By Theresa Sheppard Alexander

Primal Therapy is a form of psychotherapy that posits that childhood trauma has long-term effects on the adult personality. It differs from many other therapies in that its emphasis is on actually reliving the deep, powerful emotional content of the earlier trauma. I believe conventional psychotherapies can help patients develop awareness of unconscious processes, work through transference issues, and repair a great deal of the damage done to the psyche. But I do not believe that they can always adequately address the issue of the mind/body split that takes place when a person has suffered a great deal.

Either the person has the memory of the trauma but is split off from the feelings, or the person has little or no memory of traumatic events and is even more split from his or her experience. Because suffering is not only recorded in the mind, but is recorded and held in the body as well, both aspects of the trauma, mind and body need healing. So from my therapeutic point of view, healing requires multiple components: insight, understanding, working through transference issues, and the full body experience of your deepest emotions.

When a person's body as well as his or her mind has been traumatized by beatings, sexual abuse, or neglect the person's body needs to experience and release this trauma to allow the deepest healing to take place. It is through the therapeutic conjoining of all these elements that it is possible to reconnect the mind and the body at the deepest levels.

As a therapist I have a favourite analogy: If a person is bitten by a poisonous snake it's not enough for them to understand how it happened, and what kind of snake it was, what the effects of the poison will be; it's not even enough to have a knowledgeable, caring doctor present. In order for the damaging effects of the poison to cease, something has to be done to the person's body. Either she must take an antidote, or she must attempt to remove the poison. This is how I view the effects of Deep Feeling Therapy / Primal Therapy: as an antidote to the emotional and physical aspects of childhood pain and trauma.

I should point out that the therapy I use in my practice, though based on and using many Primal Therapy techniques, is different from Primal Therapy as I was originally taught it. To prevent confusion I call my work Deep Feeling Therapy. My work is based on the actual needs of the patient, as I perceive them in a given therapy session and over the long term of therapy, instead of strictly adhering strictly to Janov's methodology.

The major points of divergence between Deep Feeling Therapy and Primal Therapy as I was originally trained to practice it are in offering long-term individual therapy following the three-week intensive, and on the issues of the transference and homosexuality. At this point, I feel that although both the heterosexual and homosexual orientation have their neurotic acting-out aspects, a homosexual orientation in and of itself is not evidence of neurosis necessitating a cure.

One innovation that I began during my private practice in New York and I have found to be essential is continuing weekly individual sessions. I believe it is in the context of a long-term, committed relationship between therapy and patient that most growth and healing can take place.

It seems to me that transference will inevitably occur in the intensity of any meaningful therapeutic relationship, since it is often the most intimate relationship the person has ever had, requiring a level of honesty and vulnerability that many of us have never previously experienced. So it naturally follows that many powerful childhood feelings will arise in the context of this therapeutic relationship and be directed at one's therapist. The result is the reactivation of the dynamic of the original parental relationships. The patient begins to relate to the therapist based on what she experienced as a child. The difference is that in the context of therapy there is no repetition of the previous traumatic experience.

When there is an event there that is similar to the original pain - for example, the therapist goes on vacation, or is ill, thus abandoning the patient, or misses the mark in a therapeutic intervention - the patient has the opportunity to talk about it and the chance to feel it, and has support in following these feelings back to their root in the parental relationship. And over time, by this continued examination and experience of feelings, he begins to understand and develop beyond these childhood responses.

What better place to have these feelings come up and be worked through than in a situation where one's feelings, fears, rages and vulnerabilities are taken seriously and allowed free expression, with the opportunity to follow them back to the root causes and resolve them? This is what happens in Deep Feeling Therapy.


Theresa Sheppard Alexander 1996 The above is excerpted from her book, "Facing the Wolf: Inside the Process of Deep Feeling Therapy", Dutton, NY (Available new and used from

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