Fictional stories often capture our imagination because they take us away from our reality, transporting us to different times, places - even planets. In this space, we may find that we experience thoughts and feelings that we don't normally allow ourselves to feel in our everyday lives. It is this transformative power that is utilised within dramatherapy.
The fiction element of this type of therapy acts like a filter, so that the feelings encountered don't engulf those taking part, instead allowing them to acknowledge and deal with what comes up as and when it surfaces. Enabling participants to experience and explore difficult emotions in this indirect way often triggers a sense of catharsis.
This page will look into the role drama plays in the therapy world and explains how it could be beneficial to you.
What is dramatherapy?
Dramatherapy is a type of therapy that allows you to explore emotional difficulties through the medium of drama. This could involve a variety of activities including writing and learning scripts, improvisation exercises, or activities using puppets and masks.
Dramatherapy is often used within a group environment, however it can be used in one to one sessions too. A dramatherapist will use different techniques and may help you create a fictional story to portray. Usually the fictitious story will be your own story re-told through different characters. Creating this space between yourself and the emotional concerns being explored can offer clarity and a sense of relief or catharsis.
The aims of dramatherapy include:
- to solve a problem
- to achieve catharsis
- to understand yourself better
- to explore and overcome unhealthy behaviour
- to improve social skills
What happens in a dramatherapy session?
Each therapy session will be different according to the needs of those taking part. Dramatherapy can take place in a range of different settings including schools, prisons, social care facilities and private workspaces. This means that dramatherapists often find themselves working with a range of different people who have different needs. It may be that everyone in one group is facing a similar issue, or you may all have different reasons for being there.
The first job of the dramatherapist is to get to know you and what you are hoping to achieve through therapy. Once the therapist has a better understanding of your expectations and needs, the session can begin.
A typical group dramatherapy session may work like this:
1. Check in – This is designed to help the dramatherapist understand how you're feeling today. Younger children may be supported in this with the use of emotion cards.
2. Warm-up – At this point the dramatherapist will want to prepare you for the session. A warm-up activity is something that loosens the muscles and engages the imagination; an example of this is the name game where members of the group introduce themselves by stating their name and miming an action that represents how they are feeling.
3. The main activity – This is when the therapist will help the group explore issues through various dramatherapy techniques such as role-play.
4. Closing – At the end of the session the therapist may ask for your input into how you think the session went, or they may de-brief the group to let you know what you've achieved.
For the main activity dramatherapists can use a range of different techniques and activities including the following:
One of the most common activities used in dramatherapy is role-play. This is when you act the part of a certain character in a certain situation. An example of this would be to act the part of a child or parent and to explore any emotions this brings to the surface.
To improvise in acting is to make up a scenario and dialogue on the spot. This technique may require you to work with others and makes you think on your feet.
Miming is essentially acting without the use of speech. This means that you will need to rely on your body language alone to portray a certain emotion or scenario. This can cause you to think in different ways and may tap into feelings you've not experienced before.
Using speech in dramatherapy could involve speaking in ways you don't normally (for example if you have low self-confidence, your therapist may ask you to shout rather than whisper) or it may involve using language to describe the way a character is feeling.
Similarly to mime, movement therapy requires you to express emotions through your body rather than through speaking. You may find yourself dancing to do this, or indicating a state of mind through an action.
In some cases your dramatherapist may ask you to re-enact behaviours or situations that have caused you problems in the past. This can be a difficult task to undertake as it can cause you to remember and re-experience difficult emotions. The idea behind doing this is to help you learn how you can do things differently in the future or simply understand why what happened affected you the way it did.
Use of props and masks
Sometimes using props and masks during a dramatherapy activity can help you to take on different roles. These can be especially important when working with young children to help them identify with the character they are portraying or simply to help them express emotions.
What can dramatherapy help with?
Dramatherapy does not require any previous acting experience, making it accessible to a wide variety of people. Ranging from young children to the elderly, this form of therapy can be helpful for many issues including the following:
Those with an addiction may find dramatherapy a useful tool as it offers a safe environment to express emotion. It can be hard for some to do this in a normal counselling session, so dramatherapy can provide an alternative.
In dramatherapy people dealing with addiction can explore a drug-free future and practice new skills, such as saying no when offered drugs/alcohol. They can also act out more negative behaviours in order to consider their harmful impact in a more tangible way. Exploring issues in this way can offer a sense of distance so that their addiction and related issues do not overwhelm.
Having an anxiety disorder can make some everyday tasks difficult. Through dramatherapy, these tasks can be 'rehearsed' and explored in a safe environment. An example of this would be someone with agoraphobia pretending to be in a large crowd of people. During this scene the actor can analyse the way they feel and learn new coping mechanisms without feeling any real danger.
Socialising with other people in group dramatherapy sessions is also a great way to build confidence and improve social skills.
The communicative and social nature of dramatherapy can be especially helpful for those with depression. Talking to and interacting with others can help to ease symptoms of depression, while acting out certain scenarios can help to develop coping mechanisms.
Some people with depression find it hard to feel emotion and may feel 'numb'. Dramatherapy can help individuals to name their feelings and express them in a safe environment through drama.
The very nature of an eating disorder makes the relationship between the sufferer and their body a particularly fraught one. As dramatherapy focuses a lot on the body and movement, this is one way to try and improve this relationship. Having a better awareness of the body in particular can help those with a distorted view see themselves in a more realistic and positive light.
Eating disorders are normally symptomatic of deeper issues which are being dealt with unhealthily. Dramatherapy can help sufferers to explore these issues in a safe way that is not too overwhelming. These types of therapies can also offer a new way of coping with negative feelings, rather than the sufferer relying on the disorder.
Dramatherapy utilises the art of pretend and can almost act like a practice ground for those with low self-confidence. Providing a safe and secure environment, dramatherapy allows individuals to act out the way they would like to be (in this case more confident) helping them to learn skills they can put into practice in real life.
On top of this, dramatherapy can help those with low self-confidence to explore any underlying reasons for their lack of confidence. This way they can address any issues in a safe environment.
Those who have difficulty communicating or trusting may well benefit from dramatherapy. As dramatherapy tends to be a group-based therapy, it requires teamwork and communication. This alone can help to develop such skills, while any underlying issues can be explored in a safe and therapeutic environment.
Schizophrenia is a mental health condition that involves a variety of symptoms that can include hallucinations, disordered thinking and paranoia. The National Institute of Health and Care Excellence (NICE) recommends creative therapies such as art, music and dramatherapy as a form of treatment. These kinds of therapies help to harness the creative side of those with schizophrenia and can offer a form of release and expression.
Self-harming is usually a physical act that is used as a way of dealing with distressing emotions. Dramatherapy can help the individual face these problems in a healthier way through acting.
Alternatives to self-harm can be explored through dramatherapy, giving participants useful skills to take out of the workspace.
Experiences of abuse, bullying or other forms of trauma can all be explored within a dramatherapy session. The dramatherapist may ask you to improvise similar scenarios to help you understand why the trauma affected you the way it did. This kind of work is often cathartic and helps to build self-confidence.
The title of dramatherapist is protected by the Health and Care Professions Council (HCPC), which means that in order for someone to call themselves a dramatherapist, they must be registered with the HCPC. In order to register, dramatherapists need to have completed an approved programme in dramatherapy.
Your dramatherapist should be able to provide evidence of their registration with the HCPC so that you can verify their status.