In the 2010 movie Beginners, a frustrated 1960s housewife gives her young son some advice on managing emotions: “When you feel bad, you go into a room and scream — loud as you want, for a minute or two, then it’s out of you. It’s called catharsis.” When he tells her he doesn’t feel like it, she responds knowingly, “You will.”
While screaming to release emotion has its place in pop culture, we generally don’t do much of it, as a society. In real life, the folks who do scream in public — or those who scream privately — are generally seen as more than a bit unbalanced.
But a lot of people suspect that avoiding screaming isn’t very healthy. If we all had the chance to scream a bit more often, they argue, we’d all be less still and anxious. In the wild, animals scream as a call for attention; in our evolutionary history, screams seem to have developed as a way to arouse fear and vigilance in both screamers and listeners. Surely, some argue, there must be consequences to stifling those impulses. The idea has roots in a decades-old psychotherapy theory, but from a purely scientific point of view, what screaming does for the brain is still up for debate.
There’s certainly evidence that many people believe that screaming is a good way to “let your feelings out.” The parenting blog ScaryMommy encourages readers — half-jokingly, but still in earnest — to scream into their pillows as a “guaranteed” stress relief method. Amazon sells pillows specifically for screaming into. Wander onto any university campus at 9 pm the Sunday before finals week, and you’re apt to be startled by a sudden outbreak of screaming from the dorm room windows as students exorcise the demons of all-night studying. (Harvard’s version of the exam-week “primal scream” is running around naked, which may have the same effect but honestly sounds more fun.) The Lifehack blog will even tell you that primal screaming is scientifically good for you.
It was in an oddball branch of mid-20th-century psychotherapy, developed by a man named Arther Janov, that this idea first took root.
Janov, working in an era when psychotherapy was very much still working out the kinks in its empirical foundations, published research supporting the idea that having patients “roll around on the floor, cry, suck their thumbs, and otherwise re-enact critical moments of their childhood” would have psychological benefits.
The technique, which Janov became an aggressive salesman for, became popular enough to attract patients like James Earl Jones and John Lennon.
These days, it’s fallen out of vogue, but it remains a kind of alternative psychotherapy operating at the fringes of authentic treatment. As Vice reported in 2016, most modern psychologists regard the notion that screaming and other tantrum-throwing has some psychological benefit as nonsense. Outside research, as a 2011 review of lay beliefs of psychotherapy published in Psychology, Health and Medicine suggested, has not shown much in the way of positive benefits. Still, published papers on the topic exist, and they lend enough credence to the notion that it sometimes still gets written up as good science.
What researchers do know about screaming is that if you must scream, doing it into a pillow is probably a good idea. While it’s unclear what effects screaming will have on the screamer, it’s evident that it can have extremely negative effects on the people who hear it.
Charles Darwin pointed out all the way back in 1872 that the basic patterns of screams are widely shared across animal species, and they are always used to convey emotional arousal. More recent research has shown that humans are pretty darn good at determining whether an animal is freaked out just by listening to the sounds it makes.
And it turns out screaming is a really good way to access the part of the brain that causes people freak out, which in turn creates a significant amount of stress. Laboratory research has shown that the rough sounds of human screams activate fear responses deep in the minds of people who hear them. Children, in particular, seem sensitive to screaming: Those who are regularly exposed to it when they’re young can experience damaging effects on their social interactions for the rest of their lives.
So scream away if you must, but you should know that it’s probably not helping you, and it’s definitely not helping anyone in your vicinity. Maybe that pillow isn’t such a bad idea.