The idea that screaming out loud could be therapeutic was formalized by psychotherapist Arthur Janov, PhD, in the 1970s as primal scream therapy. Dr. Janov believed mental-health issues or neuroses that presented in adulthood stemmed from repressed childhood trauma, or “primal pain,” and that this trauma/pain could be released by screaming, under the guidance of a therapist. The theory generated buzz (John Lennon and Yoko Ono were patients of Dr. Janov), but many therapists have since questioned the efficacy of scream therapy as a formal treatment. Still, that’s not to say there are no benefits to utilizing it in addition to science-backed therapeutic practices.
United Kingdom-based psychotherapist Zoë Aston, NCAC, who recently partnered with Iceland on the “Let It Out” tourism initiative, which allowed participants to virtually scream into various Icelandic landscapes, says anxiety and depression can stem from a resistance to feeling our feelings. Meaning, not screaming (or seeking other forms of catharsis) may contribute to worse feelings. “Both [feelings] stem from the same place, which is when we’ve got a buildup of feelings and we don’t know how to cope with them or process them,” Aston says. She describes these unexamined emotions like electric charges from a shock that need to find an “exit wound” from which to escape, only that hatch doesn’t exist. Various forms of therapy can help create an escape route for those trapped feelings.
“[Screaming] creates a chemical reaction that is similar to the one you get when you exercise—you get a dopamine hit and some endorphins going.” —psychotherapist Zoë Aston
While some criticism of primal scream therapy includes that it only offers temporary catharsis without any processing, Aston doesn’t believe this truth renders the entire practice useless. Instead, she says, scream therapy can be used in conjunction with traditional therapies, as a mental-health workout, of sorts. “It creates a chemical reaction that is similar to the one you get when you exercise—you get a dopamine hit and some endorphins going,” she says, noting that scream therapy can also help to release buildup of the stress hormone cortisol.
Taryn Toomey, founder of boutique fitness sensation The Class, works under a similar premise when integrating non-verbal noise into her studio’s workouts. “The use of sound can be therapeutic when feeling frustration, tension, or contraction in the body or mind,” she says. “Think about all the times when you’ve felt like there was pressure inside of you from a conversation, an experience, or something that has gone unexpressed. In The Class, we invite students to bring those things into the room, and use sound as a portal to clean them from the body and mind as we move.”
There may be other benefits of letting out a scream. Aston notes that in some societies, and for some populations, making loud noise is discouraged. Expressions of anger may also be shamed. “There are cultural norms that prevent people from engaging in particular ways of expressing feelings,” she says. “When you do the screaming thing, not only are you giving yourself a chance to release pent-up emotion, but you are also absolutely busting the shame that goes with that cultural norm.” Plus, she adds, you’re validating your right to feel those more unseemly feelings, which can ultimately boost self-esteem.
And if you are going to try scream release, Toomey notes that the noises you make don’t have to be actual screams in order to be effective. “This sound can take shape in many different forms—from loud, breathy exhales to long ‘Uuuuughs’ or what people call the ‘HUuuH’,” she says. “In The Class, we talk about making sound from ‘the guts’, not the throat. This ends up sounding more guttural and helps to stay connected to the body while accessing where stagnant energy is stored.”
Before trying a self-led scream-therapy session, though, consider doing so with the guidance of a therapist. That’s because one criticism of primal scream therapy is that it may release emotions that you’re not equipped to deal with, which can be psychologically dangerous in effect. “It can be quite a shock to move into your feelings that quickly, because it’s the opposite of what we’ve been taught to do [generally],” Aston says.
Ultimately, though, Aston regards scream therapy as a tool for finding additional ways of looking after yourself in order to release and process emotions. After all, she says, feelings need to be surfaced at some point, whether that’s in the next 24 hours of 50 years. They can’t be permanently repressed, or even silently voiced inside your heart.
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