Families in Recovery Category in Blog

Teaching Empathy through Psychodrama: A Q&A with Anne Bresnahan, CASAC-G, Adult Counselor

Anne Bresnahan has worked in the field of addiction with both adults and adolescents for over 20 years. She joined Freedom Institute as an Adult Counselor in 2013 to lead our Psychodrama Program. Anne brings her love for and training in Psychodrama, Sociometry and Group Psychotherapy to her role and utilizes Motivational Interviewing, CBT and DBT skills as well as Kundalini Yoga and meditation training for addiction recovery. Anne is a certified Alcohol and Substance Abuse Counselor with special credentials in treating problem gambling. She runs our weekly Men’s Advanced Recovery Psychodrama Group and founded and leads our Gambling Group, one of the first of its kind in the New York City area.

When did you first discover Psychodrama?
I had been working with substance abuse programs for a while when I met someone who was training for Psychodrama. They told me about the practice and invited me to a session. I fell in love with the technique and have been doing it ever since. That was 1994. I came to Freedom Institute almost five years ago. Freedom Institute had been using Psychodrama in recovery successfully for a while so I was excited to join the team.

So what exactly is Psychodrama and can you give a little of its history?
Simply put, Psychodrama is a type of psychotherapy, an alternative to talk therapy, which uses guided dramatic action and role-playing to examine problems and issues or difficult feelings an individual may be having. It teaches them how to work through, process and cope with these feelings. It helps people gain insight and resolve problems by practicing communication and life skills and behavior in a safe and supportive environment so they can use them in real life situations.

As for its history, it was developed at the turn of the century by Jacob L. Moreno, a Romanian-American psychiatrist and educator and the foremost pioneer of group psychotherapy, around the onset of Freudian psychoanalysis. Moreno’s vision was one of “role theory.” He believed the more roles you are able to understand in any given relationship, the healthier you are. His idea of role theory was that if we reverse roles with another human being, take my eyes and give them to you and your eyes to me, so to speak, we could heal community. In our relationships we are trying to validate and understand other people’s perspectives and develop empathy. Role theory does that.

How many programs at Freedom Institute use psychodrama?
We have a Men’s Psychodrama Group every Wednesday night. It’s a very popular program. We also have a DBT Skills Group that incorporates psychodrama, teaching how to put DBT skills in action. We role-play, practice the skills clients learn in DBT and try them on rehearse new ways of dealing with life. Practicing a skill allows you to integrate it more fully so you can best use and access it in your life. Practicing skill training in a safe environment is key before rolling it out in the real world.

Can you give an example of where one might use Psychodrama?
Psychodrama offers the possibility of role reversal to gain insight and empathy. Let’s say a husband and wife are fighting over money and the husband is in our Psychodrama Group. Financial demands create enormous stress in any relationship. Perhaps one partner is out of work. They feel “less than” or ashamed and without purpose, a loss of confidence. The other partner is anxious and fearful. Their fear comes through as anger, which simply increases the shame and insecurity of the other. Anxiety, fear, anger overshadow any love or partnership. It’s a downward spiral. Through role reversal in Psychodrama, we try to get each client to see the issue through the other’s eyes, change their perception of the issue, and create empathy. Through the role reversal, by standing in the shoes of another, one can develop a sense of where they leave off and the other person begins. This makes setting healthy boundaries more of an experience. It does no good to fight about a problem. If both have empathy for the other’s feelings they are more likely to work through the problem together, and hopefully solve it, or at least change the scenario. Acting out a different role in psychodrama helps a client break an unhealthy cycle and try a new response to an issue.

How is psychodrama used in recovery?
It is used very effectively when you are going into a drinking situation. For example, imagine you are going on a date with someone and it is the first time you tell the person you are dating that you are sober. This can cause anxiety. We role-play the situation so the person can be prepared for any sort of response. It is about practicing putting oneself in a vulnerable situation and becoming okay with that feeling. And ideally psychodrama will help an individual in recovery to understand how to react if the person isn’t okay with them not drinking. It gives them options on whether to be there or not.

Changing your role, changing the messages, changing your thinking, examining the roots of where negative messaging or roles come from are all part of the practice of Psychodrama. It helps us see what we do with our feelings, how we respond to other people’s feelings. Where do the negative messages we give ourselves come from and how do we change them? Psychodrama works towards regulating and/or changing impulsive behaviors, and practicing new healthy behaviors, feelings and reactions and seeing how it feels to engage in a new, more positive and healthy behavior. This is all part of psychodrama. It changes us from impulsive or rigid behavior to spontaneous behavior, which is finding a new and adequate response to a situation.

People get stuck in roles due to trauma, loss, abuse, attachment or adoption issues and psychodrama helps teach how to recognize the unhealthy role and its cause, process the issue, the trauma, the grief, then build skills and practice enacting them so they can be integrated into daily life. It helps people pick up and go on and live.

Perhaps we adopted these unhealthy roles when we were children. We accept these roles, get stuck in them, but often can’t get out of them. How do you let go of your role, get out of old patterns. Psychodrama helps you try on a new role, experiment with new ways of thinking and behaving and then practice in real life situation and get used to it until it becomes your own new role. Psychodrama increases spontaneity — which is developing a new and adequate response to a situation. It is not impulsive. It is a creative new response.

Can Psychodrama help teach empathy?
Yes and Psychodrama does just that. Empathy is simply the ability to understand and share the feelings of another, to be able to put oneself in the other’s shoes. It’s like a muscle – the more you use it the stronger it gets. Action methods used in psychodrama help people strengthen their empathy for both themselves and others. Psychodrama is even used in international work. It reduces fear and anxiety and isolation and is used globally to heal trauma in places like India, Bangladesh, Ghana, Rwanda and many other countries after civil war and violence.

The healthier the roles we take on, practice and understand on an emotional level, the more understanding we have of how to lead a healthier life and conduct healthy relationships. It is about compassion for oneself and others and setting healthy boundaries. Empathy and compassion help improve relationships, overcome grief and loss, restore one’s confidence, express feelings better.