Psychodrama has been around for nearly 100 years and can be an effective tool for helping people struggling with a number of challenges, including addictions and trauma. Psychodrama therapy techniques can help people give voice and action to areas of their lives that have kept them stuck. Those areas are what may be hindering their ability to live authentic, fulfilling lives and giving voice to them is often a transformative experience.
People who are traumatized have a fight, flight or freeze response that was activated when they were exposed to the initial trauma and may be retriggered in certain circumstances. For example, a war veteran suffering from combat PTSD may have an overactive flight or freeze response. A person who was abused as a child may have been in a situation where they couldn’t physically defend themselves or run away from the abuser. They may have a freeze response to trauma. Our bodies store a cellular memory of trauma that can be triggered by such things as smells, sounds, sights, body sensations, tastes or certain actions by others. These triggers whisk us away to that place of anger, rage, sadness or terror that is frozen in time and keeps us stuck.
The clients I see have tried to obliterate these uncomfortable feelings by using substances. This is their self-protective, but misguided, attempt to make everything quiet on the inside by drowning out feelings with alcohol or drugs. The problem is when you try to shut off the trauma you aren’t dealing with, you shut everything else off as well – the good and bad. You’re not functioning to your full capacity and this may bring about other undesirable consequences like the loss of your job, your health, your relationships, and other negative effects that come from shutting down your entire system.
Psychodrama can be a powerful way to help a person address underlying trauma, but it’s critical that a trained psychodramatist guides the experience so that the individual is not re-traumatized. You don’t want to strip down someone’s defenses and then not be able to put them back together. A specially trained psychodramatist uses tools that help prevent this from happening.
We help clients say the words and close off the need to do an action without sending them directly back to a traumatizing event. That action they’re compelled to do might be to hit something, get away from something, or do both. The hope is to reconnect the client with blocked feelings and provide an opportunity for them to feel empowered in the face of trauma. It’s not important to actually go back and relive the trauma itself.
Here are some brief, simplified examples of psychodrama techniques we may use to help people with their trauma responses:
Role Reversal: This is one of the hardest psychodrama techniques to execute, but can also be the most effective. In role reversal, we provide a space for people to talk to themselves, the addiction, the abuser, or the people they themselves have abused. I’ve found one of the most powerful iterations of this approach is inner child work. The client (protagonist) creates an emotional connection back to themselves as a young person at a point when they may have turned their backs on themselves.
Doubling: In this technique, the therapist or another client helps voice the protagonist’s words or feelings so they can start the process of becoming “unfrozen.” Doubling feelings or emotions helps free the client up. Doubling is a very powerful tool because you join with the client. Together you free the blocked feelings and emotions.
Future Projection: In this technique, people envision what the future holds for them. For example, if they’re in a codependent relationship, we may go through scenarios where they choose whether to continue that relationship pattern or let it go. Maybe we’ll have a person look three years down the road and picture a time when they have moved past the trauma and other challenges currently plaguing them and the steps needed to get there.
Mirroring: Mirroring is a tool that allows the protagonist to see themselves in action. Many times our body language does not reflect what we are trying to portray. The mirror stands before us and embodies what is seen and heard from the protagonist. Mirroring allows her or him to pull back if our presentation is too much and step it up if our portrayal is too muted. It gives immediate feedback and allows the client to adjust in the moment.
These psychodrama techniques are all used in different ways, and they play out uniquely in every session. They can help clients realize that there is power in their words and body, and they can access that power in everyday life. It’s really about “role rehearsal” for a new concept of self. We can talk about their unfulfilled relationship with their husband, wife or child, or their problems with their boss because addiction has jeopardized their job. But the real headway comes when clients dig below the surface and do that inner child work and trauma work.
When clients express gratitude for the parts of themselves that they might not be in touch with, they access a lot of strength that comes from their genuine self. When trauma forces us to split away from our genuine self and play other roles, we suffer. But when we’re our genuine self, we are very powerful. Psychodrama can help people access that genuine part of themselves, and it is from that part that they can create the life they want to live.