Psychodrama, an Experiential Treatment, Helps Diffuse Anger

Reducing anger opens possibilities for compassion and connection

Posted Jan 31, 2018

Conrado/Shutterstock
Source: Conrado/Shutterstock

Valerie Simon, LCSW, PAT, today's guest blogger, is an experienced practitioner of Psychodrama, a powerful technique for conducting individual, group and couples therapy. She writes:

Many decades ago, an Eastern European psychiatrist named Jacob Moreno already understood that the body remembers what the mind forgets. In the early 20th century, Moreno created psychodrama, one of the earliest forms of experiential therapy whose name often initially intimidates. Watching children on the playground in Vienna work out their conflicts, Jacob Moreno realized that role-playing helps us heal our issues. He then developed improvisational theatre techniques that were utilized in a therapeutic way. These techniques can be adapted to help couples stuck in conflicts. 


How we communicate, especially in anger, matters. If a relationship has an emotional bank account, does our communication during stressful situations allow us to make emotionally supportive deposits or are we constantly withdrawing in anger and depleting our emotional supplies? 


How a couple handles conflict can determine the outcome of a relationship. John Gottmann researched couples and discovered several predictors of whether a couple would stay together or separate after observing them communicate in a conflict. 


The couples therapist is presented with many challenges when a couple is stuck in anger. We often find ourselves acting as a referee or a parent breaking up a fight between siblings in the sandbox. Sometimes we have trouble getting a word in edgewise. Couples can get very entrenched in negative communication patterns and by the time they reach our office, they often have been expressing anger dysfunctionally for years. 


In addition, our brains are wired with negative patterns we witnessed and experienced as children. While helpful, simply talking about our issues in couples therapy doesn’t necessarily help rewire the neural pathways in our brains and that is what changes behavior. 


Experiential therapies—like psychodrama—incorporate the body in action and hold the key to shifting patterns from negative to positive. Our bodies register traumatic
memories within the limbic system of the brain. This is the area from which fight, flight or freeze responses originate, and from where most anger reactions stem. 


Below are several experiential tools that can be utilized in couples sessions and help diffuse anger: 


Warm-ups - In psychodrama, warm-ups measure preferences. When used in couples therapy, warm-ups can provide a safe space for couples to share about their frustrations in an accelerated fashion that talk therapy might not engender. 


Here are a few examples: a spectrogram is a measurement of preference on a spectrum scale. The therapist may ask a couple, “On a scale from one to ten, how angry are you feeling at your partner right now?” and have each stand at the accurate location on an imaginary line on the floor that represents that spectrum from 0 - 10. Each would then share about his/her choice. 


Another warm-up is the locogram which utilizes different locations for answers. For example, a therapist could place several pieces of paper on the floor with words on them describing different ways people express anger such as “Yelling” “Silent Treatment” “Spending Money” or “Flirting with Others.” The couple would have the opportunity to each stand on the paper with the method they most often use in a conflict and share thoughts and feelings about it. Also, they each could choose the method which is most triggering for them when their partner uses it in a conflict, and share how it makes them feel. Another locogram might be, “What is underneath my anger?” and choices could range from “Fear of Abandonment” to “Loneliness” to “Feeling Trapped” and a couple could have a chance to express their own vulnerabilities and hear about their partner’s vulnerabilities. In locograms, we always provide a choice of “Other” so a participant can fill in the blank and respond in a way that the therapist had not anticipated. 


Role Reversal - When a couple is stuck in a dysfunctional pattern, switching places and switching roles can help diffuse the anger. In role reversal, each person literally gets up and switches places and plays the role of the other. They then repeat some of the last things their partner said and further the dialogue. A shift of perspective is often achieved as each is able to stand in the shoes of the other and see his/her point of view. With role reversal, a new part of the brain is engaged with this technique that fosters empathy, the easiest way to shift anger and blame. 

M. Benedetti/used w/ permission
Valerie Simon, LCSW, PAT
Source: M. Benedetti/used w/ permission

The Empty Chair - This technique was created by Jacob Moreno, then later adopted by Fritz Perls, a former Moreno trainee, in gestalt therapy. An empty chair is placed in front of a couple and they are directed to consider whether they ever displace their anger from someone else in their life onto their partner. For example, Susan and Steve are married and at work, Susan has a challenging male boss. In this instance, Susan would imagine that her boss were sitting in the empty chair and she would have the opportunity to safely vent her frustrations at him in a way that she could not at the office. She could clear the decks, in effect, and not store up her anger until it spills over into her home life and is misdirected towards her husband. Witnessing this empty chair work, Steve may develop increased empathy for Susan. The next time Susan begins to unload her frustrations on Steve after a tough work day, he may not react defensively, and instead might ask his wife if she would like to share about her day. The couple might even troubleshoot a constructive way for Susan to talk to her difficult boss, or if she might consider putting out feelers for a new job. 


Most conflicts are not black and white. When we are in fight, flight or freeze mode, it can feel as if they are and we often lose connection to the person we want it from the most. When we are triggered and angry, we sometimes revert to childlike patterns. Psychodrama helps us break angry patterns and think more clearly, generating options for reconnection with those who matter to us. 


Valerie Simon, LCSW, PAT (www.valeriesimon.net) is a psychotherapist and
certified practitioner and trainer of psychodrama. She has a private practice in Manhattan where she sees individuals, couples, and families. 

©2018 Valerie Simon, LCSW, PAT