Popping into a room on your lunch break to have a good scream may seem like a helpful way to let off steam, but experts say there is little evidence the approach offers long-term benefits for mental health.
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 to release and resolve the pain. With a bestselling book 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.
Prof 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 treatment approach, no serious psychotherapy school uses any elements of primal scream therapy today,” he said.
“PST also rests on the, partly wrong, assumption that traumatic early life events are stored as mental and bodily complexes – like a prison – that can only be resolved by ‘busting out’ during screaming,” Frühholz added. “There is no scientific evidence for this.”
Frühholz also noted that primal scream therapy predominatly uses screams of anger – which could be counterproductive.
“We know that such consistent expressions of anger as a therapeutic method have no or even negative effects on the therapeutic outcome,” he said. “Our own research shows that positive screams – joy and pleasure – are much more relevant for humans, and they induce social bonding as a positive effect.”
Dr Rebecca Semmens-Wheeler, senior lecturer in psychology at Birmingham City University, said she is also doubtful about the long-term benefits of screaming for mental health, although she said little research has been done.
“The current state of things is that we don’t really know – but based on what we do know, is 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, boosting levels of adrenaline and cortisol.
“[That] is kind of the opposite with what you’re doing with things like meditation or yoga, which is usually activating the parasympathetic nervous system that helps you to slow down, take stock, let the prefrontal cortex get some glucose again … and helps us to make better decisions,” she said.
Semmens-Wheeler added that if screaming becomes a habit it could also get in the way of taking other action that could be more helpful when it comes to tackling emotions.
But, she noted, context is important, and it is possible screaming might help if it is undertaken in groups and allows people to bond.
“I’m quite sceptical about potential benefits, especially in the long term. [But] if you want to do it for a laugh, why not?” she said. “Maybe you’ll feel good for a few minutes. But I don’t think it’s got any potential as a lasting and ongoing treatment. I think it’s more of a novelty.”