Screaming therapy: Do rage rooms actually reduce stress?
The idea that started in the 1970s is once again becoming all the rage, but does it really work?
If the pressures of modern life are making you feel like you’d love nothing more than to scream your heart out into the void, you’re not alone. Sensing the zeitgeist, in 2020 the New York Times launched their “Primal Scream Line” with the offer to “scream after the beep”. More recently, in September 2022, the Screamatorium experience came to London’s Leadenhall Market, offering visitors the chance “to really let it out with a big old scream into a decibel meter”. In a similar vein, you might have noticed the rising popularity of “rage rooms” where you can “take your ‘weapon of choice’ and destroy a variety of household objects, from old china to flat screen TVs or computers”.
After years of a pandemic, a deepening cost of living crisis and war in Europe, perhaps it’s little wonder that many of us are desperate to let out all our pent-up stress and anger. But 'scream therapy' or 'primal therapy' is nothing new – it actually started life in California in the 1970s as a fringe approach developed by the Freudian analyst Arthur Janov.
He claimed that performing intense screams (and doing other infantile things such as sucking our thumbs) could help us heal childhood traumas. His book The Primal Scream sold over a million copies and he counted John Lennon and Yoko Ono among his followers. Janov wasn’t shy in advocating his approach – he said it was the most important discovery of the 20th century and could cure 80 per cent of ailments.
As a bit of fun, there’s probably nothing wrong with having a scream or smashing up a few plates in a safe environment. The physical release and satisfaction of it might even make you feel better in the immediate term. But as a serious approach to emotional problems, the science is clear that scream therapy and rage rooms are ineffective.
For example, Brad Bushman, a psychologist at Ohio State University, recruited angry volunteers to either hit a punchbag while thinking about the person who’d angered them, or to hit the bag while thinking about fitness, or to just try to distract themselves. Afterwards, the people in the first group actually felt angrier and acted more aggressively than those in the other groups – venting appeared to have intensified their anger rather than calming it.
Based on findings like this, in 2010 the clinical psychologist and sceptic Scott Lilienfeld and his colleagues included in their collection of “the top 10 myths in popular psychology” the notion that “it’s better to express anger than to hold it in”.
And in an essay for Aeon in 2022 on bad therapy, the psychologists Yevgeny Botanov, Alexander Williams and John Sakaluk wrote that “copious research indicates that, as a means of dealing with difficult emotions, [scream therapy and rage rooms] have the opposite of the intended therapeutic effect, actually increasing anger and distress".
A different way of looking at the supposed benefits of scream therapy and rage rooms is to consider health research that’s compared outcomes for people who tend to vent their anger versus those who tend to keep it in. Generally speaking, these kind of studies have found that people who express more anger, especially in a 'destructive way' that involves blaming others, tend to experience poorer health in the long term.
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These findings might seem counter-intuitive, especially when there’s a prevailing common-sense view that catharsis is beneficial. The likely reason that screaming, hitting and venting are not as helpful as you might think, is that they are a form of avoidance.
It might feel good in the moment to smash things up or yell, but you’re not doing anything to process the difficult emotions that are making you feel mad. You’re also not coming up with any constructive solutions for how to deal with the difficult circumstances that are confronting you.
Rather than screaming or breaking things, a more constructive approach to your anger is to reflect on what’s making you angry in the first place; whether your reaction is appropriate and proportionate; and how to respond in a way that might make your situation better.
Of course there isn’t a lot you can do about some provocations – such as global pandemics – but there might be things you can do about others, such as being treated unfairly at work.
Even when it comes to the unavoidable provocations, there might be strategies you can use to help you cope better, such as using physical exercise to lower your stress levels or meeting up with a friend to talk things over.
After all that, if you feel like shouting into the wind or whacking a punch bag, well why not go for it.
Read more about therapy:
Dr Christian Jarrett is a cognitive neuroscientist, science writer and author. He is the Editor of Psyche, the sister magazine to Aeon that illuminates the human condition through psychology, philosophy and the arts. Jarrett also created the British Psychological Society's Research Digest blog and was the first ever staff journalist on the Society's magazine, The Psychologist. He is author of Great Myths of The Brain and Be Who You Want: Unlocking the Science of Personality Change.
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