Does "scream therapy" actually work for anxiety? Psychologists weigh in
Given anxiety disorders are the most common mental illness in U.S.—40 million adults deal with anxiety disorders every year, according to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America—it’s no wonder anxiety-reducing apps, treatments, and workouts are everywhere these days. Some are a little more out there than others—like “scream therapy” for anxiety, which Kanye West recently revealed he tried as a treatment to boost his mental health.
In an incredibly Kanye-esque interview with the New York Times last month, West shared that his wife Kim Kardashian West staged an anxiety intervention after a chaotic couple of years (the artist was hospitalized for nine days following a stress-induced breakdown after KKW was robbed at gunpoint in late 2016). West came home one day to find Tony Robbins (yep, the larger-than-life motivational speaker) in his living room, who had him engage in a controversial treatment dubbed “scream therapy,” he told The Times.
What is scream therapy?
Scream therapy is exactly what you’re probably picturing; it involves standing in a warrior pose and literally screaming at the top of your lungs. And it’s controversial among psychologists.
“Screaming was a principal component of a psychological treatment known as Primal Therapy,” says Franklin Porter, Ph.D., a psychotherapist in New York. Established by psychotherapist Dr. Arthur Janov, Primal Therapy is rooted in the idea that certain therapeutic behaviors—chief among them screaming your head off—can help you tap into repressed issues, ultimately releasing and working through them. It became popular in the ’60s (John Lennon was reportedly a big fan) as a kind of therapist-sanctioned way to release anger and frustration or take the edge off of building feelings of anxiety.
The screaming in and of itself isn’t exactly a therapy, Porter explains, but for proponents of Primal Therapy, the sweet release you feel if you scream into your pillow can be a potentially helpful tool when it’s part of a broader therapy program with a psychologist. (P.S. here’s why you should stop saying you have anxiety if you really don’t.)
So, can screaming actually help treat anxiety?
Theoretically, screaming can be therapeutic. “For the inner-child that was silenced by being repeatedly intimidated, the domestic abuse survivor that couldn’t scream back when attacked, anyone who has suffered severe bullying, anyone dealing with grief or common psychological issues such as depression and anxiety, ‘scream therapy,’ or ‘primal release’ has the potential to be therapeutically beneficial,” says Thompson.
But screaming à la Kanye certainly isn’t the only way to vent a feeling of building anxiety or work through a repressed emotion. “The key is the release,” she says. “Once you have let it go, don’t take it back on.”
Engaging in your own version of scream therapy might sound easy (and like the beginnings of a killer kickboxing class) but this isn’t a technique you should DIY, experts warn—because scream therapy could potentially be harmful to more than just your vocal chords.
In other words, following in Kanye’s footsteps without talking to your therapist first might actually leave you feeling more anxious. (Related: the best therapy and mental health apps.) Additionally, Thompson warns that screaming as a way to express anger and frustration can be potentially destructive or even abusive to those around you.
The bottom line on scream therapy.
Again, the experts don’t recommend unsupervised scream therapy as a way to deal with anxiety, but as part of a comprehensive treatment guided by an experienced psychologist, it may be a useful way to access repressed feelings, Porter says.
Thomson likes to use a holistic version of this as a preventative therapy in her practice. “I teach clients to regularly release pent-up energy through the root chakra, which is located at the base of the spine and associated with our sense of safety and survival,” she says. (Confused? Check out The Non-Yogi’s Guide to the 7 Chakras.) She has clients stand with feet apart like they’re about to dip into a squat and guides them in “pushing out energy” with a loud primal grunting sound. “It can clear issues that threaten a sense of security, replacing that energy with empowerment and grounding,” she explains.
So while Kanye may provide serious sneaker inspo, his version of anxiety treatment should be taken with a grain of salt. “It’s imperative ‘scream therapy’ not become a trend, excuse, or gateway for inappropriate anger expression or a pop-psychology phenomenon because a celebrity has endorsed it,” says Thompson. “I strongly warn that the general public educates themselves on the topic and urge them to seek professional guidance.”