Scream therapy is on the rise – but what is it exactly, and does it really work?
“You know sometimes I come down here and just wait. I mean, just especially,” Liza Minelli as Sally Bowls says, immediately after screaming her heart out to the sounds of a train whizzing past and experiencing an almost orgasmic state of release. “You should try it sometime…you’ll feel terrific afterwards.”
Cabaret may be a work of fiction, but therapeutic screaming is very real. Every night at 10pm, students living in Sweden’s Flogsta neighbourhood let out a collective shriek from their windows – a tradition which dates back to the 1970s. Grimes enjoys a 20-minute screaming session as part of a wellness routine that also features NAD+ supplements, sword fighting and a deprivation tank. Most recently, this September Leadenhall Market opened up a temporary ‘screamatorium’ for stressed-out workers to visit and yell their worries away.
A few years ago, Selina*, 30, took to the Yorkshire Moors to scream. “I was processing a lot, including becoming estranged from my biological family. I listened to an angry Riot Grrrl playlist and just let out my anger,” she says. “I thought about all the ways I’d been let down by my family through unimaginably tough things and how they’d shamed me and disappeared on me over and over again. I just screamed and yelled. I was alone, just me and the moors, and that’s all I needed. Nature heard me and that was enough.”
Sarah, 30, is another fan of screaming. She explains that the past four months of her life have been devastating. “One of my closest friends committed suicide, I got ghosted from my dream job, I’ve had friend break-ups, and I had a heartbreaking personal loss,” she says, adding that there were times when she struggled to get through the day. “Then I was driving around one day and felt my throat get hot. It just came out of me. I just screamed and screamed. The screams I let out made me feel physically lighter,” she says. “I think that one night of screaming fast-forwarded a lot of healing for me. It is always better out than in.”
Similarly, Fionna, 27, tells me she once drove to a local park on a whim and started screaming during a stressful period in her life. “Now I do it regularly,” she says, adding that she’d recommend it to anyone.
The idea of screaming as a therapeutic emotional release isn’t especially new. ‘Primal therapy’ began to gain traction in the early 1970s following the publication of psychotherapist Arthur Janov’s first book, The Primal Scream. Janov theorised that repressed emotions cause psychological issues, so he encouraged people in primal therapy to let go of these pent-up feelings in whatever way they wanted: such as talking, crying and, often, screaming.
@samibrielle that one dude rlly just sounded constipated LMFAO #UCLA #finalsweek #midnightscream #student #college ♬ original sound - Sami Brielle
Fast forward to today, and primal therapy has since declined in popularity. It never really achieved acceptance in mainstream psychology, as Janov lacked the research to substantiate its effectiveness. Dr Rebecca Semmens-Wheeler, senior lecturer in psychology at Birmingham City University, reiterates this. “I’m not convinced that screaming does benefit a person’s wellbeing, in the long term. It seems as though screaming can trigger a release of endorphins in the body,” she explains. “These are a ‘feel good’ hormone, so a quick blast of these might lift your mood if you're feeling stressed or anxious, but this is not a long-term solution.”
That said, even though experts aren’t convinced of the long-term benefits of primal therapy, we shouldn’t overlook the short-term benefits of having a little scream. Dr Semmens-Wheeler acknowledges that while screaming can’t ‘replace’ therapy with a licensed professional, it can be a powerful cathartic release. “The sound of a scream might make the emotions that have been pushed down more tangible,” she says. “We do know that crying helps by reducing levels of cortisol, which is the stress hormone in the body. If screaming can help to get in touch with emotions and help one to cry too, then it follows that it might reduce stress in the person crying.”
This chimes with Fionna, who describes screaming as “crying without crying”, and adds that it enables her to feel “release and clarity”. Sarah feels similarly. “Something my therapist and I have spoken about is how I tend to hold things in my mind and body to try to manage them internally, when most of the time it’s OK to just let it out,” she says.
It’s no real surprise that the popularity of ‘mindful screaming’ seems to be on the up. The pandemic saw the global prevalence of anxiety and depression increase by 25 per cent, and our collective mental wellbeing is only getting worse with additional stressors such as the cost of living crisis and climate breakdown. With therapy inaccessible to many – due to long NHS wait lists and the sheer cost of going private – it makes sense that people are looking for more unorthodox ways of venting their feelings. Just look at the popularity of ‘rage rooms’, where you can smash up random items in a secure space: since the first one opened in Nottinghamshire in 2016, others have popped up across the country – from Newcastle to Birmingham to Manchester.
Interestingly, women seem to be particularly drawn to this kind of expressive, physical therapy – The Guardian recently published an article (which subsequently went viral) about groups of women who meet up to scream across the world, from Australia to The Netherlands. It makes sense: many of us have been told, at one point or another, that we’re “too much” or that we’re “crazy” for expressing any kind of negative emotion. At the same time, we’re expected to do a disproportionate amount of emotional labour, and often find ourselves smoothing over thorny situations and regulating the feelings of others. It’s exhausting. “As women we so often repress our anger, believing it to be necessary for our survival, but what we really need is to release it,” Selina says. “We deserve that. Repressing anger is toxic for your mind and soul, especially when it’s about an injustice you’ve faced.”
The bottom line is: screaming won’t solve all your problems and can never replace therapy with a professional – as Dr Semmens-Wheeler puts it, “screaming to access repressed emotions might be like using a sledgehammer to crack a nut, when it might be best to carefully prise it open and compassionately explore what’s inside.” This is indisputable – but at the same time, it’s worth acknowledging that therapy is inaccessible for many, and screaming is an easy way of getting to grips with some of your emotions. So while it’s doubtful a screaming session will work miracles for your mental health, it’s evident that it can help clear your mind – akin to a good cry or belly-laughing with your best friends. At the end of the day, it’s free, it harms no one, and can make you feel a bit better – so, provided you just don’t do it while waiting in line for your morning latte from Pret, it’s worth a shot.
*Name has been changed