Going into the room during your lunch break to have a good scream might seem like a useful way to blow off some steam, but experts say there’s little evidence that the approach offers long-term mental health benefits.
Primal Scream Therapy (PST) was created by psychologist Arthur Janov in the late 1960s. It is based on the idea that repressed childhood traumas are at the root of neurosis and that screaming can help release and resolve pain. With a bestseller and high-profile patients including John Lennon and Yoko Ono, the approach became popular in the 1970s.
However, modern experts say the therapy has little evidence to support its use.
Professor Sascha Frühholz of the Department of Psychology at the University of Zurich – whose research includes the cognitive and neural mechanisms of voice production and emotional processing – is one of them.
“In my opinion, there is no scientific evidence that primal scream therapy has any positive effects in the treatment of mental and psychological disorders. “Given that modern psychotherapy is an evidence-based approach to treatment, no serious school of psychotherapy today uses any elements of primal scream therapy,” he said.
“PST is also based on the partly flawed assumption that traumatic events in early life are stored as mental and bodily complexes—like a prison—that can only be resolved by ‘bursting out’ during screams,” Freuchholz added. “There is no scientific evidence for this.”
Frühholz also noted that primal scream therapy primarily uses anger screams—which can be counterproductive.
“We know that such consistent expressions of anger as a therapeutic modality have no or even negative effects on therapeutic outcome,” he said. “Our own research shows that positive screams – joy and pleasure – are much more relatable to people and induce social bonding as a positive effect.”
Dr Rebecca Semmens-Wheeler, senior lecturer in psychology at Birmingham City University, said she was also skeptical about the long-term mental health benefits of shouting, although she said little research had been done.
“The current state of affairs is that we really don’t know — but based on what we do know, it’s not that likely to be helpful,” she said.
Among her concerns were that screaming or hearing others scream could activate the body’s fight-or-flight mechanism, raising levels of adrenaline and cortisol.
“[That] is kind of the opposite of what you do with things like meditation or yoga, which usually activates the parasympathetic nervous system, which helps you slow down, take stock, let the prefrontal cortex get some glucose again … and helps us do more -good decisions,” she said.
Semmens-Wheeler added that if yelling becomes a habit, it can also prevent you from taking other actions that might be more helpful when it comes to dealing with emotions.
But, she noted, context is important, and it’s possible that yelling can help if it’s done in groups and allows people to connect.
“I’m quite skeptical about the potential benefits, especially in the long term. [But] if you want to do it for laughs, why not?” she said. “Maybe you’ll feel fine for a few minutes. But I don’t think it has any potential as a permanent and ongoing treatment. I think it’s more of a novelty.”