© 2016 Devaraj Nick Sandberg
Emotional Expression, also known as Emotional Release, and sometimes colloquially referred to as Primal Scream Therapy is a therapeutic technique that focuses on creating positive change through making sound. It is highly effective at helping people feel more centred, more grounded and more able to cope with strong emotions, from within them and from others.
Emotional Expression can be practiced in groups, led by a suitably experienced therapist such as myself, or in one-to-one sessions, again under the supervision of a therapist. Whilst it is usually an intense, and to some degree confrontational process, in my experience it is OK for anyone who is not taking any type of mood-altering medication and who has not been diagnosed with a significant psychiatric condition. Even those within this last category may benefit from sessions with suitable professional prior assessment.
Who Is It Suitable For?
Generally Emotional Expression sessions work great for the following categories of people…
- Those suffering “low energy” or lack of motivation.
- People who struggle to confront challenging situations, who always want to “go with the flow.”
- People who have issues with anger.
- People who want to feel more confident expressing their feelings in daily life.
In addition, some modern theories of Depression assert that it arises because of high levels of emotional suppression. People suffering with depression, therefore, sometimes check out Emotional Expression to see if it works for them. If it does it may provide a drug-free means to overcome the condition. Likewise those suffering from Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, also known as M.E., frequently give this therapy a try to see if it is of benefit.
Useful for Couples – Emotional expression is also highly valuable in “couples therapy.” It is somewhat inevitable, when you have been in a relationship for a while, that judgments and repressed feelings towards the other develop and accumulate. Sometimes this reaches the point where you feel you can hardly bear to see or hear their voice anymore. I would even say this is natural in a relationship at some point. Those we love the most, those we are closest to, are often also those who trigger negative feelings in us the most deeply. Having a space where a couple can safely scream at each other is very valuable. Once each can put out all the judgments and concerns about the other safely, so a deep, heart-centred openness can develop afterwards. They can go deeper together. Many relationships that break up do so quite needlessly in my opinion. All that is really needed is some level of safely held confrontational process that each can take part in and they will find themselves closer than ever.
A Brief History of Feelings
If you grew up in the UK, prior to the 2000s, the chances are that you developed in a culture where the most treasured human attribute was the intellect. Parents wanted their kids to be “brainy” – to have a good intellect, a mind that could do reading, writing and arithmetic. Schools were streamed as Comprehensive or Grammar, and kids were screened with intellect-based tests, such as the 11 plus, to find out if they were exceptionally “clever” or not.
In this era little attention was paid to emotionality, the world of human feelings. Feelings were often perceived as “a problem” – they could get in the way of all the functioning and doing. Feelings were often perceived as “something that women had!” Feelings and emotions were something that “you did something about.” You swept them “under the carpet,” perhaps, or masked them with alcohol or drug use, or ritualized behaviours.
A Revolution from the Ground Up – But, in the last 20 years all this began to change. This change didn’t come from the government or the psychiatric establishment. It came from the “ground up,” from the masses. It came from the interest generated by modern, predominantly American psychologists who started to realize the important role that being able to access feelings had in creating psychological health, and to thus have healthy relationships with others. Some of these guys started to write about this.
Breakthrough Books – Books about emotions and feelings started to enter the bestseller lists, in the US and Europe. Books like Emotional Intelligence (Daniel Goleman), I’m OK You’re OK (Thomas Harris), and Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus (John Gray) became a major publishing phenomenon. Ordinary people were fascinated by the new field of Popular Psychology, with its focus on understanding how we make major life-decisions based around our ways of coping with challenging situations from the past, based around how competent we are with emotions.
Primal Screaming – Around the same time, in the west coast of America, another psychologist, Arthur Janov, wrote what became a seminal book on emotional expression, The Primal Scream. Janov developed the notion of there being a “primal knot” of unexpressed emotions, centred in the belly, in pretty much every modern-day Westerner. This knot blocked the natural expression of feelings in day-to-day life and progressively stripped people of a natural deep enjoyment of simply being alive. Janov worked with clients, getting them to scream out this primal knot, until they felt really alive again.
From a slightly earlier era, the work of various other psychologists and therapists introduced the concept of “holding patterns.” Holding patterns are areas of muscular rigidity that develop in the body as a result of traumatic events and societal conditioning. We learn to “hold” emotions inside, because either we were too young to safely express them when an event first occurred, or because we believe that expressing our feelings will not serve us to get our needs met. Holding Patterns are the result.
These two phenomena that block our natural feeling of pleasure from just being alive, the Primal Knot and Holding Patterns, are both relieved by Emotional Expression. When, under suitable experienced guidance, we learn to fully express our emotions, in a safe environment, so both start to disappear. We start to feel young again. We start to feel really alive, and turned on to life, no matter what our age is!
Slowly our world comes around to understanding the high degree of importance that feeling have in society and in the individual. When our capacity to feel and express emotions like anger, sadness or pain is blocked, then not only the individual but society as a whole becomes less human and less functional.
Fear, Anger, Pain, Love
Two Types of People
Let us now consider a useful psychological concept, that of there being fundamentally two types of people. Few of us like to be categorized but hopefully you will see the value of doing it for a short while as we go along.
The first type of person is represented diagrammatically like this…
The Yes Sayer – This type of person has Love as their core. They experienced love when born and will have needed to receive unconditional love from their parents of other care givers as a small infant. When this love wasn’t freely given, so a layer of unexpressed pain developed around the love. Around this layer of pain develops a layer of anger, and around this a layer of fear. The layer of fear is what is presented to the world around them.
This type of person tends to be afraid to feel and express anger. They tend to avoid confrontation. They tend to say “Yes” as a default position to avoid possible challenges. They tend to “go with the flow.” Often in life they can find themselves agreeing to situations that they later regret. They like to please others. They are susceptible to bullying because it is not easy for them to take a position for themselves. They easily become a bit of a “doormat” in life.
The No Sayer – The other type of person is subtly different from the first. They too have an inner core of Love and around it a layer of Pain that accrued when love was not freely given to them as an infant. But around this the two outer layers are reversed. Their outer layer is Anger and underneath that lies Fear, fear to feel or express pain.
This type of person presents more of an angry face to the world. They like to keep others at a safe distance. They are afraid to feel vulnerable or show pain. They tend to say “No” as a default position. They like to be in control. They like to be strong so that they can deal with any threats that might arise. They are happy to confront others. They like to dominate others as this helps them feel safe and in control.
So, these are the two stereotypical personalities on an emotional level. Perhaps you see yourself strongly in one camp. Or perhaps you see yourself adopting one stance with certain people or in certain situations, and the opposite at other times or with other groups of people. Perhaps you feel victimized by your kids but are firmly in control at work.
Relationships – Something that’s interesting to note is what happens when either of these two types of people starts to get in a relationship. Two people strongly the “No” camp will not easily get together, as each will be needing to feel in control and determined not to show vulnerability. If they come together, for a short while, they will soon move apart again, each believing the situation with the other was dangerous and needed to be dealt with. It’s rather like what happens when you try to push two magnets together, north to north. They spring apart.
Two people in the “Yes” camp will also find it hard to create a relationship together. Both are most concerned that they can please the other and will find it hard to agree to do anything. The conversation might go –
“What do you want to do tonight, babe?”
“I want to do whatever you want to do!”
“But I want to do what you want to do!”
It’s going nowhere but round and round. So they will soon separate.
Inevitably, what tends to happen in relationships is that a “No” person will get together with a “Yes.” The “Yes” person will be happy to please the “No,” to do whatever they wish, and having a compliant partner like this enables the “No” to feel safe and in control. This type of relationship is often called “co-dependent” by therapists and psychologists.
Expressing Anger is the Key
If you’ve followed the idea above about the “2 kinds of people” then you may realize that for both of these personality stereotypes expressing anger is the key.
People in the “Yes” category are afraid to feel and express anger. They are afraid of confrontation and often find themselves behaving like victims or “doormats.” They attract bullies. Learning to express anger in a safely-held environment will create a deep, progressive change in their whole being. As they desensitize to anger they will start to radiate more confidence and find that others respect them more. Bullies will not approach someone they perceive as “in their power.” It is not that they necessarily will need to become angry more often. It is rather that they will not be afraid to do so if it’s necessary and this alone creates a big difference in how others perceive them.
People in the “No” category also gain immensely from actually expressing anger. For what is invariably the case with these guys is that they like to radiate a certain persona of slight aggression or danger, to keep people at a safe distance, but they don’t actually really express anger. They are afraid to. This is because underneath the anger invariably we find pain. Feeling and showing pain is unacceptable for people in this category. They are afraid to feel vulnerable, helpless or having to reach out for support. When they also learn to fully express anger, so this fear around feeling pain and allowing vulnerability starts to dissipate. They will progressively feel more OK to feel and show deeper feelings like emotional pain. They will be able to own and talk about times when they feel sad or weak. They will no longer have to keep up a front of being totally OK and in control at all times.
This is the reason why therapists like myself, and most others in this field, focus so much on anger. When the anger can be expressed, so the emotions underneath the anger will naturally start to be released. The individual will feel better and develop better levels of psychological health.
It is highly normal that, after screaming out anger, people immediately start to cry and feel vulnerable. They can hug others for a few minutes and then feel fine again, and much less burdened by repressed feelings. Expressing anger is usually the fastest way to open the heart.
People with a history of severe psychiatric disturbance may not be suitable for this type of therapy. When someone processes emotions in a non-normal way then this type of approach can, in some circumstances, even cause them to deteriorate.
In addition it is not good to undertake sessions like this unless you are free from any form of mood-altering medication or illicit drug.
These days there is some interest medically in using Emotional Expression therapy to treat depression. There are models of depression which assert that it is caused by “depressing” emotions. Thus learning to safely express emotions seems to be a logical treatment. Personally I agree with this reasoning but care also needs to be taken. I generally find that clients who have recently come off a low dose of SSRI type medication, fluoxetine and its analogs etc, are suitable to try a “taster session” of emotional expression. Something well guided and not too intense. They can then assess if it works for them. If so they can go deeper, always under skilled guidance. Clients who’ve been on more “sedative” type medications for depression, tri-cyclics, tetra-cyclics etc, may be less suitable. It is good to always start with gentle exercises which are not too confrontational and allow some days afterwards for the client to assess whether they feel better.
Emotional Expression Exercises
Unlike the other therapies I specialize in, Bioenergetics and Rebirthing, Emotional Expression really does need the presence of a skilled and experienced therapist in order to be responsibly practiced, at least until one is considerably experienced. A lot of suppressed feelings can come out, and the space needs to be properly held so that participants don’t get unnecessarily distressed. You need to have many years of good, solid group-room experience before you can hold these types of sessions.
That said, I think it’s great to be able to have some kind of basic experience, so I’m posting below a brief video of the Dragon’s Breath Exercise…
© 2016 Devaraj Nick Sandberg