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Treating Trauma with Psychodrama 

June 28, 2021

By Beau Black

We need to feel our feelings in order to translate them into words, elevate them to a conscious level, and think about them.

Psychodrama is a therapeutic approach that can be used effectively in trauma treatment; it can help patients begin to reach and heal wounds in their subconscious mind that can be difficult to access with traditional talk therapy. The process uses role-playing to allow patients to voice what they needed or wanted to do in past stressful situations – but couldn’t.  

Psychodrama also helps us to go back and recover feelings sparked by traumatic experiences that were never processed, helping us to feel them, process the experience, and enable the body to release them. Unresolved trauma can lead to a host of physical problems and make relapses more likely for patients dealing with addiction.

Meadows Senior Fellow Tian Dayton, MA, PhD, a certified psychodrama trainer and director of the New York Psychodrama Training Institute, says the process can be an important tool in “unlocking” the body and mind from these experiences and moving beyond them.

The Fight-or-Flight Response

According to Harvard Health, when we experience stressful situations or perceived threats, the fight-or-flight response, courtesy of our sympathetic nervous system, takes over and prepares our bodies for action, raising our pulse and breathing and pushing out hormones that get us ready to react. This response to trauma is designed to help us respond physically to threats — but can hinder dealing with them emotionally.

When the sympathetic nervous system is activated, revving up to respond, it slows down the processing part of the brain that makes sense of what happens around us. Because of this, our bodies may experience the feelings that accompany trauma without the inner processing that helps us understand them. This can make it difficult to talk about how traumatic experiences made (or still make) us feel — and that’s where psychodrama can be helpful. 

Our bodies can also misinterpret stressors as threats, so circumstances we may encounter every day like heavy traffic, family strife, or workplace stress can also trigger this response. When the brain senses a continual threat, it tells the body to release the hormone cortisol, which keeps the body on “high alert.” 

When repeated activation of the stress response occurs over time, it has been found to take a serious toll on the body, contributing to high blood pressure and heart concerns, weight gain, anxiety, and addiction. It’s an exhausting cycle to be stuck in.

How Psychodrama Heals Trauma

Unresolved trauma can lead to a host of physical problems and make relapses more likely for patients dealing with addiction.

So, how does psychodrama work in treatment? Traditional talk therapy asks patients to explain experiences and feelings — which isn’t always possible with traumatic experiences. Psychodrama allows patients to embody experiences and interact with them, rather than just talking about them.

Often done in a group session, a psychodrama involves taking on roles – a protagonist, supporting players, and a director – and reenacting a scene of a charged or traumatic memory of the protagonist’s choice. The reenactment focuses on unearthing the protagonist’s feelings and working toward developing clarity about the experience. The scene may be repeated with alternative endings for the protagonist to understand and resolve some of the issues embedded in the memory on which the scene is based.

Finding Emotional Clarity and Relief

Dayton explains how psychodrama therapy can help. “We need to feel our feelings in order to translate them into words, elevate them to a conscious level, and think about them,” she says. “Until they are felt and put into language, they remain locked in the body in the form of unprocessed sense impressions [and can] contribute to muscle holding and illness.” 

Finding Emotional Clarity and Relief - Willow House for Women“Psychodrama lets the body talk as well as the mind. Rather than say ‘tell me about it,’ it invites the protagonist to say what they need to say to the person to whom they need to say it,” says Dayton. 

“Through role-play we can talk to rather than about. When we talk about, we get caught back in that thinking mind that never made sense of a hurtful interaction to begin with. When we talk to, we put our feelings simply and directly into the words we longed to say but, because of our size or dependency, could not.”

Measuring Psychodrama’s Effectiveness

A study described in the journal Frontiers in Psychology found that therapeutic use of psychodrama in patients with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) produced clinically significant reductions — more than 25% change —across a range of PTSD symptoms. Furthermore, it found patients rated it highly upon reflecting on it after treatment, noting specifically its tolerability and capacity for establishing emotional safety, connection, and group cohesion.

If you or someone you care about is struggling, let us help. The Meadows offers a variety of centers equipped to help people dealing with all kinds of issues from anxiety, depression, PTSD and ADHD to addiction, eating disorders and more. Reach out today to take the first step toward healing.