Most of us have come
to believe that the pain of even a normal American childhood is so
intolerable that a child cannot integrate the experience and must
repress it. Incredibly, most branches of psychology accept shame as a
necessary tool in the socialization of infants, and some psychoanalysts
even believe shame is essential for the infant to form a separate
Those of us who have
re-experienced being shamed know how badly it crippled us, and
recognize that it causes depression, anxiety and all manner of
behavioral disturbances. It beggars the imagination that the helping
profession, by and large, embrace the cause of the problems it treats!
Let us consider the Primal ideas for a moment. Freud said we have the
legacy of our brutal animal past sequestered in the id, and
civilization depends on keeping the unconscious unconscious with
defences such as rationalization, denial, projection and repression.
Janov says we have repressed childhood traumas in our unconscious which
we constantly act out symbolically in an effort to resolve them.
Freud believed the id was immutable and unchanging, but Primal theory
says that repression can be lifted and the unconscious made conscious.
When we finally react to the repressed material, it is shorn of its
emotional charge and becomes just a memory, part of our experience. It
no longer has the power to disrupt our functioning.
Much of our early pain is registered by the amygdala, which is
functional even before birth. It scans for danger and galvanizes the
reaction which saved us when we faced our first life-or-death crisis -
we call this the birth imprint. But our memory only starts to work
when the hippocampus matures, at about three years of age. By then, most of us have felt abandoned and shamed - and in many cases have a corresponding birth imprint of being unaided and stuck and out of air in the birth canal.
So whenever our present resonates with past danger, we are gripped by
terrible sensations and impelled by strong impulses - with no memory to
help us interpret what's happening. It's diabolical!
How can the repression be lifted and full consciousness regained? Tears
cried from emotional distress contain endorphins, the internal opiates
which protect us from suffering. Each tear removes more of these
agents of repression from the brain, until repression fails and memory
is restored. In other words, we cry - and far from fostering hysteria
and decompensation as Freud believed, we find the right kind of crying
leads to resolution. It seems that crying, and not dreaming, is the
royal road to the unconscious.
However, this crying is not an exercise. Rather, it's a part of our
reaction to the original trauma which was itself repressed. So when
you have repressed trauma, you can't react appropriately or know the
true source of your distress. You can't know, can't feel and can't
react. This is a pretty fair definition of suffering, but there's more
- when the ability to cry is lost to repression we lose our path back
to health, so that in neurosis we truly become prisoners of our pain.
What is the healing transaction here? We pass from the present context
to the past, letting the feeling be our guide (since it is the feeling
which is the same in the present as in the past). When we find the true
context, the primal hurt, we let ourselves react as we could not then.
We fully react to the primal trauma for the first time and this
is the healing transaction - memory is regained, there's relief, even
euphoria, and insight into the neurotic behavior driven by the
We believe that the brain actually
rewires itself during this experience, which is why we speak of
connection. Once reacted to, the repressed material no longer has to
be shunted away from consciousness and becomes simply a part of our
history. Freud himself actually treated a First-World-War
shell-shock victim who'd been blown up while reading a map by thrusting
a map into his hands unexpectedly. The man had a tremendous catharthis
during which he remembered details of the explosion, and his symptoms
resolved. But Freud failed to recognize the significance of what had
How can we be sure we haven't had a "false memory?" That we haven't
fooled ourselves with some sort of placebo effect? We find dramatic
changes in physiological parameters during therapy sessions, found in
no other therapy. Over the years, every parameter Janov measured
normalized with progress in therapy.
Salivary cortisol, a measure of stress, falls. Thermographic pictures
show more even skin temperature, indicating more even capillary flow.
Serotonin levels fall (measured indirectly by imipramine binding to
platelets, which come from the same stem cells as limbic neurons),
indicating less repression and better immune function. EEG
measurements show lower voltages and frequencies in all quadrants,
indicative of a calmer brain.
And the vital signs, including blood pressure, pulse and body
temperature, normalize. The question is, why? We react to threat with
the fight-or-flight response as our sympathetic nervous system gears us
for extraordinary effort. This is true whether we're being attacked by
a saber-tooth tiger, or shamed into conforming. If the trauma is too
much for us, repression rushes in. When we relive this trauma in a
primal, our vital signs follow the same original pattern because they're part of the memory.
The profound relief and calm after a primal is almost always accompanied
by the vital signs falling in concert below their values at the
beginning of the session. If free-flowing insights accompany the
memories, we can be reasonably certain that the memories are real.
This is easy to check and gives insight into the pattern of the imprint.
On the other hand, if the vital signs diverge, we have the thing Freud
warned us of: abreaction, hysteria and decompensation. Pain has merely
been shunted from one physiologic system to another, from blood
pressure to increased metabolism and a higher body temperature, say.
Abreactive crying strips away neurotic defenses without resolving the
trauma by connection to consciousness. Our last line of defense -
crazy ideas - must be pressed into service to preserve our sanity! The
danger of Primal therapy in untrained hands is that it can drive people
mad. What alternatives to Primal Therapy are there? Those for whom
Primal therapy has worked are probably unanimous in saying there is no
alternative. Those for whom it hasn't worked, whether because of poor
technique, impregnable repression or a loss of the ability to cry - or
for lack of opportunity - need ways to live with their pain. Some may
find peace of mind or even access to feeling in drugs, exercise, diet,
cold showers, meditation and hormones.
Although drugs in Primal therapy may seem counter-intuitive, the
rationale is that those who are too anxious or too depressed to have
access to tears must be helped to the feeling zone before their therapy
can begin. Sometimes, repression must be shored up so that
consciousness has the "breathing room" to function. But there's a step
to take before presenting the prescription: if we don't have enough of
the nutritional precursors, we may not be able to make the
neurotransmitters we need.
5HTP is the well-known and widely available precursor of serotonin, and
many believe it's as effective as SSRIs like Prozac but without the
side-effects. dl-phenylalanine both preserves the endorphins, our
natural pain-killers, and is a precursor of dopamine, a lack of which
lessens feelings of pleasure. Check out BeCalm'd, a good source of
neurotransmitter precursors, at http://www.becalmd.info/.
The symptoms of pellagra - niacin deficiency - are some combination of
dermatitis, diarrhea and dementia, and since the sub-clinical condition
is frequently found in the aged of this country, even a B-supplement
can have an incredible effect on mood if one is deficient.
Exercise is nature's antidepressant. Lethargy is characteristic of
depression and to go against it, is to go against the imprint of, "If I
move, I'll die." Exercise generates endorphins, nature's feel-good
opiates which probably work more effectively than any drug, if we can
generate enough of them. Exercise also satisfies the flight part of
the fight-or-flight reaction, so that if our anxiety is in part a
memory of being stuck - "I must move, or die" - then it goes against
this imprint also. It's incredible how resistant to exercise people
with these imprints are, and doubly incredible how effective exercise
is when they can be persuaded to indulge in it.
Diet - ah, diet. Hypoglycemics are often addicted to sugar and are
sometimes even more resistant to change than those who are
anti-exercise. Since hypoglycemia makes whatever neurotic afflictions
we may have many times worse, it is worth ruling out. It's so
unexpected, so insidious and so destructive to good mood that I've
written an article on it: http://www.survivediabetes.com/sugar.htm#Sugar
Then there's cold showers. Curiously, Arthur Janov's mother's
pre-psychotic disorder responded to the prescription of a cold-ocean
swim each morning. How can such a simple thing be so effective? I
think it triggers the reflex which brings us to life at birth. As
we're born, the temperature drops by 20° or 30°, and this triggers our
first intake of breath.
As you turn the temperature down in the shower, there comes a point for
many people when the eyes open wide and there's an involuntary intake
of breath, usually accompanied by a renewed sense of focus on matters
at hand and a lift in the spirits. For many, birth marked the end of
"stuck" and the start of life, so a cold shower may lift these people
out of their imprint.
Meditation is a fascinating subject, once one gets past the mysticism.
Meditation of every flavor normalizes the vital signs, just like Primal
Therapy. I think it does this by purging the mind of triggers, so that
we get rid of whatever we're thinking about which resonates with past
pain. We lose what's eating at us. This is palpable when we meet
someone who meditates - they're generally calm and receptive.
Herbert Benson's Beyond the Relaxation Response and Lawrence LeShan's How to Meditate are two good secular books on the subject. The Monroe Institute ( http://www.monroeinstitute.org/)
sells tapes using HemiSync technology, in which slightly different
tones played into each ear generate a beat frequency which entrains the
brain, which make it very easy to enter a meditative state. If I were
stuck without access to feeling, I'd pursue meditation until I found
peace of mind - and then I'd pursue access to feeling.
A parasympathetic imprint constantly pushes us into parasympathetic
excess and towards depression, and the mechanism is lowered hormonal
activity. If our waking temperature is below 97.4o,
we're likely hypothyroid. If we get dizzy when we stand up, we may be
low in cortisol. If we lack self-confidence or sexual desire, low
testosterone may be to blame. Older men often lack sufficient
progesterone, leading to estrogen dominance and PMS-like symptoms.
Once identified, hormone replacement with natural hormones
may compensate for the pressure of the imprint and make us feel better.
These are matters for an enlightened endocrinologist, who may be harder
to find than a needle in a haystack. However, you can take a saliva
test without a prescription which may reveal if this line of enquiry is
worthwhile - check out http://www.life-flo.com/evalu8.html.
As a Primal Therapist in private practice, I am often asked for
inexpensive solutions to suffering, and I offer these things in the
hope they may be of help. There's nothing worse than unnecessary suffering. |
* Allan Schore, Affect Regulation and the Origin of the Self, Erlbaum, New Jersey 1994, p. 252.
I grew up in Cambridge, England, and studied Engineering at London University. I borrowed The Primal Scream from my mother and read it while working for Cambridge Audio, who made the first high-quality transistor amplifiers. I began therapy in 1970 at the Primal Institute in Los Angeles. Such an exciting time, new discoveries seemed to be made daily. I joined the training program and began an MA in Psychology, graduating in 1976.
It was Art's presence that made the time special. His saying was "let a hundred flowers bloom", which meant he let his therapists find their own way, so long as their therapy was effective. After a brief power struggle, Riggs Corriere, Steve Gold and Gerry Binder left to form The Feeling Center.[Webmeister's Note: See book review - Therapy Gone Mad] I was sorry to see Werner Karle go; a few years later, he had a seizure while on a roof and was killed - his epilepsy had been in remission at the Institute.
A little later, Jules and Helen Roth left to form the Denver Institute. My good friend Tracee Alexander went to New York to run the Clinic there, and I began to find myself slowing down - years of seeing two three-week patients simultaneously, plus sessions, groups and meetings had taken their toll. I qualified as a Marriage, Family and Child Counselor and left the Institute in 1977, about the time Art went to France. About that time, I discovered computers, nearly went to Australia and got Type I Diabetes which was a really big surprise - see my website about it at http://www.SurviveDiabetes.com .
I wrote a book about essential fatty acids and health and happiness, which was published by Bantam in 1992 as Food for Vitality. Bantam wanted a qualification to put after my name, so I made the text into a thesis with a few changes and was awarded a PhD in Health Principles! A fascinating time. Art came back from France in 1986 and sought me out to teach at The Primal Training Center in 1989.
We were trying to train therapists, and we learned that people who'd had therapy
knew almost nothing about being therapists. This was a surprise, but it makes sense since one is far too distracted while undergoing therapy to take in the techniques being used. We made it possible for them to learn by becoming a clinic once more. Once this enterprise was stable, with graduates at work in Switzerland and a competent staff at home, I left to return to private practice.
So here I am, thirty-three years after beginning therapy, with some incredible memories. I fly planes for a hobby - I learned when I was 17 and I love the feeling of soaring into the sky at takeoff, it's just like being lifted out of the crib. I buddy with my sister, who keeps me straight.
What have I learned? Primal therapy is a lifelong journey. Each period of feeling gives a peace of mind which may last years, but when the time is right the next installment comes along. Then it's time to go back. In my time, I haven't met anyone who's finished the process, but I've met many who've let their access lapse. It's surprising when you think of what we had to spend and what we had to go through to gain access to feeling in the first place, but I suppose it's part of the learning process - the price of neglecting access is suffering.
I've learned that nobody is smarter than their pain. Until we feel what's driving it, our symbolic behavior makes sense to us. This is true at every level, no one is immune - I've never met Primal Man!
The strongest feelings are the earliest and they take the longest to get through. They seem to take forever - but often this is part of the feeling since we had no sense of time when the feeling was laid down. They are the most worthwhile because they evaporate the sense of impending doom, or the feeling of being stuck, or the sense of being under pressure - whatever it is that ails us.
So that's what I do. I see people from the old days and bring them up to date - the therapy is so much more than it was in 1973. I also do three-week intensives and individual sessions.
Jonathan Christie, Janov-Certified Primal Therapist (1993)
835 N Stanley Ave, Los Angeles, CA 90046
firstname.lastname@example.org , (323) 852-7134