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Psychodrama

Psychodrama is a role playing method of therapy developed by J.L. Moreno in turn of the century Vienna. Recent research in neurobiology along with a deepened understanding of how emotion is processed by and stored in the body, have paved the way for a method of therapy that allows the body to participate in the therapeutic milieu. Another window into the necessity of a mind/body form of therapy comes to us through the growing body of research in trauma and an increased awareness of how the mind and body process fear and pain.  A third driving force in the popularity of psychodrama is that it is relational and allows for complexes and conflicts to be concretized by casting group members to play roles from the life of the protagonist. “By the group they were wounded, by the group they shall be healed” says Moreno. Psychodrama allows for resolution through action insight rather than talk alone. Through role play, thinking, feeling and behavior emerge simultaneously in an interactive process, to allow a fuller picture of what is being carried in the psyche to come into view.

A Mind/Body Approach to Healing the Whole Person

Moreno understood that, “the body remembers what the mind forgets,” grasping far before his time, that there is such a thing as somatic memory and that the body, as well as the mind, need to participate in therapy for full healing and integration to occur. Bessel van der kolk, author of Psychological Stress, feels that “fundamentally, words can’t integrate the disorganized sensations and action patterns that form the core imprint of the trauma.” This is in part, I think, why psychodrama can be so useful in resolving trauma issues. It involves the body as well as the mind and emotions and it allows for a picture of what occurred to emerge in a concrete form first, before it is reflected on in the abstract. “The imprint of trauma doesn’t ‘sit’ in the verbal, understanding part of the brain, but in much deeper regions—amygdala, hippocampus, hypothalamus, brain stem—which are only marginally affected by thinking and cognition.” (Ibid)  For this reason a mind body approach to therapy like psychodrama, that can more directly access regions of the brain/body system allows for a fuller healing than talk alone. All too often the client who is seeking treatment is faced with a question like, “tell me about your pain,” from a therapist. But the nature of how traumatic material is experienced and stored makes this sort of self reflection difficult. Psychodrama allows the client to first concretize and actually experience themselves, one might say, within the context of their own pain, before they are asked to reflect on it. This can allow the emotional body to wake up from a shut down state and emerge into the drama. Then the client can add words to feelings that they are actually experiencing in the moment. The pieces of the puzzle begin to fit together and making sense of the situation can happen naturally and spontaneously. The client learns about how they feel from actually feeling it through what we call in psychodrama action insight. Van der Kolk feels that, “if clinicians can help people not become so aroused that they shut down physiologically, they’ll be able to process the trauma themselves.”  This is just what psychodrama, if done slowly and methodically without pushing, can allow the client to do. Less is more in working with trauma. The psychodrama allows the client themselves  to become curious about and engaged in what is going on inside of him so that he himself can process it. Who he is on the inside, how he feels about himself or someone else emerges naturally into the structure of the drama. The goal is engagement rather than any specific agenda or expectations of intense emotions. They may well emerge, but it should not be forced.

How Does Trauma Cause Us to Separate Our Feeling Brain from our Thinking Brain and How Can Psychodrama Help to Weave Thought, Emotion and Action into a Coherent Whole?

Our cortex, which is our thinking brain, tends to shut down when we we’re in a state of intense fear or stress. Who among us can’t remember a time in a classroom of being put on the spot and not being able to recall an answer we knew we knew? Instead our body went to jello, our mind fogged up and we just couldn’t think straight.

      However and this is a big however, in states of high stress our emotional or limbic brain keeps operating; this means that when under acute stress we continue to feel our feelings but we make no conscious sense of them We lose, momentarily our ability think clearly, to reflect on and make meaning out of what we're feeling but that doesn’t mean we don’t still feel it. Our guts may tighten and our temples pound regardless of our not really knowing exactly why or being able to explain it.

     Reconstructing that scene in a psychodrama, when we’re not under all that stress, allows us to reexperience the situation just enough so we can make sense of it and so we can reconnect our feeling or limbic brain with our thinking brain or our prefrontal cortex. When I “double” in psychodrama part of what I’m doing is helping clients to put words on frozen or dissociated feeling states. As the client moves through the drama the body feels what the mind has “forgotten” then we attach words to those feelings and bring them into emotional literacy. We make sense and meaning out of long buried emotions and put them into personal and relational context. It is for this reason that we want to slowly expand our capacity to feel safe within ourselves, safe feeling what we are actually feeling; so that our thinking brain can stay awake and functional while we’re feeling. So that we can use our thinking brain to understand our feeling brain/body system.

   The most frequent mistakes that I see made in using psychodrama in trauma resolution are having an agenda for the protagonist and not allowing enough time for group sharing and integration. Done slowly and by following the lead of the protagonist psychodrama can allow clients to literally inhabit the body they may have shut down in a moment of fear,  reconnect words to feeling states and make mature sense of emotions, relational dynamics and circumstances that may have previously baffled or frightened them.

Authored By:  Tian Dayton, PhD

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