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Primal Therapy: Self-Primaling And Abreaction

Updated: Apr 30

Recently, a former client of mine wrote to me about the frustration he was experiencing when he self-primaled.  He was feeling none of the relaxation and insights that he did after our sessions and wanted to know why.  I told him that he was most likely abreacting, rather than primaling.  This is a common problem and is not so easy to spot.

 

Abreacting, in the sense that Janov used it, is an unmodified reliving of traumatic experience.  Van der Kolk uses the term in the same way.  I refer to abreacting as the mindless re-enactment of the survival reactions of your trauma.  This is the response I sent to his inquiry:

 

If you are not experiencing relaxation after your process work and/or not having insights afterward, then you may only be re-enacting the survival reactions of your trauma.  This is called abreacting.   This can happen when we self-primal.  If the model I work with is correct, then this means that you are not really witnessing your survival reactions, but think you are.  Rather, you are re-enacting them mindlessly.      I once took piano lessons.  My instructor would give me pieces to practice.  And I would have to play them to her while reading the sheet music.   We both thought that I was making good progress until she discovered that I was not playing what I was reading.  What happened was that I had memorized the piece and was playing it while gazing mindlessly at the sheet music.  In other words, I was not really following the notes, even though I thought that I was!   Indeed, my piano instructor had to point that out to me.  I think something similar may be happening when you are trying to process your trauma. 

 

Also, when you are processing, are you following the 32123 method?:  that is,  you explore what is happening in the present (3).  Then you hook into the emotion that emerges (2).  Then you pay attention to the body sensations (feelings) that emerge.(1).  This may lead to your experience of emotion once again as the new feelings become newly conscious(2).  As this cycle ends, you take the time to discuss what happened on your journey(3).  


The therapist has the opportunity at this juncture to ask contact questions.  These are designed to find out if you were witness to the same body enactments that the therapist saw.  This is a way of determining if the client was primaling.  The therapist also holds a quiet space after a session.  The client’s insights will automatically enter this space, if a successful primal occurred.


It’s very important to spot abreaction in our work, since it is, essentially, self-abuse and is the opposite of emotional healing.

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