Tuesday, July 15, 2008

On Reliving

Primal therapy involves a careful procedure – paced by the patient – toward bringing sensations and feelings from trauma in one's early history safely into a conscious experience. The apex of this procedure is total reliving of a traumatic experience. Primal therapy avoids distracting or interrupting the patient in this process. We seek to draw attention to sensations and feelings, and allow the patient, when he and his body is ready, to go into the pain, and fully relive it. This time, in contrast to the time of the original trauma, the patient can finally experience the feelings, and finally be relieved of their neurotogenic energy.

The reliving that occurs in primal therapy may be hard to imagine by those who have not seen it. In reliving incest, for example, not only are the vital signs exceptionally high, often into near-lethal levels, but the physical posture reflects what happened in the original event, the wrists bound together behind the back, for example. Why, one would question, do we allow these dangerous levels to exist in therapy? The patient, on the lip of feeling a great trauma, runs a fever. One hundred three degrees is not unusual. We don’t desire it except that without it there is no healing. Secondly, these elevated levels were the reason for the repression, in the first place. Sustained blood pressure in hypertensive regions would have killed the newborn. What the neuroinhibitors such as serotonin/endorphin do is keep reactivity within survival bounds and thereby save one’s life; a key function of repression. Now as an adult the individual is stronger, and may begin to relive the trauma, if only in small titrated doses.

Post session vital signs indicate some degree of integration and resolution after a reliving episode (known as a “primal”). They usually drop below baseline after the session. If they move either up or down sporadically we are dealing with abreaction—the discharge of the energy of a trauma without proper connection. This is never curative.

Reliving yields insights and cognitive changes automatically. Reliving never being touched as a child makes immediately clear the reason for one’s nymphomania. It puts the need for touch in the past so that it is no longer acted-out in the present. The patient does not need to be told how to appreciate the trauma; everything is understood within the feeling, provided it is a full reliving.

Discussing the past trauma is, by and large, a cortical operation that remains in the area of thought. It is the inordinate pain portion that is stored in the brain's limbic system and brainstem that is the culprit to be relived. And that is what constitutes the unconscious. It is that portion of pain that must be relived. If one could see the amount of pain engendered in a primal she would understand right away how important reliving is to the therapeutic process.

Primal Therapy differs from most other therapies extant in approach of reliving past traumas rather than discussing them. The patient seems to be in the grip of an ancient brain during the reliving which results in an integration of the feeling. In the reliving, the whole system will be engaged as it was when the memory was registered. This is why in our research we found an average 24-point drop in systolic readings in our high blood pressure (hypertensive) patients after six months of therapy. It is why in a parasympathetic dominant patient (often, a depressive) who enters a session with a radically lowered body temperature, we will see rises of two or three degrees after the session, as feelings normalize the system. Normalizing blood pressure is very important if we want to avoid cerebral strokes later on. We can “normalize” with medication but the force is still inside doing its damage elsewhere. There is a major difference between normalizing the symptom and normalizing the system. The latter has great import for longevity. If we normalize one aspect of the system, the rest of the body must compensate, and that is the danger with medication. It achieves apparent results, but not profound effects. So long as the generating source of the problem stays active it is forever a threat...a stroke is not the least of the consequences. Again, if we try to “cure” high blood pressure with pills we are depriving the patient of one aspect of the memory; and she needs the totality of response to the memory in order to fully relive and get better. That is, if we suppress part of the memory there can never be a full reliving because the whole memory is not completed.

Why We Must Relive As A Total Experience

A reliving of preverbal imprints will evoke the exact same reactions as at the time of the original trauma. In the absence of a reliving, the reactions or fragments of the memory will persist, such as a fast heart rate or high blood pressure. When we relive a complete early birth memory of which a high blood pressure was a part, then in the total reliving, that fragment of the memory will also be included, and the patient should consequently see relief from the intrusive symptoms. If aspects of the original reaction are missing the reliving is not complete and therefore not curative. When patients relive enough of their painful history, they no longer need alcohol, drugs, cigarettes, or painkillers. Less pain, less pain-killers

When a patient relives early terror, then ceases to compulsively check the locks on his doors twenty times a day, he has solved a key mystery. This, without any prolonged discussion of the obsession. He felt unsafe, profoundly unsafe early on; the obsessions controlled the terror that he didn’t even know he had. The left frontal cortex was saying, “I’d better check the locks. It makes me feel more comfortable.” Since the terror is there he never can feel safe for long, the obsessions go on. The feeling of being unsafe was seeping up in small increments from the right brain. It was immediately staved off by the obsession on the left. “I’ll be safe if the house is locked.” If we were to prevent the obsession we would see terror, which is what we do in our therapy. But it must be done in a safe, controlled atmosphere. In order to feel deeply unsafe one has to feel totally safe in the present. That safety, dialectically, turns into its opposite.

Reliving means to be in the grip of the child’s or infant’s brain; it is different from discussing childhood pain with the adult brain. It means to be immersed totally in an old traumatic memory; it also involves connection of lower forces to top level brain tissue, as well as right brain feeling information to the left prefrontal cortex. There should be brain changes as a result of connection, which is what we want to discover.


  1. This is an excellent short explanation of what Primal Therapy is all about. Now I have something good to show to my impatient cousin, Marion.
    Good stuff, Art.

    If I was your publisher, I might ask you to put a bit more emphasis on how much of a compromise repression is.
    I'll try to do it for you, so I can show Marion the whole package......ahem....

    Repression is a function that enables us to ignore the pain signal, but not silence it. By not feeling the pain, we reduce it's capacity to kill us in one blow, but it means we are unable to tell the now unconscious pain signal to stop, when the cause of the pain has stopped. So it keeps ringing the unconscious alarm bells permanently, thus activating the unconscious pain response systems (stress hormones etc.) permanently. That's the huge compromise that comes with repression. We don't die quickly, we die slowly instead.

    Unless ofcourse, we make the hidden pain signal stop....something that happens naturally when people are in a caring and understanding environment. That means understanding when the pain signal is being ignored, and when it is being felt.

    Hmmmm...all I need to do now is walk the talk and try to feel my pain, and maybe one day Marion will do it too.

    I've been making arrangements with my brother, so I expect to be visiting the Primal Center soon.

    see you soon, Art.

  2. This what makes Primal Therapy so unique and efficient. You are frown upon by so many traditional psychologists, who have no idea of what you are doing, and insist in their 50-minute hours where the process you describe is almost impossible for anyone.

  3. There seems to be a pile-up of people who are doing "primal therapy" who believe that reliving early trauma has nothing to do with "classic primal therapy."
    "If I scream at my boss or my wife, then I must be resolving the issues I have with them! There you go with all that 'past' shit again! Yes, give due credit to the fact that the pain originated with the parents in the past, but the pain is *now*...in the present! I know!...I had sessions with France Janov and she told me, 'Cough...cough!' That's 'classic' primal therapy! Not all that 'past' crap!"
    Any idea how all this got started? People are adamantly demanding that reliving the past and crying out one's pain has nothing to do with 'classic primal therapy." How did it get so off-track?


Review of "Beyond Belief"

This thought-provoking and important book shows how people are drawn toward dangerous beliefs.
“Belief can manifest itself in world-changing ways—and did, in some of history’s ugliest moments, from the rise of Adolf Hitler to the Jonestown mass suicide in 1979. Arthur Janov, a renowned psychologist who penned The Primal Scream, fearlessly tackles the subject of why and how strong believers willingly embrace even the most deranged leaders.
Beyond Belief begins with a lucid explanation of belief systems that, writes Janov, “are maps, something to help us navigate through life more effectively.” While belief systems are not presented as inherently bad, the author concentrates not just on why people adopt belief systems, but why “alienated individuals” in particular seek out “belief systems on the fringes.” The result is a book that is both illuminating and sobering. It explores, for example, how a strongly-held belief can lead radical Islamist jihadists to murder others in suicide acts. Janov writes, “I believe if people had more love in this life, they would not be so anxious to end it in favor of some imaginary existence.”
One of the most compelling aspects of Beyond Belief is the author’s liberal use of case studies, most of which are related in the first person by individuals whose lives were dramatically affected by their involvement in cults. These stories offer an exceptional perspective on the manner in which belief systems can take hold and shape one’s experiences. Joan’s tale, for instance, both engaging and disturbing, describes what it was like to join the Hare Krishnas. Even though she left the sect, observing that participants “are stunted in spiritual awareness,” Joan considers returning someday because “there’s a certain protection there.”
Janov’s great insight into cultish leaders is particularly interesting; he believes such people have had childhoods in which they were “rejected and unloved,” because “only unloved people want to become the wise man or woman (although it is usually male) imparting words of wisdom to others.” This is just one reason why Beyond Belief is such a thought-provoking, important book.”
Barry Silverstein, Freelance Writer

Quotes for "Life Before Birth"

“Life Before Birth is a thrilling journey of discovery, a real joy to read. Janov writes like no one else on the human mind—engaging, brilliant, passionate, and honest.
He is the best writer today on what makes us human—he shows us how the mind works, how it goes wrong, and how to put it right . . . He presents a brand-new approach to dealing with depression, emotional pain, anxiety, and addiction.”
Paul Thompson, PhD, Professor of Neurology, UCLA School of Medicine

Art Janov, one of the pioneers of fetal and early infant experiences and future mental health issues, offers a robust vision of how the earliest traumas of life can percolate through the brains, minds and lives of individuals. He focuses on both the shifting tides of brain emotional systems and the life-long consequences that can result, as well as the novel interventions, and clinical understanding, that need to be implemented in order to bring about the brain-mind changes that can restore affective equanimity. The transitions from feelings of persistent affective turmoil to psychological wholeness, requires both an understanding of the brain changes and a therapist that can work with the affective mind at primary-process levels. Life Before Birth, is a manifesto that provides a robust argument for increasing attention to the neuro-mental lives of fetuses and infants, and the widespread ramifications on mental health if we do not. Without an accurate developmental history of troubled minds, coordinated with a recognition of the primal emotional powers of the lowest ancestral regions of the human brain, therapists will be lost in their attempt to restore psychological balance.
Jaak Panksepp, Ph.D.
Bailey Endowed Chair of Animal Well Being Science
Washington State University

Dr. Janov’s essential insight—that our earliest experiences strongly influence later well being—is no longer in doubt. Thanks to advances in neuroscience, immunology, and epigenetics, we can now see some of the mechanisms of action at the heart of these developmental processes. His long-held belief that the brain, human development, and psychological well being need to studied in the context of evolution—from the brainstem up—now lies at the heart of the integration of neuroscience and psychotherapy.
Grounded in these two principles, Dr. Janov continues to explore the lifelong impact of prenatal, birth, and early experiences on our brains and minds. Simultaneously “old school” and revolutionary, he synthesizes traditional psychodynamic theories with cutting-edge science while consistently highlighting the limitations of a strict, “top-down” talking cure. Whether or not you agree with his philosophical assumptions, therapeutic practices, or theoretical conclusions, I promise you an interesting and thought-provoking journey.
Lou Cozolino, PsyD, Professor of Psychology, Pepperdine University

In Life Before Birth Dr. Arthur Janov illuminates the sources of much that happens during life after birth. Lucidly, the pioneer of primal therapy provides the scientific rationale for treatments that take us through our original, non-verbal memories—to essential depths of experience that the superficial cognitive-behavioral modalities currently in fashion cannot possibly touch, let alone transform.
Gabor Maté MD, author of In The Realm of Hungry Ghosts: Close Encounters With Addiction

An expansive analysis! This book attempts to explain the impact of critical developmental windows in the past, implores us to improve the lives of pregnant women in the present, and has implications for understanding our children, ourselves, and our collective future. I’m not sure whether primal therapy works or not, but it certainly deserves systematic testing in well-designed, assessor-blinded, randomized controlled clinical trials.
K.J.S. Anand, MBBS, D. Phil, FAACP, FCCM, FRCPCH, Professor of Pediatrics, Anesthesiology, Anatomy & Neurobiology, Senior Scholar, Center for Excellence in Faith and Health, Methodist Le Bonheur Healthcare System

A baby's brain grows more while in the womb than at any time in a child's life. Life Before Birth: The Hidden Script That Rules Our Lives is a valuable guide to creating healthier babies and offers insight into healing our early primal wounds. Dr. Janov integrates the most recent scientific research about prenatal development with the psychobiological reality that these early experiences do cast a long shadow over our entire lifespan. With a wealth of experience and a history of successful psychotherapeutic treatment, Dr. Janov is well positioned to speak with clarity and precision on a topic that remains critically important.
Paula Thomson, PsyD, Associate Professor, California State University, Northridge & Professor Emeritus, York University

"I am enthralled.
Dr. Janov has crafted a compelling and prophetic opus that could rightly dictate
PhD thesis topics for decades to come. Devoid of any "New Age" pseudoscience,
this work never strays from scientific orthodoxy and yet is perfectly accessible and
downright fascinating to any lay person interested in the mysteries of the human psyche."
Dr. Bernard Park, MD, MPH

His new book “Life Before Birth: The Hidden Script that Rules Our Lives” shows that primal therapy, the lower-brain therapeutic method popularized in the 1970’s international bestseller “Primal Scream” and his early work with John Lennon, may help alleviate depression and anxiety disorders, normalize blood pressure and serotonin levels, and improve the functioning of the immune system.
One of the book’s most intriguing theories is that fetal imprinting, an evolutionary strategy to prepare children to cope with life, establishes a permanent set-point in a child's physiology. Baby's born to mothers highly anxious during pregnancy, whether from war, natural disasters, failed marriages, or other stressful life conditions, may thus be prone to mental illness and brain dysfunction later in life. Early traumatic events such as low oxygen at birth, painkillers and antidepressants administered to the mother during pregnancy, poor maternal nutrition, and a lack of parental affection in the first years of life may compound the effect.
In making the case for a brand-new, unified field theory of psychotherapy, Dr. Janov weaves together the evolutionary theories of Jean Baptiste Larmarck, the fetal development studies of Vivette Glover and K.J.S. Anand, and fascinating new research by the psychiatrist Elissa Epel suggesting that telomeres—a region of repetitive DNA critical in predicting life expectancy—may be significantly altered during pregnancy.
After explaining how hormonal and neurologic processes in the womb provide a blueprint for later mental illness and disease, Dr. Janov charts a revolutionary new course for psychotherapy. He provides a sharp critique of cognitive behavioral therapy, psychoanalysis, and other popular “talk therapy” models for treating addiction and mental illness, which he argues do not reach the limbic system and brainstem, where the effects of early trauma are registered in the nervous system.
“Life Before Birth: The Hidden Script that Rules Our Lives” is scheduled to be published by NTI Upstream in October 2011, and has tremendous implications for the future of modern psychology, pediatrics, pregnancy, and women’s health.