Does Cry Therapy Work? The real science behind the controversial method


In 2017, Kanye west Come to the house to find motivational speaker Tony Robbins in his living room.

West had mental health issues and his then wife Kim Kardashian West (you probably haven’t heard of her) brought in Robbins for a “mental health intervention.” Robbins told West to stand up as a warrior and scream. This was called “cry therapy” or, more technically, “primary therapy”.

First developed by a psychologist Arthur janov, primal therapy is based on the idea that neurosis is the result of repressed childhood trauma. The best way to approach this trauma, Janov argued, it is through a patient who remembers and re-enacts the traumatic experience and expresses that pent-up anger or frustration – and this is the key – “through spontaneous and unrestrained cries, hysteria or frustration. violence”. The concept was first described in his 1970 book The primordial cry: Primal therapy, the cure for neurosis.

After The primordial cry was published, the technique became extremely popular, in much of its creator’s claims about it. Janov went so far as to say that “80 percent of all illnesses are cured with primary therapy.”

His book has sold over a million copies, and followers of the practice understood John Lennon, Yoko Ono, and James earl jones.

In psychotherapy circles, however, Janov’s idea is extremely controversial and often rejected. So this Halloween we ask: is screaming therapy?

Does Primary Therapy Work?

While this may be the most well-known – if not the most important – part of primary therapy, screaming is not the alone part. In other words, Robbins is simply telling West not to exactly buy into Janov’s concept.

In his 2017 Washington post obituary, it is explained that:

“To resolve primary pain, Dr. Janov urged patients to regress in childhood. His offices included cribs and toys. Patients were allowed or encouraged to suck their thumbs. It is only after they have reached their former infantile state that they will be able to access the primordial pain that they had suppressed.

Once this “primary pain” had been seen, the patient could let it out by any means necessary: ​​violence (on something like a pillow, not a person), crying and – you guessed it – screaming.

The Janov Primal Center in Santa Monica, which was founded by Janov in 1971 and still exists today, has a website that explains what to expect from treatment at the Center:

“Therapy begins with three weeks of individual therapy. This is the first and most important step in knowing your pain and learning to feel it. To this end, we typically ask new patients to spend the three weeks of individual therapy in isolation, preferably in a motel or anywhere they can be alone.

At the start of treatment, new patients will receive detailed instructions regarding the three weeks. Patients are not advised to work, call, snack, smoke, take medication (except prescription), etc., during the three weeks. The patient is encouraged to write and keep a journal of their experiences. Sessions during the initial three-week period are open but last an average of around two hours … “

In 1979, Alfred D. Yassky, then Executive Director of the American Psychotherapy Seminar Center, published a review therapy in the American Journal of Psychotherapy. Although he praised Janov for abandoning the standard 50-minute therapy session, he criticized a quick and universal approach.

“Just as we should not adhere rigidly to the 50 minute session, in the same way we should not adhere rigidly to any regimen,” he wrote, “for example, starting with the primal intense for up to three hours per day for three weeks, then placing a patient in a group regardless of the dynamics, structure of object relations and impulse defense configuration of the patient.

Does Science Support Crying Therapy?

Many mental health professionals, both now and at the height of its popularity, regard scream therapy as pseudoscience.

For example, a 1971 Boca Raton a newspaper article who discussed the popularity of primary therapy identified several important concerns.

“In fact, his articles have been repeatedly rejected by professional journals. He handed an article, headlit “Revolution in Psychotherapy” to a group of psychologists – and 15 of them came out. Since then he has focused on forums such as “The Dick Cavett Show”.

(Hats off to Boca Raton News circa 1971 for a very good evidence-based engraving.)

In the early 1980s, two German legal proceedings investigated whether primary therapy was “recognized as a scientific therapeutic process”. The authors subsequently determined that primary therapy was not a valid therapeutic technique.

“In fact,” they write, “primary therapy has rarely been discussed in the scientific psychotherapeutic literature. That is, there are no ongoing reports on the therapeutic outcomes of primary therapy, no statistical studies, and no follow-up studies.

Reverse could only find two studies in which primary therapy showed positive results, although both come with a huge caveat.

In 1975, psychologist Tomas Videgård interviewed patients before and after starting treatment at the Primal Center (a treatment he himself underwent, so the potential for bias should be noted). The outcome evaluations for the patients were as follows.

  • Four “very good”
  • Nine “good”
  • Eight “means”
  • Six “bad” (including one death by suicide)
  • Five unavailable for post-test

In his 1988 paper, psychologist Stephane Khamsi explains that in the Videgard study, nearly a third of patients left therapy prematurely, including the individual who committed suicide, and / or were highly dissatisfied with their own progress. Overall, 40 percent of subjects were satisfied with the results. These results, notes Khamasi, contrast sharply with the success rate claimed by Janov.

Khamsi even quibbles about the positive results of Videgard’s study, suggesting that his own bias may have been at stake.

“Videgard here has pursued the ‘main-is-the-only-cure-for-mental-illness’ myth, which is dated both as an honest misconception and as a sales campaign,” he wrote.

Meanwhile, a 1983 study evaluated 13 patients in primary therapy before and after treatment. Ten patients suffered from neurosis and three presented with personality disorders, according to DMS-III criteria.

This study found that eight of 11 patients on primary treatment were “definitely improved on all outcome variables”. But they also found that one patient “had treatment-triggered emotional psychosis.”

By the mid-1990s, serious research into therapy, already minimal, had become almost non-existent.

In 1996, 139 psychologists responded to a survey on “the appropriateness of forms of treatment for mental health and the use of these treatments in therapy”. Primary therapy was rated as one of the most “in question as to soundness”.

The Reverse analysis – That’s not to say that the idea that yelling can make you feel better is utter nonsense. Studies show screaming releases endorphins and can be a good way to temporarily relieve anger and frustration.

Additionally, intensive therapy, when performed at the Janov center, may also have been helpful for some. But it never came close to the psychotherapy revolution promised by Janov.

Is screaming therapy? Technically, no. But it won’t hurt if you want to give a few screams while watching something spooky this Halloween.


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