Fifty years ago, an unusual brand of psychotherapy took the country by storm, exciting clients looking for a quick fix and rattling the talk-therapy establishment. Evening news reports called it brash and fashionable. Movie and pop stars sang its praises. John Lennon dedicated a segment of his 1970 album, John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band, to it. James Earl Jones claimed it had cured his hemorrhoids and helped him quit smoking. And pianist Roger Williams credited it with fixing his cold hands, listing its progenitor among history’s greatest men, including Socrates, Freud, and Galileo.
“The annals of psychiatry have been filled with dramatic new treatments for which extravagant claims have been made,” wrote reporter Martin Kasindorf in a 1971 issue of Newsweek. “But few treatments have been more dramatic, more highly touted, or quicker to catch on than one that has gaudily burst upon the American scene this year.”
The new method was called primal therapy. Its founder, Arthur Janov, then a 47-year-old psychotherapist treating veterans at a hospital in upscale Brentwood, California, had come up with it four years earlier after a session with a client in the throes of a traumatic memory. Instinctively, Janov had told the man to cry out for his parents.
“‘Mommy! Daddy!’ came out of his mouth almost involuntarily in loud screeches,” Janov recalled in his landmark book, The Primal Scream. “Writhing gave way to small convulsions, and finally he released a piercing, deathlike scream that rattled the walls of my office.” Soon after, the man calmed down and let out a sigh of relief. “I made it,” he told Janov. “I can feel.”
Janov believed he’d found psychotherapy’s silver bullet. Over the following months, he encouraged dozens of clients to embrace their primal emotions, access repressed childhood memories, and through screaming and crying, rage at the pain they’d experienced. The purpose, Janov explained, was catharsis—to “relive the pain and get it out of your system,” he said. “Instead of tranquilizing feelings, we’re liberating them.” Unabashedly, he claimed a 100 percent cure rate.
But primal therapy didn’t sit well with psychotherapy’s old guard, which dismissed Janov as a snake-oil salesman and called his method faddish and unremarkable: something Freud had observed and passed over nearly a century earlier. Bristling at the criticisms, Janov made a bold prediction: “The greatest hoax of the 20th century is psychiatry,” he retorted. “In the future, there will be no need for a field called psychology.” Primal therapy, he claimed, was a panacea.
But Janov was wrong. Eventually, primal therapy faded from public consciousness. In 2006, the APA labeled it a “discredited treatment,” lumping it alongside other avant-garde methods like crystal therapy, laughter therapy, and dolphin (yes, dolphin) therapy. Even the famously pragmatic psychology professor John Norcross told The New York Times after Janov’s death in 2017 that primal therapy “is a classic instance of being the right charismatic therapist at the right time. It’s the zeitgeist.”
But one can imagine Janov would feel vindicated if he knew that a newer practice, one that also touts the mental health benefit of explosive outbursts, has gained traction in recent years—including among some in the clinical community.
Echoes of a Primal Scream
Enter the rage room, a space where anybody can pay to be equipped with protective gear and a bat, sledgehammer, or crowbar, and then demolish old desktop computers, empty glass bottles, plates, printers, or whatever other breakables the venue can scrounge together.
“It’s easy enough to dismiss rage rooms as a passing fad. But even if they are, is their growing popularity a symptom of a larger issue? If they’re tapping into a sudden desire to express our stress and anger, does this mean society has become angrier and more stressed, too?”
The first rage room was created in Japan in 2008. By late 2016, the trend had gone international, with rage rooms cropping up in nearly every major US city, sporting colorful names like The Break Club, The Smash Shack, and The Venting Place. Some even offer a BYOB package: Bring Your Own Breakable.
Rage rooms aren’t necessarily intended to be therapeutic. Their ostensible purpose is recreational—a space to smash items without repercussion, perhaps on a Friday night with a few friends after a couple drinks. Their premise hasn’t been informed by therapy, and they haven’t been widely endorsed or overseen by mental health professionals.
But that hasn’t stopped people from extolling their mental health benefits. The New York Times and GQ have explored rage rooms as an outlet for political stress. The Washington Post profiled a woman visiting a rage room to get over a breakup. Venue owners have started seizing on the therapy connection, too. A location in Mechanicsburg, Pennsylvania, even goes by the name Therapy! (a disclaimer on the company’s site clarifies that it is not, in fact, therapy). A simple search for rage room on YouTube turns up dozens of glowing testimonies about their stress-relieving properties.
“This is designed for when you’re pissed,” says actor Will Smith in a 2020 video, gesturing to a rage room behind him. Moments later, screaming, he takes a metal baseball bat to a handful of champagne bottles, a glass table, and a copy machine. “It does have a very therapeutic quality to it,” Smith says afterward, catching a breath and stripping off his protective headgear. “I just feel ready to take on the world.”
It’s easy enough to dismiss rage rooms as a passing fad. But even if they are, is their growing popularity a symptom of a larger issue? If they’re tapping into a sudden desire to express our stress and anger, does this mean society has become angrier and more stressed, too?
Perhaps. According to Gallup’s yearly Global Emotions Poll, which surveyed nearly 160,000 people in 116 countries during 2020 and early 2021, the world has become sadder, angrier, and more worried than at any time over the past 15 years. The number of respondents reporting recent feelings of stress increased five percent from 2019, representing an additional 190 million people.
Similarly, APA’s Stress in America survey reported in January that 84 percent of Americans recently felt at least one emotion associated with prolonged stress, the most common being anxiety (47 percent of those surveyed), sadness (44 percent), and anger (39 percent). Nearly two-thirds of those polled said they found the number of issues facing America overwhelming—not surprising, given the pandemic, political unrest, and racial tensions that have occupied headlines over the past several years.
Just as Norcross remarked about Janov’s method, perhaps this latest obsession with rage rooms is a sign of the times. There was a belief in primal therapy’s heyday, Norcross said after Janov’s passing, “that repressive strictures of society were holding people back. Hence a therapy that was to loosen the repression would somehow cure mental illness. So it fit perfectly.”
But therein lies the distinction: rage rooms aren’t therapy, as much as they might be therapeutic. But do they have the clinical community’s blessing as a therapeutic outlet? And perhaps, in conjunction with therapy or under a therapist’s watchful eye, could they be a valuable resource?
A Step in the Journey
By his own admission, therapist David Treadway has always been clinically adventurous. In the 1960s, he oversaw encounter groups with clients suffering from substance-use disorders, where members were encouraged to pound and throw pillows, hit each other with harmless foam bats, and scream at empty chairs. “We did all that stuff,” he says with a laugh. “It was fun.”
Treadway sees shadows of primal therapy in rage rooms, calling them “a wonderful release tool” that work like exercise or a massage to release stress psychobiologically. Although they have limited therapeutic value on their own, he adds, that could change with a therapist’s involvement. “Back in the day, we did this sort of thing in a therapeutic context,” he says. “We helped clients recognize that releasing rage is a step in a healing journey, not an end in itself.”
But would he recommend a rage room to a stressed-out client?
“I could imagine saying, ‘You know, you should consider going to a rage room, and we’ll discuss what it’s for and what you might experience there. And then you’ll want to journal about it, and we’ll talk about it later.” Treadway says he might even consider going to the rage room with them.
Still, he stresses that the rage room is only one of many parts in a therapeutic process. Especially since what often follows rage are expressions of grief, pain, and vulnerability. “That’s the heart of it,” he says. “Rage sits on top of tears. I can’t tell you how many times I worked with guys who’d be punching pillows one minute and crying in someone’s arms the next. When you’re working through emotional blocks, you’re moving from disconnect to feeling to presence to healing.”
A Step Backward?
Not everyone has such a positive view of rage rooms. In fact, not only do some in the therapy community believe they’re ineffective at treating stress, but that they could even be doing harm.
“I don’t believe in using rage rooms therapeutically,” says Aaron Karmin flatly. Author of The Anger Management Workbook and a licensed counselor of 20 years, he’s spent most of his career studying and treating anger.
“I get it,” he says. “Rage rooms are built on this idea of catharsis. Sure, it feels good to hit things, but these rooms are instinctually reinforcing the act of hitting, because why wouldn’t we keep doing something that feels good? We have to ask ourselves whether these are behaviors we want to keep perpetuating.”
By endorsing rage rooms, are we encouraging people to release their frustration outside them, perhaps at a family member, friend, or coworker during a heated moment?
Kevin Bennett, a psychology professor at Pennsylvania State University, thinks rage rooms could exacerbate anger and prime violence, especially for those already struggling with anger issues. “I’m not sure rage rooms are the best place for those people for the same reason you wouldn’t put someone who has alcohol problems in a bar and tell them to have fun,” he says.
Bennett adds there’s little research suggesting explosive anger has any lasting mental health benefits. Contrary claims are based on the popular notion that anger is an emotion that “builds up” and eventually needs to be released—“the pressure-cooker model,” as he calls it. “That’s the way people often talk about anger,” Bennett says, “but it doesn’t work that way.”
Rather, Karmin says, managing stress, anger, and frustration is a matter of tolerance, impulse control, and delaying gratification. He warns that clinicians embracing rage rooms for therapeutic purposes are encouraging the opposite. “Angry behaviors aren’t calculated behaviors,” he says. “They’re very instinctual, very reflexive.” Plus, he adds, impulsivity means clients are potentially overlooking the source of that anger.
“Anger is often rooted in something else,” he explains. “If something makes me sad, I might use anger to push it away. If something scares me, I might use anger to attack it so I don’t have to face it. With deeper exploration, you’ll find issues like anxiety and depression at play, not just anger by itself.”
Karmin says plenty of established therapy techniques allow clients to deal with their stress more measuredly, without the potential drawbacks of a rage room. “There’s breathing, mindfulness, and progressive muscle relaxation,” he says. “But since anger creates this energy in our bodies where we need to take action, and sometimes it’s hard to just sit there and breathe, you can do physical activity too. Go to a batting cage, hit golf balls, or go for a walk or run.” Since the fight-or-flight response takes about 20 minutes to subside, Karmin says he’ll ask clients to distract themselves during that time when their body is saying attack, danger, protect yourself. ”I want them to find ways to challenge those feelings,” he says.
But Treadway isn’t so sure we need to dismiss rage rooms entirely. “I strenuously disagree with the assumption that this sharpens violence or teaches that it’s a way of resolving conflict,” he says. “It is violent behavior, but it’s violent within the rules of engagement, like football or any aggressive sport where there’s an element of learning how to channel rage.” He agrees that some people could experience adverse effects after going to a rage room, but stands by the belief that most would feel less stress and aggression afterward, not more.
“There’s therapeutic possibility here,” he says. “If you do it right.”
It’s been more than 50 years since primal therapy became an overnight sensation, challenging the way therapy had long been practiced and, for a moment, putting the clinical establishment on its heels.
Today, Janov’s Primal Institute and Primal Center, both in California, continue to see clients. Both treat a few dozen annually, a tiny fraction of what they saw in their prime.
“So long as feelings are inaccessible, we remain prisoners of belief,” Janov wrote in Beyond Belief, published a year before his death. “More accurately, we remain prisoners of pain.”
Karmin and Bennett say that methods like primal scream fell out of favor once psychotherapy became more research and outcome driven. Eventually, they say, science caught up with theory. But in a world that often feels more stressful than ever before, maybe we don’t have to wait for the research to enjoy rage rooms for what they are. Maybe, despite being a little unusual, they’ll help in some small way.
At the least, Bennett adds, they’re entertaining. “I’d love to go to one,” he says. “It sounds like fun.”
PHOTO © iStock/ConstantinosZ
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