Going into a room on your lunch break to have a good cry might seem like a useful way to let off steam, but experts say there’s little evidence 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 best-selling book and high-profile patients including John Lennon and Yoko Ono, the approach gained popularity in the 1970s.
However, modern experts say the therapy has little evidence to support its use.
Prof Sascha Frühholz of the department of psychology at the University of Zurich – whose research involves the cognitive and neural mechanisms of voice production and emotional processing – is one of them.
“In my opinion, there is no scientific evidence that primary scream therapy has any positive effect in the treatment of mental and psychological disorders. Because modern psychotherapy is an evidence-based treatment approach, no serious school of psychotherapy uses any element of primary scream therapy today,” he said.
“PST also rests on the assumption, partly wrong, that traumatic early life events are stored as mental and bodily complexes – like a prison – that can only be resolved by ‘bursting’ during the scream,” added Frühholz. “There is no scientific evidence for this.”
Frühholz also noted that primary scream therapy primarily uses angry screams—which can be counterproductive.
“We know that such sustained expressions of anger as a therapeutic method have no or even negative effects on the therapeutic outcome,” he said. “Our research shows that positive shouts – joy and delight – are much more important to people and they promote 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 benefits of shouting for mental health, although she said little research had been done.
“The current state of things is that we don’t really know — but based on what we do know, it’s not very 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, increasing levels of adrenaline and cortisol.
“[That] it’s kind of the opposite of what you’re doing with things like meditation or yoga, which usually activates the parasympathetic nervous system that helps you slow down, take stock, let the prefrontal cortex get some glucose again… and it helps us to we produce better decisions”, she said.
Semmens-Wheeler added that if yelling becomes a habit, it can also get in the way of 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 am 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 better for a few minutes. But I don’t think it has any potential as a sustainable and ongoing treatment. I think it’s more of a novelty.”