Abreaction Part 2: Abreaction vs Connected Feeling – What’s the Difference?

by Bruce Wilson

In my last post, I described the history of abreaction and why it was abandoned in mainstream psychotherapy. But modern therapists who model their treatment on primal therapy often facilitate abreaction without even knowing it. They may encourage an anything-goes approach to feeling, allowing the client to go wherever they will without intervention.

The result can be an undetected slide into abreaction because it’s often easier to feel something out of context rather than face the original feeling that was triggered in the session. I asked France Janov of The Arthur Janov Primal Center to describe abreaction and how it differs from a connected feeling. She explains it as follows:

Abreaction is an emotional release that looks like a feeling, sometime sounds like a feeling, but isn’t a feeling. It is the discharge of a  feeling, disconnected from its source, making it in fact a defense or reinforcing a defense.  It can be the release of a feeling from one level of consciousness into another level of consciousness – for example, first line into third line, or first line disconnected from any other level, taking on a life of its own to the exclusion of any other levels.

To those unfamiliar with primal theory, levels or “lines” of consciousness refers to the three levels of feeling we can reach in therapy, which correspond to three levels of the brain in Paul McLean’s triune brain theory. First line is the primitive, reptilian complex consisting of the basal ganglia and brain stem; second line is the mammalian brain consisting of the limbic system and cingulate cortex; and third line is the cerebral cortex. Although McLean’s theory is obsolete, it still provides a good working model to explain the levels of feeling experienced in primal therapy.

As France states, abreaction is a defense against feeling and an insidious one at that because it gives the illusion that one is having primals when one is just bleeding off energy. Worse, one can become grooved into abreacting, after which attaining connected feelings becomes extremely difficult. France explains,

Abreaction can become a groove, like a royal way to nowhere. It is feeling inside our defenses, promoting no insights, no resolution, not  getting better. The therapeutic difference between real primal feelings and abreaction is that abreaction isn’t curative or even helpful. The patient doesn’t get better and in fact,  long term abreaction can induce recurrent behaviors and lead to worsening of symptoms, such as prepsychosis or psychosis.

Because of their immense power and demand to be felt, first-line feelings can quickly lead to abreaction if allowed to occur without connection to the present. The person can get sucked into having endless birth primals; perhaps feeling temporary relief but without real resolution. So the feeling occurs over and over again, sometimes for years. Taken to the extreme, these abreactions can lead to bizarre “connections” that aren’t real, such as the “memory” of being in a past life, experiencing conception as a sperm or egg cell, or suffering infantile abuse by Satanic cults. In France’s words:

Abreaction is repetitive as it doesn’t “empty” the pain. It just creates a closed circuit, a loop, travelled over and over again whenever part of it is triggered. And every trigger, however different it might be, will bring up the same abreactive feeling: “I want to die. I am in too much pain (indeed!), I want to die.” It will not be attached to anything specific at any time and will remain as a litany or series of sensations repeated endlessly.

Patients who abreact  become very entrenched in their “primal” style and very resistant to admitting that what they are doing isn’t “the right way” and of course they aren’t open to changing it.

If the abreaction goes on for years, as in the case of people who self-primal for a long time, it may not be reversible; the groove is too strong and it becomes a neurological defense in itself.

If there is a sine qua non of abreaction, it is in the lack life changes made by the person abreacting. Abreaction keeps you “stuck” –  no ventures are made, no risks are taken, no changes in jobs or career, no “going for it” in a real, healthy, meaningful way. Instead, one remains a prisoner of their pain, always reacting to circumstances, always triggered, always needing to “go down” to feel every few days, and always acting out. Primal therapy becomes an end rather than a means. I recently received a call from a self-primaler asking me to sit for him on the phone. He had lost his phone buddy and needed to feel every day, sometimes twice a day. When he told me he had been in this situation for well over a decade, I knew instinctively he was abreacting because needing to feel every day for years is a clear sign that nothing is being resolved. I declined his request and recommended he find a good therapist.

Another sign of abreaction is the “fake cry.” After reading one of Janov’s books, some therapists tell their clients to emulate feeling by making vocal sounds or screams, hoping it will lead them to primal feelings. Self-primalers can fall into this trap easily. They may get into this pattern of acting out deep feelings without actually feeling them.  France gives an example:

I remember the  case of a woman who had been self-primaling for about 20 years somewhere in a very remote part of the world. Her style was a persistent screaming. That is what she thought the “Primal Scream” was all about. She could go on screaming for hours at the top of her lungs in a piercing voice. It was devoid of all real feeling, content, context, and  resolution. She didn’t know why or about what she was screaming; she had no memories attached to it. She “felt” like screaming because “she was in so much pain.” It was very hard to listen to, and totally unmoving, and of course she never had any insights and wasn’t getting better. Reversing that groove proved to be very difficult.

In contrast, real feelings don’t need to be felt forever, there is an end to them. In Primal, past a certain amount of feelings that had to be done over and over for a while – depending on how much pain was attached to them, the need to feel  decreases  with each felt feeling until, at some point, we hardly ever have to “feel” old pain.

So how does one know if you’re abreacting? Again, the surest way to know is whether or not your life is changing. Even if you’ve been feeling deeply on all three levels, you are probably abreacting if there’ve been no life changes for years, or if you are repeatedly thrown into pain whenever you try to move forward in life. That’s when you need to find a good primal therapist to break the pattern.



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14 Replies to “Abreaction Part 2: Abreaction vs Connected Feeling – What’s the Difference?”

  1. Excellent post,

    Thank you very much for clarification, many fall into this same trap. A tool, neuro-tech toolkit may undo the repression systematically as this neurotechnology works on one brain-stem and then the entrainment is followed by neurotransmitters affecting the second line and third.

    Simply said, brainwave entrainment has that ability to puts us into rapport with our subconscious mind if you will — two parts of the mind become more synchronized as result of the entrainment and we feel and express our genuine feelings, they come up from behind the defenses. As we feel deeply, we heal deeply.

    See what I’m talking about more here:

    Thanks for the post!!
    Rev. Sir. NiRo

  2. Bruce, Excellent article. You say “That’s when you need to find a good primal therapist to break the pattern.”

    I agree. I have always felt that as part of therapist training, particularly primal therapy, that one of the key components in deciding their final qualifications is whether the therapist can ‘tell’ the difference between abreaction and a connected feeling in his or her client. For me I can immediately ‘smell/ know’ with my gut, when it’s not connected, (there’s a tingle in my stomach when its connected and a sort of deadness when not) and I would often ask the client who is obviously abreacting “did that feel ‘real’ for you? More often than not if the cliet is honest, the answer is “well not exactly”

    How often in groups I have seen people go over the same stuff time and time again ad nauseam and when invited tentatively to perhaps try this or that, or whatever, in one instance when part of a group, I received the answer “I have been primalling for 30 years” so f…k off and don’t try to tell me what to do..Ah well. Nil desperandum

  3. I think nobody likes to abreaction, if a patient does is because of his internal and external defenses so what a therapist should do is to locate the defenses and gradually dismantling them so the patient can feel his pain. I guess the difficulty is to know what the defenses are and how to remove them without damaging the integrity of the person.
    Also wanted to say that I find very interesting your blog and I hope you continue down this path.

  4. After reading this it is still unclear what is meant with abreaction.Or it must be that it is not moving for the therapist……Is that a joke? Where is the science?

    1. Paul, I’m not sure what you mean about “moving for the therapist,” but I agree there’s a lack of science in this area. In my view, the sine qua non of abreaction is the lack of connection to what you’re feeling. In other words, feelings are being expressed, but there is little or no understanding or insight about what they mean, or how they relate to present-day problems. There is an “endless loop” feeling to abreaction — the same feeling can be expressed over and over but no real change comes out of it. Self-primalers often fall into abreactive loops that can become very entrenched. Why? Because venting your feelings is much easier to do than actually seeing how your pain has shaped your being. Seeing that connection is much more painful. But it is the seeing that heals.

      For the purposes of a scientific study, discerning a connected primal from an abreaction would require the judgement of a skilled therapist who has been primaling for a long time. Medical studies often use subjective physician assessments to determine whether or not a patient is improving with a treatment. The same could work in primal research.

  5. I don´t like that subjective judgement of the therapist at all ,why not make a list of questions ,say 40, and then from that you can read for your self whether or not it is a primal.(high heartrate,being locked in etc)
    From the first quote of France there seems to be a lot of different forms of abreaction.

    1. I agree, Paul. There needs to be a way to quantify abreaction, however, therapist judgement is a valid and important component of that. In medical research, physician assessment of a patient’s condition is measured on a number of scales, such as the “Global Assessment of Functioning” scale. A scale such as this could be developed for primal, but to be scientifically valid, it would need the input of a number of therapists, not just one. Sadly, primal has not advanced to this point yet, despite more than forty years of existence.

  6. The uneventful patterns are usually repetitive. I find that to get to real feelings involves constantly breaking up patterns in the approach, which is hard to do on your own. I try to break up any patterns I use in getting to feelings all in a single session. The healing pattern will not be “engineered” it will come up on its own. It will also present itself by connecting current feelings to past ones. I experience abreaction in my approach but it gets “undone” as I change the approaches and do this in a protracted period of time per session. This wears down the defenses and the healing feelings come up all on their own, usually making clear how my current behaviors and struggles connect to them, as if they are being integrated. I also find that efforts to change behavior to match the felt changes helps to promote the more feeling inclinations, but, of course not the other way around. I have experienced a variety of feelings and insights that weren’t connected, but when the defenses begin to collapse the feelings that emerge connect these together. There is little doubt that having a trained therapist might help, but there are times when feeling on one’s own works better, as I have never found a “helper” that was truly able to handle and/or relate to all my feelings and once I had a therapist who was triggered by my feelings and left me alone. No big deal, but I did learn from that the value of learning to help yourself. I believe that using both self help and outside help together is the best approach. It is too easy for a therapist to want to punish or dislike a person due the the effects of the patient’s behaviors on others. A punishing attitude, or a desire to have someone “confess” as is so common in some religions is common and inappropriate in therapy. I also disagree with the idea that a “buddy” system is better than doing therapy on your own, or even safer. A “buddy” expressing disinterested breathing or attitudes that are judgmental, can anger someone in deep primal feelings or pull them out of feelings suddenly. So, yes I agree that we need to break up patterns, but patterns alternated over time can break down the defense system gradually and cause primals to occur if done long enough in a single session. The danger with this approach is to have partial primals and not primal often enough to move past this stage, or to never be able to drop down into first line feelings effectively or at all. Time between attempts to feel can cause the defense system to lock up and break progress, thus there is no getting around the Janov approach if you want to progress effectively, in this life time. Oh yes, and there seems to be only one. ha What I find is that the first line is tapped only gradually and the progress there is so slow I could live for 200 years and never resolve major pains. Conclusion? The approach of Art Janov is the most thorough and effective, but you can help yourself to some degree if you have had some help previously, and if that help was effective.

  7. Let me shorten some of the above and add a bit more. I think that abreaction can be useful if varied and in small doses. I also think it is almost inevitable since the defense system is so desperate to hold down overwhelming experiences. I would like to throw in the concept I hear about frequently “partial primals”. I think the vital sign readings from these might easily resemble an abreaction and I can see how “partial” could mean “defense” and a highly effective one… This brings me to the idea that we need a bigger more long range picture to help us analyze what is really going on with these phenomena. We also need concurrent brain recordings during primals, if that is at all safe or possible at this point.

  8. Hello Bruce,

    Firrst, I agree that PT is superior to abreaction because it connects the expressed `feelings` with past trauma. But hre our troubles begin. There is a fear of communication, in pt, coupled with a certain anti-intellectual approach, as though feelings and ideas cannot be mixed together, or that talking is the opposite of feeling.

    I mean, we are talking about repressed memories – recordings – of traumatic events as being the source of neurosis. What are feelings?

    Ppl in pt tend to get overly poetic trying to answer this question, but this is not poetry, it is science – or at least that is what it is supposed to be. The source of a feeling is an event or, more commonly, a series of traumatic events. Feelings are `conclusions` we dray from these events. Subconscious conclusions. So, if the feeling is your end goal, you will be missing some important repressed material. If you want to uproot the neuroses you will have to go to it`s source.

    No wonder pt lasts forever and very often deteriorates into abreaction – so many of the symptoms you describe ive seen displayed by ppi in pt.

    You seem to be against expressing the drama of past trauma as well – but that is part of the experience. Drama, language,communication are all part of what forms neurotic ideas, and of those form our particular defense mechanisms.

    People tend to use certain stock phrases – or just go through whole dramatization sequences – when upset.

    Why thisnfear of drama in pt?

  9. It seems I was mistaken in my previous comment in my use of the term abreaction. Read the wiki article on abreaction – sounds exactly like PT, only Janov talks about feelings, while in abreaction they are talking of traumatic events, which seems more accurate to me.

    Primal Therapy has many problems: it does not work for most peopel for one reason or another; I cannot count the number of people I have spoken with who have got a decade or more or PT under their belt, usually 2-3, who are still very neurotic are suffering from chronic (psychosomatic) illnesses and who need a few sessions of a week (usually shorter than one hour) to relieve pressure.

    Well, I think that covers it. So many of the symtoms you have listed as associated with ‘abreaction’ seem to be extremely common in pt. Now, the opposite of abreaction is a ‘connected feeling’ and in Janov’s defense I must admit that even this minimum is absent from pretty much all other therapies that are out there at the moment.

    The trouble is that while making this connection y’all are ignoring some major aspects of repression and of trauma. Mainly, that all traumatic events must be systematically relieved, by the patient, in order toheal, and also the importance of language, and of thpe prenatal zone, to neurosis.

    You need drama in therapy, you need to acknowledge thoughts and ideas instead of trying to circumvent it all with that ‘left-brain right-brain’ dialectics. And you need to know what to do with them, how to defuse the defense mechanisms the are part of.

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