The Neuroscience of Psychodrama
Discoveries in neuroscience suggest trying to think differently in order to feel differently is no longer a reasonable strategy!
Sue ‘knows’ she should not be so upset. She is about to present information about a project with colleagues who respect and support her. She is well prepared, articulate, and is excited about the project. She ‘knows’ her colleagues offer a supportive audience. So why has she been nervous for a week, couldn’t sleep last night, and is now shaking in the washroom berating herself for feeling scared while considering going home and feigning food poisoning?
Neuroscience suggests Sue indeed has been poisoned. Sue’s present safe supported reality may have been ‘poisoned’ by her body’s past terrifying experience. No amount of self-talk will satisfactorily calm her body. Sue’s body requires a new disconfirming experience.
Psychodrama, a blend of therapy and theatre is uniquely positioned to offer freedom from past experiences that negatively impact the present.
Our bodies are extremely vigilant when it comes to recognizing situations which have been previously experienced as life threatening. Situations resembling emotionally charged situations of the past bring our body memories to the surface.
The body has memories which can often mislead our thinking. People routinely speak of memory influencing subsequent behaviour. Yet, most peoples’ reference to memory is actually called EXPLICIT memory; that to which we have a coherent cognitive story. Yet our body has its own IMPLICIT memory largely directing how we ‘feel’ in circumstances our bodies recognize as similar.
When present situations mimic past emotionally robust events or traumatic experiences, our implicit or body memory can interfere with our ability to accurately experience the present. For example, if we experience repeated criticism at a young vulnerable age giving our body a powerful message “you are not good enough”, it may be very challenging to present a novel idea to a room of colleagues despite you ‘knowing’ them to be a supportive audience. Your body may simply travel to a time where sharing your creative efforts did not feel safe or supported. Neuroscience tells us this is how we are constructed. When the amygdala (the part of our limbic or ‘feeling’ system) is activated toward fight or flight, it simply does not time-encode the experience in our hippocampus (responsible for explicit or conscious memory). Consequently when situations are recognized as similar, our body may respond ‘as if’ the original emotionally laden event(s) are reoccurring.
When a loved one does not respond or appear when expected, some of us might feel physically distressed and react in unreasonable ways. If our bodies have had a significant experience of abandonment, our bodies may simply time-travel to a time when a loved one did not show-up; leaving us with considerable negative consequences. Our bodies may need to be physically reminded we are an adult with resources not previously available, and our partner (for example) will undoubtedly text or phone us soon.
Psychodrama is designed to help liberate our bodies from past experiences that prohibit us from accurately experiencing the present! With Psychodrama we discover through experience where and when our body may be travelling. We go there and support the body to have a NEW positive non-threatening experience, creating new neural pathways supporting the body’s ability to return to the present when undesired time-travel occurs.
Acting and experiencing new body sensations in response to troubling emotional issues, helps us feel differently. New feelings help us think differently and act differently in the future.
It is with such vertical, (from body to head) and bilateral (right ‘feeling’ brain to left ‘logic’ brain) integration we can remove the implicit (i.e. not conscious memory) hooks that have us responding as if we are living the past again!
Psychodrama appears as a blend of therapy and theatre using guided action to explore and address relevant past, present, and future issues. It is the oldest form of group psychotherapy. Psychodrama has been practiced for over 80 years. Originated by Psychiatrist Jacob Levy Moreno, he suggested Psychodrama can be described as “the soul in action” and wrote “Psychodrama can be defined… as the science which explores the ‘truth’ by dramatic methods. It deals with inter-personal relations and private worlds”. Moreno said to Freud, “You analyze their dreams. I give them the courage to dream again. You analyze and tear them apart. I let them act out their conflicting roles and help them to put the parts back together again”. Dr. Moreno died in 1974 and his epitaph, at his request, reads “the man who brought laughter to psychiatry.”
Yes, people are discovering serious-play is the way to create change toward healthier, happier ways of being with self and other.
Globally there are over 10 000 certified practitioners of Psychodrama. Yet only 400 certified practitioners are available in North America. Psychodrama certification usually requires a minimum of two to three years of postgraduate training for mental health professionals. To safely engage Psychodrama’s impressive ability to access deep emotional body awareness and offer tremendous transformative experiences only highly trained, experienced, and competent practitioners should be offering it.
Research in neuroscience and the recognition of neuroplasticity support new experiences as an optimal way to create new neural pathways. By discovering and practicing new ways of being with self and other, we create new neural pathways.
Neuroplasticity is the term used to describe this capacity for creating new neural connections and growing new neurons in response to experience. The brain never stops growing in response to experience. From Neuropsychiatrist, Daniel Siegal’s Mindsight.
Trying to “think” ourselves better is a losing proposition. We need to design new “experiences” in support of new thinking!
As a further example, little relief can be expected If we simply tell ourselves we are safe and calm while we are gasping and our body is trembling. Yet if we meet the confident compassionate gaze of a loved one gently touching our shoulder, we will start to breathe easier and a sense of calm will reach our prefrontal cortex; the section of our brain responsible for reason. That is just how we are constructed. The vagus nerve is the biggest nerve connecting the head to the body, and 80% of the fibres are designed to communicate up from the body.
With 80% of the communication going from the body to the brain, it is much more effective to have the body tell the head something versus the head trying to convince the body! In Psychodrama we guide the body to move in new empowering ways related to problematic issues in our lives.
A fictitious description of a psychodrama is offered below.
Bob found Psychodrama in the wake of having limited success addressing anxiety harming his relationships at home and work. After Bob experienced safety and support in the group context, Bob chooses to address his anxiety. Collaborating with the Director, Bob initially decides to engage a discussion with someone in the group he selects to play the role of anxiety. Using multiple role reversals the conversation includes Bob asserting “I want you to go away, at least give me a vacation from you!” Bob responds from the role of Anxiety: “where would I go? I have always been part of you!”
With the Director’s support Bob Asks “when did you first come to my life?” In response, in the role of Anxiety, Bob finds an answer “When your family moved to that new school in the city”. A scene is created where we see young Bob in a new classroom where the teacher is critical and the students unfriendly. We also discover his parents had no time or energy to support their son’s concerns as they were stressed with his sister’s illness. We clearly recognize this young Bob received the message that ‘Your needs for support will not be met’. Bob is able to intervene in the classroom scene and soothe young Bob who was feeling terrified. The Adult Bob says to young Bob, “You are fine now. I am here. What do you need? Upon role reversal Bob (now playing his younger self) responds I want to get out of here! I want a hug from my parents! In the ensuing healing scene Bob realizes he also needs to hear that he is not responsible for his sister being sick. Bob discovers his body had inaccurately absorbed a message that he had done something wrong to cause his sister’s condition. Bob is delighted for the guided opportunity to resolve these earlier impactful experiences that had left powerful implicit (body) memories. Bob is able to see how a promotion at work and his own daughter’s recent sickness had mirrored his childhood experience of being overwhelmed. With continued repeated healing emotional experiences (neurons that fire together, wire together), Bob will develop new neural pathways helping him access support and feel his present justified confidence. In moments of overwhelm Bob will become adept at compassionately recognizing his body has travelled back to scenes of unmanageable anxiety. Bob will find a strategy of placing a hand on his heart and taking a few long breaths while looking at a photo taken from a delightful hike he had with his family. On occasion when his body is triggered toward the past, this new action will help bring him more accurately to the present.
jeff thompson M. Ed., R.C.C., T.E.P. has been a therapist for over 20 years. After EXTENSIVE training and experience jeff became a certified Teacher, Educator, and Practitioner of psychodrama and group psychotherapy with the American Board of Examiners in Psychodrama and Group Psychotherapy. He has presented internationally on the Neuroscience of Psychodrama and presently enjoys roles as the Coordinator of Clinical Services at the Chopra Addiction and Wellness Center in Squamish, British Columbia; and as a Clinical Supervisor with Watari; an agency serving Vancouver’s downtown eastside. jeff also offers psychodrama experiences through wearegroups.com.