Going into a room on your lunch break to scream might seem like a useful way to blow 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 became popular in the 1970s.
However, modern experts say the treatment has little evidence to support its use.
Professor Sascha Frühholz of the University of Zurich’s psychology department – 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 primary scream therapy has positive effects in the treatment of mental and psychological disorders. Since modern psychotherapy is an evidence-based therapeutic approach, no serious school of psychotherapy uses any elements of primary scream therapy today,” he said.
“PST is also based on the partly incorrect assumption that early life traumatic events are stored as mental and physical complexes – like a prison – that can only be resolved by ‘losing’ them during the cry,” added Frühholz . “There is no scientific evidence for this.”
Frühholz also noted that primary scream therapy mostly uses angry screams – which could 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 cries – joy and pleasure – are much more relatable to people and cause social bonding as a positive outcome.”
Dr Rebecca Semmens-Wheeler, a senior lecturer in psychology at Birmingham City University, said she was also dubious about the long-term mental health benefits of shouting, 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 that likely to be helpful,” he said.
Among her concerns was that screaming, or hearing others scream, could trigger the body’s “fight or flight” mechanism, boosting adrenaline and cortisol levels.
“[That] it’s 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 back in… and helps us fix better decisions,” he said.
Semmens-Wheeler added that if yelling becomes a habit, it could also prevent you from taking other actions that might be more helpful when it comes to dealing with emotions.
But, he noted, context is important, and it’s possible that shouting can help if it’s undertaken in groups and allows people to bond.
“I’m quite skeptical about the potential benefits, especially in the long term. [But] if you want to do it for laughs, why not?’ he said. “You might feel good for a few minutes. But I don’t think it has any potential as a permanent and continuous cure. I think it’s more of an innovation.”