• Shannon Sevigny, M.C., RP, CCC

Make Me Wanna Scream: The Therapeutic Ahhh!

Why screaming is an effective coping strategy.

Image: Community (2009)

Me as a therapist in 2020: "Have you tried screaming?"

I am not being facetious when I say this. I’m not trying to minimize the stress we’re all under this year or the genuine need for support and mental health and systemic interventions. I’m serious. It's effective. I’ve done it. I’ve stormed out of my house, gotten in my car, driven to a secluded field, parked, and started screaming. Blasted some Alice In Chains? Punched the steering wheel? Absolutely.

And that release sure feels good. And necessary. Especially during a year like 2020, when we’ve felt so out of control, screaming may be a way for us to gain a sense of relief and satisfaction.

We evolved to scream. The survival advantage of screaming was to startle approaching predators. The physiology of screaming also involves the activation of the fear circuit, which elicits our fight/flight response and gets us moving; to approach or avoid. So, screaming serves to both induce and convey fear/danger.

Fear communicates to activate, just like all emotions. Our feelings try to tell us something so we do something. Sadness, anger, guilt all feel unpleasant for this reason. Just sitting with our emotions is an important skill, and sometimes all we can do, but also feels uncomfortable because there is a missing piece. Our nervous system remains activated until there is a sense of some resolution. When we can’t directly address a stressor, then we need to consider other coping methods, like emotion-focused strategies. Many times, this just means “getting it off our chest.” Lifting that sense of being weighed down by the emotion and situation is helpful and freeing. Venting or “letting off steam” really means we are releasing something so we can function more optimally.

Holding back our emotions takes energy. To majorly oversimplify this: it involves different parts of our brains fighting for control. The subcortical region is responsible for feeling and memory formation. This part of our brain wants us to feel our feelings. Our cortex is responsible for our attention, planning, and decision-making. This part helps us regulate our emotions and behaviours. When we really feel like crying or screaming and are in a situation where it’s not ideal to do this, the control of behaviour and suppression of emotion involves mental effort.

Doesn’t it feel good when you finally shut the door to your room and let the tears fall freely? Whether we’ve been holding things in/back for 5 minutes or 5 months, finally expressing pent-up emotion feels good. On How I Met Your Mother, Robin and her girlfriends benefited from being “Wooh!” girls. While the burn book in Mean Girls is cruel, the suggestion to “Let it out, honey” is well-intended. And Frank Costanza sure loves being able to share his feelings at the end of each year. Expressing ourselves is healthy and necessary.

So, why screaming in particular? Well, it’s cathartic. It signals to the brain that a release is occurring. Endorphins can be released and there is a physiological shift in tension. Like a really satisfying exhale or yawn, screaming can stimulate the vagus nerve, the longest nerve in our body and an integral component of the “rest and digest” parasympathetic nervous system (the counterpart to the “fight or flight” sympathetic nervous system).

We may imagine we are yelling at someone or something thing or just the universe. Our brains can’t always tell imagination from reality so we may feel the same neurological sense of satisfaction as if we were actually in front of our boss, for instance.

Sometimes a scream isn’t about one particular situation. It’s more like what happens when the lid pops off a shaken bottle of soda. We don’t mean to yell or swear or tell someone how we feel but it just…tumbles out. Sometimes it’s a scream that seems to say so much, like feeling constricted and lacking an internal locus of control. When Cameron “goes berserk” in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, his scream communicates a lifetime of feeling helpless and under a tremendous amount of pressure. Sometimes the intensity of our scream and the subsequent relief surprises us. We may not have realized we felt that strongly.

Screaming can be part of some intervention plans. Primal Scream Therapy was popular in the 1960’s and proponents today still speak to the benefits of connecting with and then releasing an emotion by screaming as loud as you can. While I am not endorsing this particular therapy, I am encouraging everyone to consider the benefit of releasing pent-up emotion. You all know I love mindfulness and mindfulness meditation, and am all about grounding exercises and deep breathing. And obviously sharing our feelings. But sometimes that’s just not enough. Sometimes we need something more direct to combat the restlessness and agitation and to complete the stress cycle in our bodies.

So seriously, try systematic screaming. Add it to your self-care plan. Go someplace quiet. Scream into a pillow. Or, just scream silently. This emotional release doesn’t have to be screaming. Try anything where there is a combination of tension-releasing movement and a sense of empowerment. Throw some plates. Punch a cushion. Smash some things.

We need this release this year in particular. We are likely all experiencing less of an internal locus of control than normal. We feel helpless. We are enraged. We are devastated and sad and frustrated. You know you’ve been doing the *internal screaming* all year. So now, let it out, honey.

Featured Title Lyric: Scream (Michael Jackson and Janet Jackson)

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