Psychotherapist Jacob Moreno originated the concept of psychodrama therapy in the 1920s. Moreno was also an early advocate of group therapy. During psychodrama therapy, a person works through conflicts and trauma of the past by acting out parts of these experiences.

Psychodrama usually takes place within group therapy, but the focus is on the individual acting out a conflict. However, it is also possible to do individual psychodrama therapy. A therapist facilitates the process, helping participants structure psychodramas that support working through challenges.

Psychodrama may help people work through painful emotions, understand another person’s perspective, and resolve trauma.

Read on to learn more about psychodrama therapy, including how it works, potential benefits, and how to get started.

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Psychodrama is a structured form of therapy in which a person dramatizes a personal problem or conflict, usually in front of a group of other therapy participants. The other participants usually take part in the drama, though each performance focuses on a single person’s concerns.

Jacob L. Moreno, a Viennese psychiatrist and psychotherapist, developed psychodrama in the 1920s. Since then, several practitioners have developed new approaches to psychodrama, though the approach to resolving an individual’s issues in a group setting remains.

Psychodrama may be one part of a larger treatment program, or it may be the primary or sole treatment modality. Its aims are to:

  • foster empathy
  • help a person see themselves as others see them
  • support a person to work through challenging emotions
  • help a person resolve psychological issues from trauma and relationship conflicts

Moreno viewed psychodrama not just as a therapeutic technique but as an overarching philosophy that people could embrace outside clinical settings.

Drama therapy is similar to psychodrama therapy. Psychodrama is a type of drama therapy, but the two are not the same.

Drama therapy is any intervention that encourages people to act out stories for healing or personal growth. Importantly, drama therapy does not have to happen under the direction of a psychotherapist or other licensed expert.

Some important differences include:

  • Psychodrama occurs specifically within the context of psychotherapy, while drama therapy may occur in many settings.
  • Psychodrama therapy focuses on helping an individual tell and work through a story, while drama therapy may have a range of focuses, including telling the stories of groups.
  • In psychodrama, there is a strong emphasis on the specific role a person plays in their story, as well as on resolving psychological issues. Drama therapy has a broader, less specific approach. It might include resolving psychological problems, but it includes telling stories, understanding others, or working through difficult emotions.
  • Drama therapy focuses on expression, including telling a story. Psychodrama focuses more inwardly on personal healing.

Psychodrama centers around an individual and their needs in a group context. Within group therapy, an individual takes on the role of protagonist. This is the person whose needs the psychodrama addresses. A therapist serves as the director, coordinating the action, assigning roles, and offering feedback.

The approach flows in three steps:

  1. Warm-up: During this stage, the therapist works with the protagonist to develop goals for the session and begin structuring the drama.
  2. Action: This is the stage where the protagonist and others act out a situation or drama in a group therapy session.
  3. Sharing: During this stage, group members share feedback on the drama, talk about how the drama emotionally affected them, and use the drama as a tool for deeper psychological exploration.

During and after the drama, a therapist may recommend that the protagonist change roles, adopt the character of another person, or pause to reflect on another character’s behavior. These exercises may help a person better understand the role of others in a traumatic or difficult memory, as well as alternative ways they could act or feel.

A number of studies suggest that psychodrama can help people navigate complex psychological and interpersonal issues.

A 2021 study of 14 randomized controlled trials, and one semi-randomized controlled trial that included 642 people, found that this intervention offered relief from various mental health symptoms.

A 2020 study assessed the effectiveness of psychodrama in helping people manage grief. Researchers found that the process could help a person deal with grief and loss through group work. It could also help a person work through challenging emotions by allowing them to speak to a lost loved one through the group.

The study’s authors emphasize the role of this approach in managing some of the consequences of grief, such as addiction.

Another 2020 study assessed psychodrama for improving general well-being among college students. Researchers followed 30 undergraduate students, half of whom underwent psychodrama therapy. Those who participated in psychodrama had significant improvements in their pre-intervention well-being scores and well-being scores 12 months later.

It may be possible to participate in psychodrama therapy remotely, according to a 2021 study. The study involved a telehealth form of psychodrama in Italy during the COVID-19 pandemic lockdown. Researchers found that psychodrama helped reduce feelings of isolation and improved overall well-being.

These studies highlight a number of benefits of psychodrama therapy, including:

  • improving emotional intelligence and awareness
  • fostering empathy
  • helping a person work through trauma
  • offering a path to navigate conflict
  • providing a safe outlet for painful emotions
  • managing grief
  • providing an outlet for working through relationship issues, especially when a person cannot do so in the context of a relationship (such as when a loved one has died or is abusive)

Psychodrama is unlikely to cause physical harm unless a person falls or suffers another injury during the process. That said, it is possible to experience emotional harm, such as:

  • exposure to traumatic or anxiety triggers
  • reliving painful events
  • exposure to violence and other painful or unsettling stimuli
  • triggering psychosis or serious mental health problems

The director of the psychodrama, or the therapist conducting the intervention, should guide the process to benefit the protagonist. However, other participants might not benefit from the process and might even face exposure to traumatic events or experience triggers.

Psychodrama is not something a person can do alone or even in a group of other untrained people. Instead, it relies on a trained and licensed therapist who facilitates the development and acting out of the drama.

Psychodrama requires a group setting, mutual cooperation, and planning to act out the drama. A person may also participate in group or individual therapy prior to or after they act out a specific drama.

The American Society for Group Therapy and Psychodrama can connect a person with a skilled psychodrama practitioner.

Psychodrama is a structured approach to therapy that encourages people to act through conflicts and traumatic experiences to reach resolution and better mental health.

A person can do psychodrama on its own or include it as part of a larger therapeutic program.

Psychodrama has been around in one form or another for 100 years, and many people have found relief from it. It is not for everyone, though.

People considering psychodrama should ask a therapist about their experience with psychodrama, the risks and benefits, and how the therapist will structure the individual’s therapy.