The most effective ways to lose your sh!t without losing your dignity.
My family has a semi-strict house rule about not sleeping with sharp objects.
Though my toddler had safely enjoyed playing with a screwdriver all afternoon, I slipped it out of her hand at bedtime.
What happened next was exactly what you’d expect from a 2 year old: she screamed like she was gutted for 5 minutes and then fell asleep for the next 12 hours.
I, on the other hand, had swallowed my disappointment over a botched Starbucks order 3 hours earlier and still felt its pressure in my throat.
I wondered, if I just lost my shit for 5 good minutes, would I feel less stressed overall? Would I slip into a peaceful sleep and wake up a new person?
As an anxious person, I am forever collecting techniques for calming my nerves, soothing, grasping at chill like it’s dollar bills in a wind machine. All this effort to stay level and contained? Of course the pressure builds.
What if I could let the rage and frustration pour out instead?
I started to research catharsis — the purging of emotions — noting what activities could tap the valve on my emotional pressure cooker.
Aristotle used the term catharsis for the emotional release we feel watching theater; 20th century psychoanalysts thought recalling and expressing emotions from past trauma would have a cleansing or cathartic effect on patients.
Today, we vent, brain dump, walk it off, and cry it out to wring negative emotions out of our minds and bodies.
A cathartic act should be something BIG and impactful, not timid or contained. But there’s the matter of not harming yourself or others — and not getting arrested.
In “Problem Solving Therapy in the Clinical Practice,” Mehmet Eskin wrote, “In order for catharsis to take place during therapy, the therapist should create a secure environment for the client. The critical point is liberating oneself from the psychological inhibitions.”
So, what are the best ways to shed our inhibitions and deliberately blow off steam, while staying relatively safe?
Take a walk, go for a run, do jumping jacks. Anything you might see a juiced-up 6 year old doing can be an outlet for negative emotions.
Try martial arts for a little cathartic boost of pretend aggression.
Bonus points for activities that induce a flood of adrenaline, like rock climbing, surfing, or riding rollercoasters. Add speed to fear and you have a recipe for an adrenaline rush.
If mobility is an issue, try progressive muscle relaxation. (I know it has “relaxation” in the name, but half of it involves tensing each muscle group in your body.)
Physical energy and mental energy are so enmeshed, using your body to burn energy has the bonus side effect of releasing emotional tension.
Screaming into your pillow is an obvious and accessible option. Head for an empty parking lot and scream in your car with the music blaring.
Writer Jerico Mandybur created Neo Tarot, a deck and book focused on self-care, and many of her suggested self-care activities have a cathartic element.
“Singing is a big one for me, because it’s a container in which you can give yourself permission to be louder and breathe more deeply than you might normally allow,” she said.
“Karaoke is especially cathartic in this way. I’ve booked a private karaoke room in the middle of the day and spent an hour singing or screaming the lyrics to angsty songs,” she said. “Suffice to say, you feel different when you step out.”
Telling your story — either by writing it down or speaking it aloud — is known to leave us feeling cleansed.
Consider the religious ritual of confession or the drive we feel from adolescence to put our secret thoughts down in diaries.
Mandybur also uses journaling and free writing to release emotions.
“I’ve been doing this kind of unfiltered diary writing my whole life, and not only has it helped me understand my TRUE feelings about things (never the first thing you write), but it’s helped me feel much lighter — as if something’s been lifted and released by expressing these emotions,” she said.
“You can burn the pages after for an added bit of magic and drama,” she adds. “It sends a great signal to your brain that those emotions or thoughts are now free.”
Like Mandybur said, there can be added release in burning the written expression of your emotions. Or maybe you know someone doing home renovations who would let you in on the demolition.
While destruction can provide an outlet for emotions, you can get some of the same release though creation.
Imagine throwing or smearing paint on a canvas or digging into clay with all your strength. Even some furious pencil sketching could provide a cathartic outlet.
Breath of Fire is a yoga breathing technique for building up to rapid, forceful breaths in order to cleanse and calm.
I don’t know if huffing like a winded dragon can heal the mind and body like some practitioners claim, but it feels good. It feels good like the moments just before — and just after — metaphorically kicking some ass.
Or you could try holotropic breathwork — breathing at a fast rate to alter “the balance between carbon dioxide and oxygen in the body.” When facilitated by a professional, the technique involves music, controlled breathing, and creative expression.
Rebirthing breathwork is another technique meant to release repressed emotions.
Scholars believe Aristotle meant for catharsis to occur in the context of viewing drama acted out on stage.
Eskin wrote, “If cathartic reactions are evoked by observing emotional scenes and processes in the environment, this is called dramatic relief. The individual’s experience of catharsis by observing the scenes in the external environment and feeling a great relief as a result is as old as the history of humanity and it is very common.”
Watch a movie or binge a series with intense drama, tragedy, or nefarious behavior. You may find that your own grief, anger, or dark fantasies are released as you sympathize with the emotions of fictional characters.
For a lighter emotional purge, take a deep dive into stupid YouTube videos that make you laugh out loud. With this and all cathartic activities, the key is to leave your self-consciousness at the door and just let everything pour out.
“I see catharsis as an essential part of expressing, processing, and releasing emotional tension that’s stored in the body,” Mandybur said. “Emotional states like shame or guilt are often born or strengthened by our negative thought patterns, so I encourage people to take a cathartic approach toward processing their thoughts, too.”
“Purging the body of an emotion we’ve been holding ourselves back from expressing is something that happens eventually,” she adds, “whether we want it to or not.”
Anna Lee Beyer writes about mental health, parenting, and books for Huffington Post, Romper, Lifehacker, Glamour, and others. Visit her on Facebook and Twitter.