In their natural state, human beings function as an integrated whole
- in balanced communication and interaction within themselves and
with the world at large.
When we experience painful situations (such as neglect, abuse,
or injury) we, like other animals, have the capacity to survive
the overwhelming stimulus by shutting down and becoming partly or
wholly unconscious. Feeling "stunned," or fainting are simple examples
of this. In situations of more severe or chronic abuse or neglect,
this mechanism works by keeping the awareness, feeling, and memory
of the trauma unconscious (apart from working consciousness). Our
consciousness "splits" away, or "dissociates" from the traumatic
Young animals are especially vulnerable to strong stimulus and/or
neglect, due to the delicacy of their developmental needs and their
fragile, undeveloped systems. Humans, with their exceptionally long
period of childhood, are in greater danger of traumatic injury than
According to various developmental theories, to become functional
adults, children need:
sufficient food, clothing, shelter, protection, and security
unconditional love, appreciation, and respect, with regular,
freedom from physical, sexual, and emotional abuse
unconditional family support and acceptance
freedom to express perceptions, feelings, creativity, and
When these needs are not met, a child's physical and emotional
development is impeded and he or she suffers and may become traumatized
as a result.
Traumatic pain is blocked from consciousness (repressed) both
by body/brain chemistry and by various behaviors that we develop
to avoid it. These blocks and special behaviors are the defenses,
shields, or coping mechanisms we use to survive and function with
underlying pain. Psychology calls this condition neurosis
in its manageable form, and psychosis in the extreme.
Depending on the severity of the trauma, the repressive split
creates a wide range of uncomfortable feeling states, thoughts,
and imagery, as well as relationship conflicts and physical pain.
Almost all emotional and mental disorders are the result of this
condition. Common symptoms are: anxiety, fear, panic, agitation,
shame, worthlessness, emptiness, alienation, depression, suicidal
thoughts, frustration, rage, paranoia, self-centeredness, unstable
mood, impulsivity, mania, avoidance, phobias, obsessions, compulsions,
sexual problems, eating problems, relationship problems, and addictions.
Since neurosis is the result of a system split within itself,
there is a sense of incompleteness that drives a search for healing
and completion through any means, especially medicine, religion,
politics, and therapy. The discomfort also drives a need for relief
in forms of excessive behavior, from drug use and consumerism to
overeating and workaholism. These behaviors are part of our neurotic
defense system. The illnesses of present society, from poverty to
war, are often an indirect result of this condition.
Primal is a natural process that allows our emotional condition to
heal by creating a safe situation for honest feeling expression. Repressed
trauma can then be released and we can return toward our original
balanced state. Facilitators must be experienced in their own process
in order to be effective guides - this is not an intellectual exercise
that can be learned and practiced from books. The client is always
in control and can proceed or stop when needed, so that the necessary
defenses originally created for survival are not removed too early.
Such a breach of defenses can cause greater illness. Primal process
follows the essence of the Hippocratic Oath - "Do no harm."
One of the most important elements of the process is "the primal"
- an expression of stored feelings, memories, and pain from an original
traumatic split. Primals often arise by allowing strong present-day
feelings to be expressed and then following these feelings to their
origins. The process is one of feeling, release, and integration,
using the body and the intellect.
An Eclectic Approach
Although attention to feelings and their expression is the essence
of primal work, many other techniques can be used to allow us to get
in touch with our feelings. Some of the tools that are effective include
meditation, bodywork, breathwork, gestalt, psychodrama, bioenergetics,
EMDR, co-counselling, Jungian sandplay, inner child work, guided imagery,
artwork, expressive movement, dreamwork, and journalling. Integration
can also be enhanced by attending to the elements of everyday life,
such as balanced diet, exercise, creative development, stress reduction,
conflict resolution, career counselling, and coping skills.
The History of Primal
The split of human consciousness has a long history and the remedies
for it go back to early aboriginal life and spiritual practice. All
cultures have developed various methods to release blockages and regain
wholeness, from the "Crying for a Vision" ceremony of the Plains Indians
to the Katharsis of Greek drama. Practices of regaining oneness are
the essence of all religions and healing traditions.
In the late 1800s, Sigmund Freud pursued a therapeutic approach
that encouraged patients to experience an emotional catharsis, which
he called an "abreaction." He eventually developed the more intellectual
psychoanalytic method because of the challenges that such deep primal
releases presented to him in this new field. In the 1920s, Freudian
analyst Wilhelm Reich returned to the cathartic model by encouraging
emotional release and directly challenging neurotic blockages in
the client's muscular tension and "body armor."
With the advent of humanistic psychology and the "human potential
movement" in the 1960s, therapists experimented with many expressive
avenues to growth and healing, from bioenergetics and psychodrama
to gestalt therapy and encounter groups. William Swartley, one of
the founders of the IPA, was one of those pioneers. He called his
approach Primal Integration.
In 1970, Arthur Janov wrote The Primal Scream. He was a psychoanalyst
who accidentally stumbled upon the profound effects of trauma release
and called these events "primals." The term "primal" came from Freud's
use of the word in describing the primary causes of neurosis. Janov
developed a structured approach to the work with a defense-busting,
therapist-centered initial three-week "intensive" and called it
Primal Therapy. Since that time many therapists, authors, and theorists
have expanded and developed the process into the eclectic, deep-feeling,
and deeply humanistic approach we practice today.
To read more about primal therapy and primal integration, the following
articles are available in the IPA archives: