A Primal is a Primal is a Primal Abreaction
by Hal Geddes
In 1992, I wrote the following:
"A primal is a form of abreaction. A primal is an experience in which a person revisits and relives a prototypical traumatic event in an engulfing manner that includes the body, the heart, the mind, and perhaps the soul.
"More precisely speaking, a piece of the event is usually lived through for the first time. The term "reliving" is usually used, but only the part of the event that was not experienced (lived through) in the first place needs to be experienced during a primal. During a primal, the person usually has an inner ego-observer who is able to terminate the experience at any time."
I believe that when a new entity is discovered by someone who gives it a name, then the definition of that entity is whatever the discoverer says it is. Janov coined the use of the word "Primal" as a noun and, therefore, a Primal is whatever Janov says it is.
In a survey of Janov's eight books, I found only one concise definition of the noun "Primal" in The Primal Revolution: "Reliving key primal scenes and their painful feelings in a totally encompassing way, mind and body."
Only The Primal Scream lists the word "Primal" in its index. It offers a definition in bits and pieces:
"Feeling that Primal Pain I call a Primal" [pg. 42]
"A Primal is a total feeling thought-experience from the past. It is a totally engulfing experience. The patient is almost unaware of where he is." [pg. 86]
"During a Primal there is no reflection on what you are doing, no processing of the happening, no reasoning of the need, so to speak. There is only a self totally engaged in something for the first time since childhood. The person is the feeling." [pg. 901]
No standard dictionaries include "Primal" as a noun. No psychiatric dictionaries that I reviewed include the noun "Primal." Some included the term "Primal Therapy."
The Psychiatric Handbook  contains the following comprehensive description of a Primal written by E. Michael Holden, M.D.:
"Primal Therapy is a psychotherapy in which patients vividly re-experience intensely painful events of infancy and childhood. Such re-experiences are called Primals. A Primal is a two-phase response pattern which starts with intense suffering and a sympathetic nervous system crisis. The first phase is a crescendo of involuntary panic during which one cries or screams in agony. This reaches a peak and is abruptly followed by a parasympathetic recovery phase. A the start of the second phase, one has a vivid re-experience of an early-life painful event, the recall is total and organismic. The recalled memory is typically visual, but any or all of the sensory modalities may be included in the re-experience. At the end of a completed Primal, one is slightly euphoric, very lucid, and profoundly calm."
In The New Primal Scream , Janov no longer lists the word "Primal" in the index. He continues to use it but very rarely and uses instead the word "reliving" (and the word "weeping"). Reliving seems to be the word he uses most of the time. He continues to see reliving (or primaling) as different from abreaction.
All dictionaries list "abreaction," although the definitions vary greatly. Robert Campbell's Psychiatric Dictionary  defines "abreaction" as follows:
"The process of bringing to consciousness, and thus to adequate expression, of material that has been unconscious (usually because of repression). Abreaction refers to two aspects of a 'complex' - the intellectual representation and the accompanying affect - and includes not only the recollection of forgotten memories and experiences, but also their reliving with appropriate emotional display and discharge of affect."
Could this be the definition of a Primal? Close enough to pass?
Is a primal, then, a form of abreaction, as trotting and galloping are forms of running? The IPA Board of Directors came to that conclusion when we evolved the IPA Statement of Essence a number of years ago. The heading of that statement is, "COMMUNITY - PRIMAL ABREACTION - BEING."
Again, taking the position that the real definition is the one offered by the inventor, let's look at the definition of abreaction given by Freud and Breuer in 1893:
"The fading of a memory or the losing of its affect depends on various factors. The most important of these is whether there has been an energetic reaction to the event that provoked the affect. By 'reaction' we here understand the whole class of voluntary and involuntary reflexes - from tears to acts of revenge - in which, as experience shows us, the affects are discharged. If this reaction takes place to a sufficient amount, a large part of the affect disappears as a result. If the reaction is suppressed, the affect remains attached to the memory... The injured person's reaction to the trauma only exercises a completely 'cathartic' effect if it is an adequate reaction - as, for instance, revenge. But language serves as a substitute for action; by its help, an affect can be 'abreacted' almost as effectively..."
("Catharsis" and "abreaction" made their first published appearance in the above passage from "Preliminary Communication, 1893" in Studies in Hysteria, 1895.)
Freud, like Janov, never seems to define abreaction clearly, except in bits and pieces. Here are some additional bits and pieces from Studies in Hysteria:
"It will now be understood how it is that the psycho-therapeutic procedure which we have described in these pages has a curative effect. It brings to an end the operative force of the idea which has not been abreacted in the first instance by allowing its strangulated affect to find a way out through speech." [pg. 52]
"I knew that she had not told me everything and insisted on her continuing her story until the pain had been talked away. Not until then did I arouse a fresh memory.
"During this period of 'abreaction,' the patient's condition, both physical and mental, made such a striking improvement..." [pg. 189]
"This lady celebrated annual festivals of remembrance at the period of her annual catastrophes, and, on these occasions, her vivid visual reproductions and expressions of feeling kept to the date precisely... I should be very interested to know whether the scenes which she celebrated at these annual festivals of remembrance were always the same ones or whether different details presented themselves for abreaction each time..." [pg. 204]
Is a primal a form of abreaction?
I propose that it is, based upon the following two essential similarities between a Primal and an abreaction: Both involve re-experiencing a past traumatic event, and both result in releasing the affect attached to that event through affect discharge. In their different ways, both Freud and Janov clearly include these two basic essentials in their descriptions.
The depth of affect attached to a trauma was, perhaps, beyond Freud's imagination - perhaps not. At any rate, there seems to be a dramatic difference in the depth of affect expressed in a Primal as compared to an abreaction, as described by Freud, but this is simply galloping instead of trotting.
This article appeared in the Summer 1994 IPA Newsletter.
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