

If you’ve ever revelled in the magic of a good cry, you’ll know how beneficial cathartic release can be. Put simply, it’s a release of emotions – a way to process and let go of whatever’s going on inside your head.  

“A lot of energy is expended pushing things down,” explains Floss Knight, psychotherapist and founding director of the UK Therapy Guide. “Cathartic release is about having the opportunity to express all of that stuff.”

Of course, as you’ll also know if you’re a fan of a good cry, a cathartic release won’t solve all of your problems – but it can certainly help to make things feel a little more manageable when you’re feeling pent-up.

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The only problem? As satisfying as it may be, sometimes crying just isn’t feasible – maybe you find you can’t cry in the moment, or simply don’t feel comfortable doing so.

In these situations, what other forms of cathartic release can you turn to? To find out more, we asked Knight to talk us through some of the best ways to release and deal with pent-up emotions. Here’s what she had to say. 

Write it down 

A woman writing in her diary to process emotions
Writing down how you're feeling is a great way to process and reflect upon what's going on inside.

The physical act of writing down how you’re feeling can be seriously powerful. It’s likely why so many people swear by keeping a diary – not only does writing your emotions down on a daily basis help you to cultivate awareness around how you’re feeling, but it’s also incredibly cathartic.

“By keeping a daily diary, you’re taking time to understand what’s going on and giving yourself a point of reflection,” Knight explains. “It’s an exercise which helps you to get rid of stuff and see it clearer.”

Once you’ve written everything down, following a ritual – like burning the paper you’ve written on or putting your diary away in a box – can also be helpful, Knight adds.  

Move your body

One of the reasons why crying is such an effective form of cathartic release is because it enables you to let go and allow your body to take over. In a similar way, the movement and effort involved in exercise also helps to give you that sense of release.

While any kind of bodily movement is a good way to achieve this, certain types of exercise – such as yoga and swimming – are extra effective.

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“Yoga is particularly good because it requires you to breathe out – you’re breathing out the toxins, and you’re breathing out that pressure,” Knight explains. “You’re doing all those things that co-ordinate your mind and body.” 

She continues: “Swimming is also really good because, when you’re doing normal exercise, your muscles are generally tensed [so you’re holding onto some of that pressure]. But when you’re swimming, you can relax, because it’s non-weight bearing, and you’ve got to breathe deeply. There’s something very releasing about that.” 

Try dancing 

Three women dancing on the bed
Dancing with friends enables you to let loose and express yourself.

While dancing may be a form of exercise, Knight says the added experience of dancing with friends – to a club, when they reopen, or in the comfort of your own home – makes it an extra effective way to let go.

Going dancing is absolutely fabulous,” she says. “The natural euphoric sense of going out with your mates dancing is really effective – there’s a real freedom there and a loss of control.” 

Get loud 

It’s not often that we let ourselves make lots of noise, so any circumstance where you’re able to let loose and shout from the rooftops is a great way to let go and achieve that sense of release.

For Knight, that comes in the form of attending football matches. “One of the things that I love to do – and I’ve been doing it nearly my entire life – is go to football matches,” she says.

“It’s a great form of cathartic release because you can have a good old shout and be with people, and that in itself is a really good release of any pent-up emotions.” 

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If you’re not a fan of football, or don’t fancy spending lots of money on a ticket, why not try joining a choir or attending karaoke with friends?

Any situation where you feel comfortable letting loose and shouting (or singing) as loud as possible is a great way to find release.  

Talk it out 

Two women talking in the park
Talking to your friends about how you're feeling not only helps you to come to terms with how you're feeling, but also puts you in a position to receive support.

It may not be as physically freeing as some of the above suggestions, but talking to your friends about how you’re feeling – and listening to how they’re feeling, too – is a great way to unpick your emotional state.

“Talking to people is really, really helpful because it gives you a point of identification and recognition for your feelings,” Knight explains.

“As humans, we want to understand and be understood, and while I would never recommend going around telling everybody about everything, opening up to those you trust and have a level of intimacy with can be very effective.”

“To be heard, held and understood is an absolutely key facet of human existence.” 

If you, or someone you know, is struggling with their mental health or emotional wellbeing, you can find support and resources on the mental health charity Mind’s website and NHS Every Mind Matters or access the NHS’ guide to local mental health helplines and organisations here.

If you are struggling, you can also ask your GP for a referral to NHS Talking Therapies, or you can self-refer.

You can also call the Samaritans in the UK on 116 123 or email jo@samaritans.org for confidential support.

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Lauren Geall

As Stylist’s digital writer, Lauren Geall writes on topics including mental health, wellbeing and work. She’s also a big fan of houseplants and likes to dabble in film and TV from time-to-time.

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