Regina's eyes light up as she talks about psychodrama, a type of group psychotherapy that has been used to help people with a variety of mental health issues including complicated grieving and post-traumatic stress disorder.
"In a nutshell," says Regina, "it's a method that allows people to work through their issues instead of just talking about them."
How Does Psychodrama Work?
Psychodrama typically takes place in a group. Some groups welcome 50 or more participants; others may be open to no more than four or five people. Each group is led by a counselor, referred to as a director.
Each group session features at least one protagonist, a member who has volunteered to act out an issue. The protagonist and the director work out a scenario, such as saying goodbye to a loved one lost to suicide. The protagonist then asks other group members to play auxiliary roles, such as the role of the person who died.
As the interactions unfold, the director frequently asks the protagonist to reverse roles with the auxiliary, stepping into his or her loved one's shoes.
At the end of the interaction, all of the group members, those who participated and those who watched, are encouraged to share their feelings about what they have just seen. Please note that the group is not to analyze, interpret or share suggestions with the protagonist; they are only allowed to share their personal reactions to the interaction. (For instance, "When I watched your drama, I felt..." instead of, "Have you tried...?")
Why Does Psychodrama Work?
While some people assume that catharsis is the ultimate goal in psychodrama, Regina says that nothing could be further from the truth. "The goal is integration," she says, "bringing an experience back into the here and now. And the secondary goal is insight. The group reactions can help with that."
Regina explains that when intense, traumatic memories are created by the brain, "the time/date stamp is missing. In the brain it's always happening right now."
Psychodrama allows group members to pull those terrifying memories into the daylight and temper them with healing interactions. From then on when the brain is triggered by something that reminds it of the trauma, it will also hold a memory of the healing.
It's All Right to Take It Slow
While some psychodrama protagonists may want to stage an emotionally-charged confrontation around an issue they're having, others may use their time in the group to work on smaller steps like creating a safe space or learning how to stand up to negative or blaming self-talk.
Most people find they need to attend several psychodrama groups to achieve lasting integration and change. "Improvement happens gradually," says Regina. "It's not a Band-Aid. It's deep work."
It is the responsibility of the director to create safety and boundaries within the group. "Because the work can get very intense, you have to know your own capabilities. You never take someone further than you can bring them back," Regina says.
She adds that in order for a director to be certified, he or she must go through 780 hours of training and must hold a graduate degree in one of the helping sciences. If the director is licensed in her field, 680 hours worth of training are required. Practitioners must also undergo 40 sessions of supervision each year.
"We practice on each other," Regina says of the training program. "Before you direct a protagonist, you have been a protagonist yourself a number of times."
How to Find Psychodrama Groups
Anyone interested in joining a psychodrama group should check with the American Board of Examiners in Psychodrama, Sociometry, and Group Psychotherapy (ABE) or with the American Society of Group Psychotherapy and Psychodrama (ASGPP) to find out if there is a group in their area.
Before joining a group it's a good idea to spend some time talking with the director. "Ask yourself if you feel this person will be able to provide the support you need to feel safe," Regina advises.
Regina, who has been studying psychodrama for more than a decade, says that she finds the modality so valuable because it intuitively makes sense. "We're wounded in relationships, and we heal in relationships," she says.
Regina Sewell is a professional counselor and published writer. She has a PhD in Sociology and currently serves on the executive council of ASGPP.