Our sense of agency, how much we feel in control, is defined by our relationship with our bodies and its rhythms. In order to find our voice we have to be in our bodies – able to breath fully and able to access our inner sensations. Acting is an experience of using your body to take your place in life.
-Bessel van der Kolk
Research from three main disciplines of scientific study; neuroscience, developmental psychopathology and interpersonal neurobiology, has given contemporary clinicians, counsellors and therapists valuable insights into the pervasive physiological effects of trauma upon the human brain [1,2].
Being able to understand the physiology of trauma has helped to scientifically support the integration of psychodynamic and somatic treatments which allow the traumatised individual, who often lacks a sense of embodied self, to have therapeutic experiences that, according to researchers, deeply and viscerally contradict the helplessness, rage, or collapse that result from trauma . Such intense affective activation resulting in sensory collapse, flashbacks, auditory intrusions, and emotional flooding of the system can often be the case when traditional talk and analytic therapies have been applied to treat the traumatised individual who is seeking relief from traumatic stress related disorders . For trauma informed psychotherapists and practitioners strong activation of dysregulated limbic activity, from a neuro-scientific perspective, requires the formulation and inclusion of limbic therapies in response.
Trauma focused treatment is ideally constructed around limbic therapy so that the integration of narrative memory, so often blocked from consciousness because of the weight of the pain associated with the events, can begin. One may infer also, that given the domination of neurophysiologically primitive, survival oriented brain activity into which trauma sufferers appear to be subjectively cast, it makes sense that primitive, ritualistic and communal activities, such as vibration, physicalmovement, abstract representations, touch and sound, where stories are told beyond words, are presenting scientifically as effective and even necessary treatments in the healing of traumatic stress .
Integrating Movement in the Living System
Here, stories may be told through symbolic characters who represent (re-present) split off, denied and often-inaccessible parts of the self . Such sub-personalities can on occasions uncontrollably dominate the disordered personality through enactments such as addictive behaviour, continued dysregulated emotional experiences, ant-social behaviour and maladaptive working models of attachment to the world. Interestingly, Van der Kolk finds a correlation between the imprint of trauma seen in the right brain region through neuroimaging and the spatial processing, a primarily right brain activity, that is promoted and activated through psychodrama. It is in the right hemisphere of the brain that non-verbal communication features, such as facial expressions, vocal tone and physical movements are processed and organised into meaning. Entering consciously this world of non-verbal communication, where the inner symbols of ones living systems and sub-systems of meaning are retained and organised is the focus and unique therapeutic environment offered by the psycho-dramatic experience. According to Jungian theory such subsystems are specific to psychological trauma complexes, the trauma archetype itself, being a universal form of stress reaction.
To quote John P. Wilson is helpful here as my thesis would develop along the lines that both trauma and ritual enactment, developing into theatre and dramatic representations of symbolic meaning, are universal and part of the same mechanism for organismic processing and organising of human experience. Wilson explains the Trauma Archetype as follows:
The Trauma Archetype involves conscious and unconscious alterations in psychic states, allostatic changes in organismic functioning, disequilibrium in states of meaning and belief, and impacts on the structure of the self and personality process. In an intra-psychic sense the dialectic of the trauma archetype, through the interaction of the complexes, becomes an experiential relationship between polarised extremes within the person. Psychodrama is helpful in this sense as one of the key principles of its basic theory is that more than one modality can function in a synergistic application, thus each process giving renewed energy and power to the other in simultaneous fashion.
In the theatre of the self, through the psycho-dramatic process, the subject may simultaneously experience the integration of an ego-alien experience into personality. The group process itself, being one of creativity and spontaneity, may activate latent energy for healing and transformation. One may even enact the moral task of regaining or finding a pro-social psychological posture where helplessness, anger, destructive impulse and hostility had struggled for dominance. The psycho-dramatic process is one of actively engaging the whole person, even when the person is in a state of organismic vulnerability.
Reflections on a Living Systems Psychodrama Session
The theme acts as a form of stage, a world of its own. The therapist becomes the stage manager and the subject the protagonist, or actor. The actor is going to enter the world of their own and others functioning and there symbolize extremes of under (neglect) and over (abuse) functioning within their past and present, in themselves and in their family of origin members. From a Jungian complexes perspective we may view that the process is drawing symbols – homeostasis, equilibrium, terror, and rage - which form around the trauma archetype of organismic vulnerability. The stage manager may also take the role of witness, one who sees everything, without judgment or value addition. The group becomes the audience and a circle is formed. They are silent witnesses to the life experience of the protagonist and bear witness to the reality of the experience by their presence. The circle is another boundary, a physical protection .
This circle may unconsciously provide the sense of holding that the traumatized person lacks within themselves, thus providing an interpersonal process of engagement with the therapeutic dynamic much more powerful than the protagonist is aware of consciously. The next interesting symbol in psycho-dramatic therapy is the auxiliary . Originally Joseph Moreno (1889-1974) termed this member the auxiliary ego.
Corcoran S, Registered Psychotherapist, Leek Staffordshire ST135NR, United Kingdom, Tel: 00 44 7456653027; E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
S. In the Theatre of the Self: Reflections on the use of Drama in Treating
Traumatic Stress (2018) Neurophysio and Rehab 1: 29-31
2. Herman JL.Trauma and Recovery: From Domestic Abuse to Political Terror(1992) Pandora,London, UK.
3. Wilson JP. The Post Traumatic Self: Restoring Meaning and Wholeness to Personality(2006),Routledge Publishers, New York.
4. Dayton T. The Living Stage: A Step by Step Guide to Psychodrama, Sociomety and Experiential Group Therapy (2005)Health Communications Inc, Florida, USA.
5. Van der Kolk B. Recognising and Resolving Traumatic Stress (2016) Conference Presented by The Byron Clinic. Sydney, Australia.