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 Although McLean’s theory is obsolete, it still provides a good working model to explain the levels of feeling experienced in primal therapy.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.
The Abreaction Part 2: Abreaction vs Connected Feeling – What’s the Difference? by The Primal Mind, unless otherwise expressly stated, is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.5 Canada License.