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What is Primal?

Based on an article by Sam Turton

Basic Theory
The Process
The Primal
An Eclectic Approach
The History of Primal
Further Reading

Basic Theory

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 pain.

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 most species.

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, safe affection
• freedom from physical, sexual, and emotional abuse
• unconditional family support and acceptance
• freedom to express perceptions, feelings, creativity, and desires

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.

The Process

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."

The Primal

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.

Further Reading

To read more about primal therapy and primal integration, the following articles are available in the IPA archives:

What is Primal Psychotherapy by Larry King
Primal Integration (brief) by John Rowan, Ph.D.
Primal Integration (extensive) by John Rowan, Ph.D.
The Seven Stages of Primal Therapy by Stephen Khamsi, Ph.D.

These external links may also be helpful:





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