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Basic Theory

The following is taken from Why You Get Sick – How You Get Well by Dr. Arthur Janov and reviews some of the basic theory behind Primal Therapy.

Why You Get Sick - How You Get Well by Dr. Arthur Janov

There is one neurosis, many manifestations and one cure feeling.’”

Repressed pain divides the self in two, and each side wars with the other. One is the real self, loaded with needs and pain that are submerged; the other is the unreal self that attempts to deal with the outside world by trying to fulfill unmet needs with neurotic habits or behaviors such as obsessions or addictions. The split of the self is the essence of neurosis, and neurosis can kill. 
That pain is the result of needs and feelings that have gone unfulfilled in early life. Those early unmet needs create what I call Primal Pain. Coming close to death at birth or feeling unloved as a child are examples of such Pain. The Pain goes unfelt at the time because the body is not equipped to experience it fully and deal with it. When the Pain is too much, it is repressed and stored away. When enough unresolved Pain has occurred, we lose access to our feelings and become neurotic. 

The number one killer in the world today is not cancer or heart disease, it is repression.

Primal Therapy is important in the field of psychology, for it means, ultimately, the end to so much suffering in human beings. Discovering a way to treat Pain means there is a way to stop the misery in which so many of us are mired every day of our lives. After two decades of research, after dealing with thousands of patients with every imaginable psychological and physical affliction, we have arrived at a precise, predictable therapy that reduces the amount of time one spends in treatment and eliminates all the wasted motion. It is a therapy that has been investigated by independent scientists, and the findings are consistent. Primal Therapy is able to reduce or eliminate a host of physical and psychic ailments in a relatively short period of time with lasting results.

Feeling Pain is the end of suffering.

We have found ways to measure the ongoing presence and chronic effects of early trauma. We have observed time and again that even though it is not felt, the force of the memory remains in the system, reverberating on lower brain levels and moving against the body wherever it happens to be vulnerable. It shapes our interests, values, motivations and ideas. By reliving these traumas, patients can return back to early events and know with certainty how they formed adult behavior and symptoms.

Repression is the hidden force behind illness.

We can see how buried memories constantly activate the system, putting pressure on vital organs and creating disruptions that can eventually result in serious illness. The problem for too many of us is that suddenly we find ourselves with afflictions or obsessions and have no idea how it all happened. We don’t know why we can’t sleep, why we can’t find a mate, why we are obsessed with this idea or that or why we don’t function as we want to sexually. Primal Therapy can clarify these seeming mysteries. 

It sometimes seems that everyone is suffering in their own way, and few are aware of it. Television is riddled with ads for ibuprofen, aspirin, sleeping pills and other pain killers, implicitly acknowledging the Pain we are all in but without ever acknowledging it explicitly. Nothing dramatic happens, but so many of us have developed this disease or that, from high blood pressure to allergies, colitis, anxiety attacks, asthma, circulation problems and heart palpitations (our history literally becomes palpable). So many ailments that seem inexplicable—depression and phobias, ulcers and migraines—may all stem from the same source. So might many of our personality quirks, our habits and behavior patterns, our drives and obsessions. One powerful piece of evidence for the fact of the same kinds of Pains being behind so many different afflictions and behavioral problems is that the same kinds of tranquilizers or pain killers are used to treat all of them. 

In the fields of medicine and psychotherapy today, doctors deal with symptoms. Just look at the DSM-IV, the psychiatric diagnostic and statistical manual, with page after page of every conceivable variation of neurosis. And in Washington, D.C., they have erected monuments to symptoms, a building for each one “drug abuse, alcoholism, heart disease, cancer and so on. Experts specialize in treating colitis, ulcers, migraines, diabetes, high blood pressure, asthma, anxiety, depression, marital problems, eating disorders, etc., knowing more and more about narrower and narrower subjects. They add salt, take away salt, add thyroid, remove thyroid, speculate about the reasons for one’s allergies or unhappiness, analyze dreams and nearly always prescribe medication. They are trying to normalize the symptom instead of normalizing the person who has it, trying to normalize the manifestation instead of the system that makes it manifest. 

Delving deep into the unconscious has allowed us to clarify the basis of adult behavior. We have a good idea of what lies in the unconscious, and it doesn’t seem to be the mystical emporium so often described. We have learned in Primal Therapy that irrespective of whether the Pain is manifest in the body or in the mind, the person is not himself; there is a dislocation of function that is global. Both emotional and physical pain deform cells and cause alterations that show up in measurements of vital signs, brain function and chemistry, the immune system, hormones, peripheral blood flow and in a person’s behavior. Everything is askew. 

Primal Therapy works in reverse of the normal approach. Instead of working from symptoms to possible causes, we work from causes to symptoms. The focus is always deep. From this approach, we have developed a more profound understanding of who we are and what drives us, our basic, hidden, unconscious motivations.

Deviations and Aberrations of Primal Therapy

Primal Therapy is not Primal “Scream” Therapy. Primal Therapy is not just making people scream; it was never “screaming” therapy. The Primal Scream was the name of the first book by Dr. Janov about Primal Therapy.

Those who read the book knew that a scream is what some people do when they hurt. Others simply sob or cry. It was the hurt we were after, not mechanical exercises such as pounding walls and yelling, “Mama.” This therapy has changed what was essentially an art form into a science.

This therapy is dangerous in untrained hands. There are hundreds of people practicing what they call “primal therapy” without a single day’s training and others who claim to have been trained by us who were either not here or who were nowhere near completion of either their own therapy or the training at Dr. Janov’s Primal Center.

Once people have been opened up to their pain, they are vulnerable to manipulation. A therapist who needs control will control his patients and control the course of their therapy, never realizing that his patient needs to lose control of his or her feelings, leading to places the therapist cannot imagine because he won’t let himself lose control. A therapist who acts totally out of control and has an “anything goes” attitude toward therapy will miss the fragile patient who needs structure and so drive someone to madness or suicide. The possibilities for abuse are limitless.

It takes years to train therapists in Primal Theory and teach them to do proper Primal Therapy, honed by Dr. Janov and his staff with 30 years of experience into a scientific tool instead of an art form. We have rarely seen the therapy practiced correctly by others outside of the Center and spend a great deal of time treating patients from these other so-called “primal” clinics. We have seen the damage that can result when therapy is done incorrectly. If you are thinking of having therapy with someone, we will verify any claims they make regarding training with us and address any concerns you may have.

Here is the account by one of our patients of the “treatment” she received in the name of Primal Therapy. This is one of many stories we receive routinely.

What she had told us shocked us so deeply that we decided to dedicate a substantial part of our website to the horrors that are done all over the world to elicit feelings in so-called Primal Therapy.

We always called “mock therapists” people who pretended to practice Primal Therapy without proper training or any training at all. We have tried to caution the public about “Primal Therapy being dangerous in untrained hands.”

For years we have addressed and repaired psychological damage done to unsuspecting patients who were abused into thinking they were indeed receiving Primal Therapy. In a way, it was understandable: how could anyone imagine that “professionals” who advertise themselves as Primal Therapists don’t know the first thing about Primal Therapy.

Most often, they don’t. These accounts are stories related to us or what we have witnessed while trying to undo the damage done to them.

It is obvious to us when someone has undergone mock therapy. Most often, the patients abreact. Abreaction looks like a feeling (from the outside) and feels like a feeling (from the inside) but is not a feeling. The marks of abreaction are multiple and unmistakable. The most obvious signs are that the patients don’t get better; they may act out even more, and their lives don’t change. They have no or very few insights. They keep experiencing the same feeling with no resolution.

The look and the sound of an abreactive feeling are very different from those of a “real” feeling. The patient never goes down to “need,” which is the most important part of the feeling and the most deeply resolving.

Alice: The “Birth Story” Account of Treatment at Mullingstorp in Sweden, 2.5 Years Ago

“They did horrible things to me. There were four activities that I remember as being the worst.

1. They said they would do a birth thing, so that I could be born again. The 20 or so patients had 3 or 4 Persons assisting (assistants or so called therapists, some of which worked there in exchange for their own therapy etc.).

One Person (she) was kneeling on the ground with their feet spread, while I lay down between Her legs, with my face pressing on the ground, and two other Persons lying on top of me, pinning me down so that I couldn’t see or hardly breathe. I felt trapped. They told me to move and to struggle to get through Her legs – that she kept tightly shut – in order to reenact a birth.

I got more and more desperate. Then the manager – who I was afraid of since the first time I spoke with her on the telephone – put her hand over my face and began to stop my breathing. It was the worst I ever felt in my entire life. It was a horror and a desperation. I was terrified. I had so much agony. I thought I should die. I thought they should kill me there.

In the end they let me get my head and shoulders through; then they changed persons and made me do it over and over again. Then I panicked. It felt like hours – even if it wasn’t – but I wasn’t aware of anything. When I finally was through, then I was not aware of reality. I was so desperate in horror that I continued to wriggling and crawling on the floor until someone stopped me, and I collapsed. Then they left me alone on the floor.

2. One therapist took me to an isolated room with mattresses etc. and she had me stand with my feet a couple feet apart and my hands on my lower back and my head back.

In this position the head is too heavy and the muscles soon begin to get tired and to shake.

I was so frightened that all my muscles tightened until it felt like they were stone, which was my body protecting me. My muscles burned from tiredness at holding them so tightly. The burning was a horrible pain.

I begged Her to stop, telling her ‘I can’t take it,’ and crying. She responded, ‘You take responsibility for your life. You may never get a chance to heal yourself. This is your chance. Do you want to suffer for all of your life?” I had to hang on; I’d done so much therapy already and thought if I didn’t do this, I’d kill myself. But this traumatized me 100 times more than I was already. I tried to stand it a bit more and then the horror came up in me and I screamed and screamed and was so exhausted I could nearly not stand on my feet.

3. Aptly named the ‘Fascist activity’: In the group, they put us into pairs, and they told us that we would take turns being fascists to each other. They said we could do almost anything except pee on each other or be sexual or violent. We should do everything to humiliate the other and make them feel bad, like a fascist would.

My partner was a man, who used information I had been forced to tell the group at the start of the week, during our introductions, about my possible past sexual abuse. I had told them during the interview that some of the therapists I’d been to in the past had suspected sexual abuse when I was a child. I didn’t want to bring it up to the group because I don’t know for sure.

My partner did everything to humiliate me, making me take off my clothes, except for my underwear and bra. I hated that because I have a hard time connecting to men and have none and he made me run around the room, lifting my legs like I was marching, with everybody (some Persons were just sitting against the wall) watching. Then he made me lie down on the ground and put his foot down between my breasts, pressing down, not too hard. He was the most controlling and sarcastic one of the group. I blanked out on the rest.

4. One therapist and two assistants took me to a small room. One of the women sat with spread open legs on a mattress with a pillow on her lap. I lay down on my back with my head on the pillow. The male assistant lay on top of me and did some movements so I could be scared. And I really was. I screamed and cried and got so scared. And I have big problems connecting and being close to people, even physically, so it was really hard for me. I only remember the horror. There were lots of activities, no rest, and we weren’t allowed to talk to each other; we were even to eat (our one evening meal a day) in silence. The doctor there even told me I couldn’t take the vitamins I’d been taking for two years and relied on for good nutrition, even though I begged.

After that, when I went home, it was like they had destroyed my system, in the brain. If there was some sound, anything, it could be a tree outside tapping the window or some noise from the refrigerator, it started a fear in me that lasted for hours. I would lay down in fear for hours. It was the same fear like someone could attack me, like it was happening in reality.

That made my life more terrible, because then I couldn’t work. My company was going down and I had to do something, but I couldn’t work. In the end I had to close my company that I’d had for 15 years, and I loved my work. Then I lost my beautiful home, a farm from the 18th century. And then I had to sell my horses that I loved so much because I had no more money. Then I didn’t have a life because it was so ruined by those people.

I didn’t dare to come to the Primal Center after Mullingstorp, but my friend said no one forces you to do anything here. I discovered this was true; it was a good therapy for me.

No one here forced anything. There is no pressure here at all. Here, they gently lead me to the feeling and if they see I’m suffering, then they stop. They only go as far as I want to go myself. There is a big difference: here, when they do something in therapy, it is always connected to something either in the present or in my past. But when they did something there, it was not connected to anything; it was only a big abuse, a re-traumatizing of me at Mullingstorp. There were lots of feelings, but nothing connected.”

Primal Center Comments

Why this is so dangerous, and why and how it can damage patients: It is horrifying and very distressing for us to hear and read accounts like this one. It does not resemble anything we do at THE PRIMAL CENTER. It only shows unscrupulous people have no idea how to help people to feeling. Being themselves unfeeling people, they have to rely on gimmicks and abusive tricks to try to provoke feelings.

It is amazing that Alice L. did not become psychotic; it could have happened when patients are forced prematurely to relieve birth. Trying to coax anoxia and a birth trauma out of a neurological sequence is very dangerous. It is rebirthing therapy, which we strongly oppose.

Primal Therapy is a Scientific Theory with years of research behind it, including four brainwave studies, biochemistry, neurochemistry and double-blind studies. We have done research with UCLA, Rutien and Open University.

A Misperception of Primal Therapy

This is a lawyers account of what Primal Therapy is supposed to be. This description of Primal Therapy is written by an expert in a court case. Here is the misconception that the court was given:

Although the philosophy behind Primal Therapy becomes very complex, the actual practice of the theory is relatively simple. The patient is encouraged to scream, vomit, re-birth, confess for his/her real and imagined sins and the real or imagined sins of his/her people. This therapy has not been widely accepted by the traditional psychotherapeutic schools and is not seen as offering long lasting cures. However, it does have some value for patients with life-long existential depression and guilt as well as patients who are blocked in their feelings.

Primal Therapy is contrary to all this. It is a soft process where we help people feel the misery of their life. They rarely scream, and if it happens, it is as a result of great pain; it is their voluntary expression.

Dr. Arthur and Dr. France Janov’s year of extensive training in Primal Therapy teaches therapists to recognize what level of consciousness patients are on at any given moment. This knowledge is essential to know how to address the “feeling.” It is always soft, gentle and appropriate to where the patient is.

We do not practice rebirthing, and, as a matter of fact, we are strongly opposed to it.

We also do not have anyone confess sins. This is therapy, not church. As a matter of fact, nobody at Dr. Janov’s Primal Center even looks at any neurosis with critical or moral judgment. Pain and its defense take on a whole variety of focus. As therapists, we are there to help, not to judge. It is really sad to see how people display their ignorance as factual. Their accounts can be misleading, and, especially when it comes to a court case, it is unprofessional.

My Boyfriend’s Experience in London

“I am writing to you about my boyfriend because I am concerned about him and the so called Primal Therapy he received in London with people who say they were trained by you in Paris.”

I sent my boyfriend to primal therapy in London where he for four years worked with someone called Sharon and later Tom. He changed from only being overwhelmed with pain to getting back to drugs, feeling suicidal, all types of destructive behaviors. Completely overwhelmed with and stuck in first line pain. I keep comparing his scarce messages about his Primal Therapy in London with what I have read in Dr. Janov’s books. I increasingly doubts whether they practise “proper Primal Therapy”.


My therapist claims to have “a background in Primal Therapy. Can you tell me if the treatment I received with him is Primal Therapy?

  • Q: He claims that correctly conceiving the source of one’s pain and allowing oneself to feel the pain connected to that context is Primal Therapy

    A: Your therapist’s claim of correctly conceiving the source of ones pain and allowing oneself to feel the pain connected to that context is NOT Primal Therapy. Pain should not be conceivedwhatever hurts and whatever feelings are present are what we follow. They are emotional elements that need to be felt for what they are.

  • Q: We analyze dreams or some upsetting daily events to understand what conflicts and repressions they point to.

    A: We do not analyze dreams. There is absolutely no benefit to dream analysis. We only use dreams as a departure point to feelings. Conceding the source of ones pain and analyzing dreams or understanding conflicts and their repression only engages in your intellectual level and your defenses.

  • Q: He implies that understanding the defense mechanism causes it to slowly unfold.

    A: Your therapist’s claim that understanding the defense mechanism causes it to slowly unfold is actually contrary to the process. You feel the painthat is, if you are helped to access it, and again to feel it the feeling and integrating of it is what releases the insights, making it clear what defenses are attached to the pain.

  • Q: My therapist uses the “empty chair” technique where I imagine my father in the empty chair and tell him how I feel.

    A: The empty chair technique is totally unnecessary. A therapist fully trained in Primal methods does not need any gimmicks to help patients to feelings. Thats an old Gestalt Technique dated from 50 years ago. We know how to follow feelings when they are present and how to momentarily loosen or open the attached defenses. There is no need to artificially provoke feelings; this can only engender abreaction. On a neurological level, to choose what feelings to feel by artificially provoking them is to ignore and bypass the current reality and the patients. The triggered feelings in the present are the royal way into the past pain.

  • Q: There is no three-week intense period to break down defenses, only one hour every week. I am concerned that what will occur is not resolution but abreaction.

    A: You mentioned that you have never had a three-week intensive; the intensive period is an essential part of the Primal Therapy process. Dr. Janov insists that Primal Therapy is not done in a 1-hour format; it would be a complete aberration to be deeply involved in a feeling that hurts and be interrupted in the midst of that experience. Primal Therapy cannot be done any other way than with open-ended sessions. They normally last naturally approx. 1.5 to 2 plus hours.

It seems you are getting a mixture of psychoanalysis and emotional therapy, none of which resemble Primal Therapy as we know it. This therapy is precise and carefully controlled. It should not be practiced by those who have not had years of training in it.

Rebirthing and Why We are Opposed to It

If one thinks neurologically, one can understand that the trauma of birth—if there is one—has to come up naturally into consciousness. The brain grows from what we call first line and contains birth trauma: the brain stem into the limbic system; the second line, emotional imprint; and then into the prefrontal neocortex, the third line thinking brain. The treatment of the first line birth trauma is very specific, precise and scientific. It is not to be tampered with.

Rebirthing bypasses the last two developments of the brain to plunge directly into birth pain. Of all the feelings, the birth trauma has the most powerful valence.

Because of its power and because it is the first pain registered, it should only be addressed in sequence, after the third level and second level and only when it manifests itself—usually in intrusions, inside third line and/or second line feelings. How to address these intrusions is the subject of countless hours of training and supervision at THE PRIMAL CENTER.

Each “piece” of the birth sequence has to be integrated by the other levels of the brain, little by little, as it reaches consciousness. It is not to be provoked and/or brought up out of sequence. Let’s never forget that the patient’s “safety” resides in the fact that the body lets us only feel what it can integrate, provided the feelings haven’t been “provoked.” Accessing birth “directly” can result in fragmentation, lack of integration and, at worst, it can induce psychosis.