Escape your comfort zone: I’ve always been the quietest. Could learning to scream change my life? | Life and style
In the summer of 2020, London psychotherapist Zoë Aston hit the headlines with a scream therapy campaign she designed for the Icelandic Tourist Board. On a website called Looks like you need Iceland, visitors were invited to record a cry that would then be given to you across the vast frozen wasteland. “And when you’re ready,” the blurb said, “come and bring it out for real. You will feel better, we promise. All of this assumes a willingness to scream with which I am clearly unfamiliar.
I’m famous in my family for never screaming when I drop a drink or cut myself in the kitchen. The bigger the mess, the quieter I am. The angrier I am, the calmer I am too. I never yelled or yelled at anyone. It occurred to me some time ago that this might be a problem. What if one day I need to scream? What if I, or someone else, needed the kind of urgent attention a scream is designed to get?
Reading psychologist Art Janov’s 1970 book The Primal Scream doesn’t help. This is at least in part due to its terrifying blanket, which features a bald figure with a slit cranial, from which emerges a screaming red mouth full of teeth – a nightmarish sight that is matched only by the intense embarrassment that I feel just thinking about what therapists call “primaling”. I don’t want primal. Or ventilate. Or rage. It’s the actual, audible user manual that’s the problem.
As eager as I am to step out of my comfort zone and start screaming, a part of me wonders if my fear of doing so isn’t self-generated and redundant. Fighting or running away is an unintended physiological reaction to a threat – so I’m sure I’ll scream if I need to, whether I think I can or not?
Aston isn’t so sure. Depending on your degree of extroversion or introversion, she explains, research shows that when faced with a perceived threat, you may not be able to shout, “That might actually turn off your voice,” she says. Learned behaviors also come into play. If, like me, you’ve always been the calmest, this is probably where you will feel safe. “Taking more energy space can, on the contrary, be very dangerous. “
To undo this association of “strong” with “bad”, she suggests that I try to sing louder and louder, or positive affirmations. “Something like ‘I love you’ or ‘I’m pretty’,” she said. It is about telling yourself that strong does not necessarily mean anger or danger; that it can be a useful tool.
I ask my friend Shahanara if she knows she can scream. “Uh, yeah,” she said. Then she tells me how, during a period of intense work, she boarded a train to Farthing Downs in Surrey – the corner of the countryside closest to where she lives – for exactly that purpose. “Would you take the train to go and shout in a Surrey field?” I said, puzzled. Then I ask if she will go to Surrey with me.
As I walk towards her chosen place of scream, I listen to the rain fall on the hood of my jacket and I can’t understand how or why I would break this silence. Calm is what I live for. I took my field recorder and mic, hoping that viewing the expedition as a work of art somehow alleviates, but they remain firmly hidden in my backpack. First of all, Shahanara demonstrates an extraordinary ability to go from calm to a whole body scream and vice versa. When nothing terrible happens as a result of that bellow, I find the courage to try it for myself.
I start by naming things out loud. This tree. These clouds. This tree! It’s the loudest voice I’ve ever heard and, for a drenched Monday afternoon, it’s not too shabby, if not a full scream.
Back home, a few days later, I finally turn up the volume on the first song that comes to mind, the one that systematically gives me the most energy, the one that looks like fire – Face Tat by Zach Hill – and without thinking too much I smash my face into a pillow and scream. Ha. I have more range than I thought. It comes out more “shrill screams” than screams – I feel like a parrot under a blanket. I still can’t imagine doing it without the cushion, but I have to tell you that since then I’ve approached Zoom meetings, school runs, and deadlines with a new sense of possibility.