A Primal is a Primal, is a Primal - or is it?

by Pat Törngren

Most of us are familiar with Arthur Janov’s writings, and his emphasis on the fact that our primals should optimally follow a certain formula. His method has certainly helped me enormously, and I must admit that most of my primals do start in the here-and-now, then go back to childhood, and if necessary, to baby crying after that. I’ve had lots of those third, second and then first-line primals, and I’m sure many of the people reading this will have had them too. But over the years I have discovered that the human psyche and the human body also have many other ingenious ways of dealing with our childhood pain and resolving it, and we do ourselves a disservice if we don’t honour them. I would like to share a few of those that have helped me personally.


The first incident I recall, happened in my early 20s, long before “The Primal Scream” had been written, and when the only psychology books available from the booksellers were by Freud. I had begun to notice that I was finding it very difficult to cross over busy streets without being knocked down by cars. I would step off the sidewalk right in the path of oncoming cars, almost as if I didn’t see them, or if I did, somehow the fact that I shouldn’t step in front of them, didn’t ‘register’ with me.

I was very religious as a young person, so one night (after nearly getting knocked down yet again) I got down on my knees and prayed that I be allowed to remember what might have happened in my childhood to cause the problem I was having. I imagine that what happened next was due to the fact that my mind was open and I really wanted to know, because immediately I ‘saw’ and ‘heard’ a scene that had happened when I was about 3 or 4 years old, and of which I had no conscious memory (and still don’t have).

I saw my mother and me standing at a busy intersection, waiting for the pedestrian crossing light. I must have pulled my hand out of hers, and taken a step forward, as I felt her grab me and heard her saying angrily, “Patricia, you ‘deserve’ to be run over”. It was most enlightening to understand that I had been carrying out her ‘instructions’ ever since, and trying to set up what my unconscious mind believed I ‘deserved’. The problem never recurred, and 40 years later I am still alive!


My next unusual primal happened shortly after reading “The Primal Scream”. A friend and I had been experimenting, but not getting very far. Then one day something happened that left me feeling very upset. My mother had died recently and I was still grieving. Something triggered the memory of her funeral, and the disturbing thought came to me that she and I had mutually nearly killed each other, or certainly hurt each other very badly (which is in fact what happened in my birth.) At the time the only thing I knew to do, was to lie down and have my friend sit with me.

What began to unfold was huge pressure on my head, which was tilted backwards in an unnatural and very uncomfortable position. The pressure came and went, and each time it happened, my head would move forward a little, till finally my chin was tucked down, instead of extended (the right position for birth). Each time I would push and strain. I didn’t know that I frequently stopped breathing (my friend told me so only afterwards), but I do know that the thought crossed my mind that I might have a stroke (cerebral haemorrhage) if I the pressure inside my head didn’t stop.

Then there was one more huge heave, and finally my head was out, and I lay there gasping, but safe. (In reality I was pulled out by forceps at the end). My friend said I had really scared him, as not only did I turn blue in the face, but he said the veins on my forehead stood out clearly, and he was really afraid of what might happen next. Well, what happened next for me, was that I slept like a log that night, and woke up the next morning feeling wonderfully clear and unusually full of energy. What is interesting about this is that it is not the way my birth took place (since I was dragged out by forceps). But it is what should have happened, given the way my head was mal-presenting if it had been possible for me to move, which it was not, as I was already jammed too far down in my mother’s pelvis for my head to become flexed. I was unaware of this at the time, but it was a phenomenon that would repeat later and which I came to call ‘curative primals’.


From the beginning of my real primalling, I would get headaches from time to time, and when I went with the feeling my face would start to pull up in a funny way, and I would feel pressure on my head. I knew it had something to do with my birth, but didn’t know what. When I started my formal therapy in L.A., my therapist (a trainee) told me not to go with that, as it would not lead to a connected primal, and suggested that I rather take some aspirin. Dutifully I obeyed her for quite a few years.

But the headaches continued, so in the end I decided to simply let my body go with what it wanted to do, and when I did, it certainly helped. The pressure, which came in waves, was so strong that I could feel (and hear) the bones of my head grinding against each other as my head ‘moulded’ to try to fit through my mother’s pelvis. The process would go on for hours sometimes (though various new ‘sequences’ occurred, and there seemed to be some kind of progression.) Interestingly, when this happened (and it still does occasionally), there was nothing on my mind. So it could get quite boring, with my thoughts being elsewhere, like remembering what I needed to buy at the supermarket the next day!

I can’t say I ever ‘finished’ these sessions either, as often the physical pain was so great, I would have to stop and take a break. But I would do enough to make the headache go away. If the physical feeling was strong and I resisted it, I would be unable to sleep until I had been through at least a few minutes of this ‘head pressure sequence’, and then I would be able to drop off to sleep quite quickly. I usually knew when this was coming on, as I would get a roaring in my ears, my eyes would start to screw up, and my face would start to twitch. My current therapist said I was having ‘body memories’ and that it was fine to go with it.

In the earlier years I had had a number of birth primals, along with baby crying, but with very few body sensations apart from back pain. For me it would start with a feeling like, “If someone doesn’t help me I shall die”, and then would come baby crying. But more recently I seem to be bringing the two split pieces together, and in some of my more recent birth primals, the physical head pain and pressure have started to come up along with the baby-crying and the emotional connection. If I hadn’t let my body memories come when they needed to, I don’t think I would be integrating them into my birth primals as I am starting to be able to do now.


Another interesting body memory that happened (triggered by fear) is that I went through a purely physical sequence of ‘swallow… gasp…, swallow… gasp…’. When it began I guessed it must be very early stuff, and it felt like they were resuscitating me after birth, but I couldn’t understand the swallowing. So I asked a midwife friend of mine, and she explained that when they put a tube down the baby’s throat, it has to keep ‘swallowing’ it to avoid gagging.

An amusing aspect of this was that it started on a Friday, and that was the day we had ‘primal buddy group’ at my home in the evening. There were about 8 of us there, and it was my turn to lead (we took turns). I didn’t tell anyone, except my midwife friend, what was happening to me, and nobody even noticed. In fact I got through the whole group, including helping others, without anyone else noticing! The ‘swallow… gasp…’ phenomenon continued for a few days, as I went about my normal tasks, and then it stopped, never to return. It was just a physical memory that my body needed to discharge, and then it was over.


Some of my body memories have been far more frightening though. At the very beginning, when I started trying to primal, I was totally overloaded, and at night it was at its worst. I would just be drifting off to sleep, when suddenly I would jerk awake with my heart pounding, and the feeling that I was about to die. I would sit up, to try to escape slipping back into the feeling. Finally it got to the point where I was afraid to lie down to try to sleep, though I knew I had to. I was living with my mother at the time, and I can remember being so terrified, that I tried to crawl into her bed with her for safety.

Soon after that, when I became able to primal childhood pain, the problem stopped completely. Then, to my consternation, after some years, it began to happen again. I had absolutely no idea what it was about, though I felt better able to cope with it by then. A new phenomenon began to emerge too. In the new sequence, I would feel a searing pain shooting down my back as I dropped off to sleep, and would jerk awake. Then one night it suddenly hit me – that was how I felt when they held me upside down by the feet as a newborn, and the weight of my head sent a ripping pain right through my spine.

The connection was in my mind only. I didn’t cry, and I didn’t experience any emotion at all. But as soon as I ‘knew’ what it was, it stopped and it has never recurred. However, the other problem of jerking awake with the heart palpitations and terror, continued to recur from time to time. Then something new was added – there would be a sharp pain in my heart, as if I had been stabbed there. I had no idea what it was till suddenly one night I ‘came to’, knowing the answer.

My mother had told me that my birth was very difficult because my head had been in the wrong position. She was given an anaesthetic, and I was pulled out with ‘high forceps’ (something that would never be done today, when a caesarean would be performed instead). More than that she didn’t know, except that the doctor said it was a miracle I survived, and they thought they had lost me. What my body remembered was having them inject adrenaline (epinephrine) directly into my heart as part of the CPR that they did to bring me back. I had come back with a huge jerk, a pounding heart, and in a state of terror. I made this connection one night more than 15 years ago and once again, the moment I ‘knew’ what it was, it was resolved, and has never recurred.


But then something even more frightening began to happen. I started to have night terrors. They were unlike dreams, in that I knew that I was lying in my bed, but I was not awake, and could not control what was happening to me. I would feel my whole body become incredibly over-stimulated, and there was a feeling that something ‘evil’ was happening. The over-stimulation was mostly in my spine, and when I woke I would often find that it had simply been triggered by the tickling sensation of my nightie moving against my back as I breathed.

But the experience was terrifying, and when it happened, I would have to get out of bed, put on all the lights, go to the bathroom, and calm down before I could go back to bed. Then I began to ‘semi-connect’ while being in that state. On one occasion the content of the night terror was that I saw my spine and central nervous system lit up luminous green and ‘electric’, and knew that was where the trauma had happened. I wondered if it had to do with my difficult birth, early sexual abuse or with the sadistic torture I was put through which I call “the ticklings” (it had some of the elements of all three).

When I was about 2 or 3 years old my father used to grab me and tickle me. I remember one incident clearly. We were on the verandah, and my mother was somewhere inside. I suddenly realised with terror that my father was on the verandah behind me and the door into the house was closed so there was no escape. I remember screaming, “Let me get away”. He started chanting, “Let me get away-a, let me get a way-a” as he came up behind me. I tried to get to my mother and safety, but though I could open the screen door, my hands were too small to turn the big brass door-knob of the heavy wooden door, and he grabbed me from behind.

The next thing I remember was the familiar situation where he lay back on the couch still holding me from behind and started chanting, “Let me get my fingers on the organ stops” (my ribs) and then the terrible tickling began. The trauma was incredible. Not only was my whole nervous system over stimulated to a degree that was beyond description, but my diaphragm seized up and I couldn’t breathe. It felt as if I would die of suffocation if he didn’t stop. It also made me nearly wet myself, and I knew if I did, my mother would hit me.

I had primalled the emotional aspects of this from the beginning of my therapy, and often wondered how I would get to the physical part of it. When the night terrors began I guessed my body was trying to remember these traumas, but I did not expect to make any solid connections that way. Then something happened that I had not anticipated. For some time I had identified that the strongest sensation was a little bit to the right of my spine, just above my waist. Finally one morning, following one of the night terrors, I woke and noticed that I could locate exactly where that spot was, as it was still tender.

During the day, the tenderness increased, till it became painful. That evening I was visiting my nurse-midwife friend, so I asked her to look at my back. I guided her hand to the spot where it hurt. She examined it and said, “Some of the small capillaries under your skin have burst, and it looks like you have a bruise coming up.” I wondered why it would be on one side of my back only, so I asked her to check the other side too. She did, and could see nothing, but as she touched me, I felt a tender spot, a bit lower than the one on the right side.

By the next morning when I woke, the pain on my right side was stronger, and when I looked in the mirror, I had huge purple bruises clearly showing a handprint. The thumbprint was to the back, with the four fingerprints clearly showing to the front of it. By the second day, there was more. The thumbprint was in the same place, but the fingerprints were slightly ‘blurred’ or ‘double’ as if I had been grabbed, and then grabbed again. A day or two later, I began to feel pain on the other side too, and the spot was easy to locate, but there was nothing to be seen, though I kept checking. Then, as the handprint on my right side began to fade a little, the other handprint appeared on my left side, but a little bit lower down. It was equally bruised and equally painful.

It was at this time that I had a session with my therapist, so I pulled up my shirt to show him. He said he could see clearly that they were in fact handprints, and pointed out how accurate they were. He said that if a right-handed person grabbed a child from behind, the right hand would be higher than the left, and that is how the handprints on my back had appeared. I wish I someone had taken a photograph at the time, but sadly I didn’t have a camera handy, and after about a week the bruises faded. During this time I felt no emotion at all, and didn’t shed a tear. But once the bruises had appeared, the night terrors stopped – my body no longer needed to remember. The physical aspects of this trauma were resolved.


Something that caught me totally by surprise was the fact that I learned that my body not only could relive traumas, but could also experience ‘what should have happened’, rather than what did happen. My first conscious experience of this was something else that happened in our ‘primal buddy group’. I had just had a very big first-line primal, in the arms of my nurse-midwife friend, Marianne. When it was over, I moved away from her to rest, and suddenly had the urge to curl up on the floor, face down, in the foetal position and start pushing with my head against a padded chair. What was interesting is that my body took up the position I should have been in for birth (curled up and head flexed) and not the one I really had been in (on my back with my head extended). It just felt right to do it, though there was no ‘emotional feeling’ with it, it was just a physical sequence that my body went through.

This phenomenon has repeated from time to time, and my therapist has assured me that it is a very healthy thing. He suggested that part of my healing is for me to relive the pain of what went wrong. But, as he explained, back there, my body had been ‘expecting’ something else to happen, and now it needed to go through that sequence of what should have happened, in order to complete the healing. He said some therapists try to push patients there prematurely, but it is so much better if the person’s body goes there on its own, and far more effective as it means the body is learning how to self-heal, and create its own positive neurological ‘memories’.


Before my therapy, I was a very frightened and unassertive person. By the time I got to the Primal Institute, I was three years into primalling, and was starting to uncover anger, rather than just pain and fear (albeit in very tiny bits). So if someone triggered me sufficiently, I would confront them with rage and often ended up dumping on them. It took me a long time to discover that under that anger was always a feeling of helplessness, and when I could learn to be firmly assertive and not let people walk all over me, I didn’t need to rage or be angry in the present.

I also began to understand that we go through a learning process when we are very young, and tend to model on the behaviour of our parents, or other people who we love or need. My parents had always modelled helplessness and rage, and I had no personal experience of how one could go about handling situations differently. This was exacerbated by my birth in which I was totally helpless, and where, when crushed and hurt, I had to go limp (to conserve energy) rather than fighting to get out, as that would have resulted in my death. As a result, I didn’t have the first clue as to how to be assertive.

But as I worked through my classic ‘parasympathetic’ birth, I started to change in very subtle ways that I only now understand. I began to be drawn to people who were assertive in a quiet but firm way, and started to learn from them, by observing them and copying their behaviour. So I dedicate this article to three such very special people; my therapist Abraham, Nelson Mandela and Mahatma Gandhi. I thank them for parenting me, by being the role models I never had as a child, and through the way they have lived their lives, teaching me that I don’t have to be a victim anymore.

(Pat, who lives in South Africa, went through therapy at the Primal Institute in the 1970s. She has been primalling for more than 30 years).

Other articles on the Primal Psychotherapy Page by Pat Törngren:

In English

  • Having Birth Primals - Sooner or Later?
  • Healing The Split
  • The "Inner Healer": Man's Innate Drive Towards Wholeness
  • Resolving Birth Trauma: A Discussion by Pat, Peter and Lucas -
  • Kangaroo Mother Care, Restoring the Original Paradigm For Infant Care and Breastfeeding Nils Bergman, M.D.
  • Men Can't Cry and The Journey
  • The Needs of the Newborn in the First Few Hours of Life
  • Primal Parenting: Do We Have To Keep Repeating the Past?
  • Role of Therapeutic Touch in Primal Oriented Therapy, The
  • Sexual Abuse ? by 'Persephone'
  • Telephone Primalling

    Auf Deutsch

  • Die Bedürfnisse des Neugeborenen in den ersten Stunden seines Lebens
  • Der "Innere Heiler": Der allen Menschen eigene natürliche Impuls zu Ganzwerdung
  • Geburts Primals – eher früher oder eher später?
  • Kangaroo Mother Care, Die Wiederherstellung des ursprünglichen Paradigmas für Säuglingspflege und Stillen von Nils Bergman, M.D.
  • Primätherapy am Telefon
  • Rolle Therapeutischer Berührung In Der Primal - Orientierten Therapie, Die
  • Sexueller Missbrauch ? 'Von 'Persephone'
  • Spaltung Heilen, Die
  • Wie man Babys den besten Start ins Leben ermöglicht

    En Españoles

  • Dar A Los Bebes El Mejor Comienzo En La Vida
  • Reseña del Video VHS - Cuidado Materno Canguro, Restaurando el Paradigma Original del Cuidado del Bebe y del Amanantamiento

  • Return to the Primal Psychotherapy Page