One of my favorite psychotherapeutic methods has not even been widely recognized as strictly “psychotherapy” at all. It is called psychodrama, which, conceived and developed by Jacob L. Moreno, MD, employs guided dramatic action to examine problems or issues raised by an individual (psychodrama) or a group (sociodrama). It is considered a hybrid between mind exploration (Greek: psycho = “mind”) and theater (“drama”). So what is this psychodrama and how can it be applied to therapy?
Sigmund Freud believed that our unconscious processes contained, at deep, unaware levels, the seeds of our earlier repressed memories and emotions. Freud’s method of psychoanalysis works wonderfully at sometimes accessing those trapped or hidden past traumas, memories or feelings, after often many years of painstaking analysis of memory traces and reflections by the psychoanalyst. The father of cognitive therapy, Aaron Beck M.D., who developed the Beck Institute for Cognitive Therapy in Philadelphia, where I received my post-doctoral Cognitive Therapy training and certification, was a psychoanalyst. Beck discovered that after many years of traditional psychoanalysis, patients may have found some or even much relief, but often persisted with often unaddressed distorted thought systems, causing great psychic pain. His development of cognitive therapy was an active, experimental approach to addressing these distortions, by teaching patients to participate in their dismantling of unrealistic thoughts and adopting new more realistic beliefs and subsequent actions (see other links and blogs on this webpage for more on cognitive therapy).
Psychodrama is not a technique that I use to replace these other forms of psychotherapy. Like traditional analysis of past wounds and relationships, and the dismantling of cognitive errors, psychodrama is another tool in the properly trained therapist’s tool box for accessing deep and potent (painful or joyous) emotions, perhaps long-severed from the individual’s conscious awareness. How does psychodrama work, and how is a different “tool?”
Psychodrama was founded circa 1920’s by Jacob L. Moreno, M.D., a psychiatrist who believed in using the social network to reinact particular roles or incidents from the past, using a ‘stage’ and typical ‘acting’ components of protaganist (the patient), director (usually the therapist), and auxillary egos (people in the drama). By coaching the client into the full-blown active, realistically re-created “scene” of an unresolved issue or relationship, people are able to virtually re-experience the past within the setting, with a safe network of supporters. Techniques used in psychodrama include role-play, role reversals, imagining other’s feelings and roles, and even imagining outcomes in the future. This very active relationship with the director/therapist and auxillaries enables a full ‘mind-body,’ in-the-moment re-engagement of sometimes long-buried memories. The action of psychodrama with patients acting as protagonists enables them to access very potent memories through the action, that would not often be accessible to them through talk therapy.
I have been able to utilize psychodrama techniques with most types of clients, in individual and group settings. Many re-enact painful encounters with others, and others even take on their “disorders” (e.g., role reversing with their OCD, anxiety, depression, or addiction “monsters”). Following successful psychodrama experiences, after which a catharsis often occurs, sharing takes place with other group members, and integration on cognitive, affective, behavioral and spiritual levels can follow (Farmer, 1996). Unique to psychodrama is the active, spontaneous and creative enterprise of reenacting the drama, both positive and negative, which authenitically accesses, for the client, the core who he is. The honor of a client allowing a social network to gain a glimpse of this very personal space and his self-growth journey, is special and powerful. Protagonists who share their story with the social network often feel a renewed sense of inclusion and belonging, because of the group’s sensitivity and compassion. The healing that takes place through psychodrama is wonderful and it is my hope that more people learn the benefits of this special but little-known technique.
Please see my membership group, American Society of Group Psychotherapy & Psychodrama, to learn more: http://www.asgpp.org/html/psychodrama.html