What Is Primal Therapy?

Medically reviewed by Melissa Guarnaccia, LCSW
Updated March 17, 2023by BetterHelp Editorial Team

Living with trauma and the symptoms of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) can be challenging, and often survivors will try to numb themselves and suppress their emotions to cope. While there are various mental health treatments available, primal therapy is a body-focused form of therapy that specifically aims to help individuals identify and release repressed pain stemming from traumatic events. This approach allows for an emotional release and the opportunity to revisit and work through traumatic experiences with the guidance of a licensed therapist. Primal therapy can be a powerful tool in helping individuals overcome the pain associated with traumatic events. 

Are You A Survivor Of Childhood Trauma?

Definition And Background

Primal therapy pioneered by Arthur Janov in New York, aims to help individuals confront and resolve unresolved childhood trauma that may have caused mental health disorders. This form of therapy (as described in the journal Activitas Nervosa Superior) centers around the belief that repressed emotions and trauma from a person's life can cause neurosis and negative symptoms. Primal therapists use various techniques, including the empty chair technique to guide clients through the therapy process. During a primal scream therapy session, a person may imagine the person or entity responsible for the childhood trauma sitting in an empty chair and express their anger and other emotions towards them. Through this process, primal therapy can help individuals work through and overcome the effects of childhood trauma.

What A Primal Therapy Session May Look Like

At a primal center with the guidance of a licensed professional, trauma survivors may be advised to remember the traumatic episode(s) that caused the trauma. As the memories of traumatic situations arise, primal therapy practitioners generally believe that the associated pain also rises to the surface. Clients are usually directed to allow the pain to come up, feel it, express their feelings toward the empty chair, and finally, release the pain. 

Primal therapy techniques can allow for unexpressed anger, rage, and hurt to be released by expressing pent-up frustrations toward the person or persons they feel are responsible for the trauma. These people and situations can be represented by the empty chair during a primal session.

This is where the more familiar images of primal therapy can come into play. Your therapist may encourage you to express the full range of emotions that arise as a result of reexperiencing the trauma. It is not uncommon to find primal therapy clients kicking, punching, screaming, yelling, and crying as they release years of pent-up pain and frustration around their traumatic experiences. The expression of this repressed or unhealed pain during a primal session can empower trauma survivors to become unstuck, heal repressed trauma, and move forward with their lives. 

Janov's Theory

Primal therapy, based on Janov's primal theory (which is often categorized as one of the "crazy therapies”), challenges the idea that talk therapy or formal therapy can provide relief from physical symptoms caused by trauma. According to scientific literature, repressed traumatic incidents from childhood can be stored in the body as primal pain. Primal therapy involves guiding trauma survivors through a gradual process of re-experiencing and fully processing their past traumatic experiences to release unexpressed pain stored in the body. Through the primal therapy experience, individuals can turn the page on their past and reset their understanding of the world around them, particularly in terms of the primal pains that they may have been carrying for years.

Childhood Trauma

Psychology professionals generally believe that people who have experienced early childhood trauma can be more likely to develop mental health issues as a result. Mental health practitioners often believe that the earlier the trauma occurs in a child's life, the more lasting and damaging its effects can be. 

These critical years (between birth and five years of age) are often referred to as the "formative years." We usually call them this because it is widely believed that most of the skills and abilities that we need to survive are developed during this important period. According to researchers, a child who experiences trauma during this early time of development may likely be affected for the rest of their lives. The following are examples of events or situations that can trigger early childhood trauma in children.

  • Physical Abuse*: Children who experience early childhood trauma in the form of physical abuse may also experience effects that follow them into adulthood. Physical abuse is generally defined as intentional physical harm caused by hitting, kicking, punching, and any other forms of hands-on violence.

  • Sexual Abuse: Similar to physical abuse, children who are survivors of early childhood sexual abuse may be likely to experience negative effects that have the potential to last a lifetime. Sexual abuse often involves unwanted touching, kissing, and other overt sexual advances.

  • Neglect: Not having proper food, shelter, water, and basic everyday living requirements can be considered neglect when the behavior is willful or takes place at the hands of a caregiver who is responsible for the child’s well-being. Neglect in early childhood can cause trauma to children who may form negative attachments and develop a negative sense of self based on the lack of care received in early childhood.

*If you or a loved one is experiencing any kind of abuse, please know that help is available. You can call the National Domestic Violence Hotline anytime at 1-800-799-SAFE (7233).

The examples listed here are only a few examples of how children can become traumatized in early childhood. Witnesses of victims of early childhood violence (including domestic violence in the household) can lead to the development of complex mental health disorders like post-traumatic stress disorder. Children who experience natural disasters can develop anxiety due to the unexpected nature of these events. Adults and children who live in war-torn countries or those that experience or witness human trafficking and terrorism can also develop post-traumatic stress disorder and other mental health problems as a result.

Are You A Survivor Of Childhood Trauma?

Primal Therapy Benefits

research study conducted by the Primal Institute found that at least 40% of primal therapy clients report relief in symptoms eight months after starting primal sessions. While Janov's sometimes-controversial therapy has been shown to produce lasting results in many cases, the theory does go on to state that "no one can fully flush all of the pain from their bodies.” Primal therapy can show a high potential for success, according to this study, with a potentially pronounced reversal of the negative symptoms of mental health and childhood trauma symptoms within 15 to 25 months.

Relief From Physical And Mental Pain

People who take part in primal therapy often report a sense of relief as the aches and pains associated with the traumatic events release and provide relief. According to Janov, primal therapy clients should maintain some form of therapy to continue experiencing these positive results. While there haven't been many in-depth research studies on the topic of primal therapy, the studies that have been conducted generally showed positive benefits for primal therapy clients with few (if any) side effects.

Online Primal Therapy 

People who have a history of childhood trauma who are interested in taking part in primal therapy as a solution may now have more therapy options than ever. Online therapy is becoming an increasingly popular way to fit therapy into a person's busy life. Online therapy platforms can be accessible and affordable, and they can also make it possible to connect with a therapist who has experience in the area you’re looking for help.

According to this study, online therapy can be as effective as traditional in-office therapy. Please don’t hesitate to reach out for the help you deserve if you feel you could benefit from working with a licensed mental health professional.

Takeaway

Primal therapy, rooted in the idea of the "primal man," offers a body-focused approach to help individuals cope with and overcome the impact of childhood trauma and mental illness. By tapping into and releasing repressed emotions tied to past traumatic experiences, primal therapy can be a valuable tool for those who have endured childhood trauma. One of the key techniques used in this approach is the empty chair technique, where clients can express their emotions toward the source of the trauma as if they were sitting in an empty chair. To explore whether primal therapy may be a helpful option for addressing the impact of childhood trauma, individuals can search for a primal therapist in their local area or online.

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