Today, there are many mental healthcare treatments designed to help patients overcome or successfully manage their condition. Many of these treatments have the backing of the medical and scientific communities, because they have been rigorously studied and have been shown to be safe and effective treatments. Your doctor may refer to these as “evidence-based” therapies when a substantial body of scientific evidence supports their efficacy.
On the other hand, there are many alternative and experiential treatments that show therapeutic promise. These therapies may eventually merit evidence-based status but to get there require peer-reviewed study, which can take years. Primal therapy is one such example. As a therapeutic approach to mental health symptoms such as anxiety, depression, rage, and trauma, it has not yet been inducted into the pantheon of conventional mental health treatments. Even so, though, could this therapy be right for you?
Empty Chair Therapy and Other Primal Therapy Oddities
Primal therapy, sometimes referred to as scream therapy, is a form of psychotherapy delivered by a trained therapist, but it can involve some unusual approaches. For example, a therapist may place an empty chair in the room and ask the patient to direct their discourse to it. The therapist will ask the patient to imagine a parent or some other individual in the chair–an individual who, at some point, may have neglected or abused the patient.
As therapy progresses, the patient is encouraged to direct their discourse and negative emotions like anger to the chair and the imagined person sitting in it. For some, talking to an empty chair is an odd therapeutic approach, but for some adults, the experience is cathartic and helps them cope better with unresolved negative emotions, particularly those associated with past trauma.
Therapists may also encourage the patient to give in to emotional outbursts. Rather than talking quietly to the empty chair, the patient may be advised to yell if they feel inclined to. The idea is that yelling helps the individual unleash pent-up emotions that have fueled their depression or other mental health condition.
What Exactly Is Primal Therapy?
First developed in the 1960s by Dr. Arthur Janov, a psychologist and psychoanalyst, primal therapy operates on the theory that mental health disorders such as depression occur because of repressed negative or painful emotions. Janov believed that repressed emotions like sadness, fear, or anger could also cause physical symptoms such as headaches and ulcers, a belief that is closely aligned with scientific theories about the physical aspect of mental stress.
In order to treat conditions like anxiety and depression, primal therapy therapists help patients express their repressed emotions. This expression might involve speaking, but it can also include shouting and crying. As the individual releases their negative emotions, they may find that they can cope better with painful memories involving these emotions. As a result, their symptoms of anxiety or depression may improve.
Primal therapy is most commonly used to help people who experienced trauma as children. However, it can also be used to treat individuals who have experienced war or are suffering from the recent loss of a loved one. Essentially, therapists will help the patient return to the origin of their pain in order to help them “release” the pain stemming from the experience.
What Are the Tenets and Techniques of Primal Therapy?
Therapists who practice primal therapy may rely on numerous techniques such as the empty-chair method mentioned above. They may develop their own techniques for encouraging patients to tap into their repressed emotions. They will typically adhere to the following tenets during the course of treatment:
Re-Experience Traumatic Events
Initially, patients will be asked to recall traumatic experiences. Re-experiencing them even in memory can be painful for some, which makes this form of therapy difficult for some patients.
After recalling their experience, patients will be asked to express or release their emotions related to the event. It’s during this phase that patients may yell or shout to convey their emotions.
The integration process involves discussion between the therapist and client. Therapists help clients understand the connections between their emotions, thoughts, and how their past experiences have impacted their lives and mental health.
During the resolution phase of therapy, clients should, ideally, feel a sense of closure or a greater ability to cope with the painful emotions that stem from their past experiences.
Is There Any Proof That Primal Therapy Works?
Primal therapy is controversial. Right now, the evidence that supports it is anecdotal, which means that there is a growing body of individuals who report that the therapy worked for them. There have been reports that the therapy is possibly not ideal for teenagers and could cause additional emotional scarring. However, many adults have found it safe and effective; others have found it less effective than other treatments.
One of the stronger criticisms of primal therapy is that it seeks to be a panacea for numerous mental health conditions, which many of today’s psychiatric professionals reject; they don’t believe that the therapy can “cure” depression, anxiety, and post-traumatic stress disorder, for example. Nevertheless, people who have these conditions have reported that their symptoms have been alleviated by the treatment. Yet, even after numerous decades, the treatment has remained a controversial one and has still not been fully embraced by the medical community.
Importance of Not Forcing This Type of Therapy
Primal therapy isn’t for every person. Some people are apt to find the therapy disagreeable. As mentioned, it is not considered an ideal treatment for teens suffering from a mental health disorder. The idea of yelling or screaming during a treatment session isn’t something that many people are comfortable with. They may prefer more conventional types of psychotherapy.
When it comes to more experiential treatments, it’s important for patients to be careful and take time to learn about the treatment approach as well as the therapist and clinic associated with the therapy. Certainly, not all therapists and mental health clinics or hospitals offer primal therapy. If you are interested in this type of therapy, it’s important to find a practitioner who is experienced and credentialed. Some licensed therapists offer primal therapy, and it’s important to find one who does rather than engaging someone who is inexperienced or unlicensed.
Remember, too, that there are many different paths to condition management. Often, patients benefit from engaging in multiple treatment approaches. Some people require medication management in addition to therapy. Some clients find that any form of “talk therapy” is difficult for them; they may prefer a treatment such as art therapy that allows them to express themselves in ways that are alternative to verbal speech.
At FHE Health, we feature highly trained mental health clinicians who are licensed and experienced. We offer a wide range of evidence-based therapies, but our psychiatrists, psychologists, and therapists are also individually familiar and experienced with many alternative therapies. We continue to monitor the field in order to provide our clients with the latest and best treatment approaches to mental health and behavioral health disorders.