Dr. Dayton’s Personal Reflection on Some Basics in Psychodrama/Sociometrics that may Interface with Polyvagal Theory
The inspiration for this linking of polyvagal to psychodrama, is for me, the body involvement of psychodrama/role play that stimulates a “story” to emerge through the embodiment of the relationships that have shaped us. The “braced for danger” state of the infant or child can be a nearly invisible form of trauma resurfacing. That or a state akin to it, the fight/fight/flee” state, can manifest in the drama as a sort of thwarted intent. When in the psychodrama, the protagonist attempts the deep reconnection either to a part of themselves or an attachment figure, all athat is in the way of that connection can also resurface, and it usually does so in the body. In this way working with the body manifestation can provide a window into working with interpersonal issues. As the protagonist brings characters from their own lives onto the psychodramatic stage, the body that they lived in at the time of these interactions, emerges within them as well. They reinhabit the body state they lived in at the time of the experience, as they bring the then and there into the here and now; and heir body reveals this diadic, one-time event or repeated relational dynamic. The most common manifestations in the body tend to be:
- Tightening in the heart chakra area, throat tightness…
- Tightening in the face, facial fear, confusion, collapse or a somewhat stunned expression….
- Both evidence of a wish to flee and a simultaneous frozenness (activation and shut down)….
- Tension/muscle holding that often evidences itself in the chest, shoulder, neck, jaw, eyes, forehead…
- Shaking legs that I interpret as a thwarted urge to flee at times
- The self-reporting of an adrenaline increase, queasiness, head pounding or tightness in the chest/breath, an urge to run…
I often ask “if this part of you had a voice, what would it say” which offers a kind of royal road into the unconscious. The thinking mind can then find the words to describe the immediate experience that the body/mind is having rather than being asked to describe the experience before feeling it or all at once in a narrative. Often there is no conscious narrative so we need to discover it bit by bit, one feeling body/mind experience at a time. Keeping it simple and non-interpretive is key, “if you add to the truth, you subtract from it”. Their “story” is emerging and they find words to describe it through the experience of embodying it through role play and reencountering the people with whom they had the experience and reinhabiting the body they lived in during that experience. So slowing the moment down and not interpreting for the protagonist allows the scene to be seen through their eyes of the now more mature eyes, they become witness to their own inner relational world whether enacting a relational diad with an inner part of themselves or a relational diad with an “other” from their network. The story tells itself.
Psychodrama allows us to stand in and explore the relational diad which is what we internalize to begin with that becomes our “super ego” or “inner voices” or our inner “committee”. This is also why role reversal is so important and is essentially missing from other types of therapy. Role reversal allows the protagonist to reexperience both sides of the diad. It is the diad that we reenact in life through projections, transferences and reenactment dynamics so it is both sides of the diad that we need to heal.It is often the hidden part of the diadic relationship that we choose as partners in life that becomes problematic, the non-hidden, successful and nourishing side of the diad gives a rode map of what to choose from our early attachment that felt successful, loving and nourishing. But the hidden, less conscious material also serves as a road map, but an unconscious one.
I try to not confront trauma directly so as to reduce the protagonist freezing because once they do freeze, it becomes a challenge to help them to “warm back up to their enactment”. There is no need to put them in this situation if you warm them up through group interactive processes that are active and interactive. Sociometry is what is used in JL Moreno’s triadic system of psychodrama, sociometry and group psychotherapy but I found sociometry to be to limited, not offer adequate opportunities for group choice-making and interaction and they don’t focus the work in areas that stimulate a wide enough range of psychological and emotional issues.
So I developed SOCIOMETRICS organically to meet these needs and concerns and so that the protagonist’s warm up can become more spontaneous through the group process but/and informed through the research that I integrate into that process. For example, in The Symptom Floor Check group members wander around the “symptom list” that has been put on the floor on separate pieces of paper. Rather than becoming flooded with more symptoms than they can identify with or that trigger them and leave them just sitting there in their triggered body/mind, I integrate them into an active process of learning and healing. Group members are invited to mill around and take their time in choosing a symptom that draws them in the moment. They often find themselves in little groupings that feel supportive as they are asked to say a sentence or two about why they choose what they choose.
It becomes easy to put one manifestation of fear, or anger or trauma into words because the focus is on the symptom not on them, all they are being asked to do is say a few words about why they chose it, they are not being asked to describe or fill in their trauma narrative, which can be daunting and difficult. Rather they can choose which manifestations of their “story” or experience fits for them, they are choosing for themselves which in and of itself is healing as trauma so often means that we fall into a kind of helplessness/collapse and turn our autonomy or “power” over to someone else. As you can see by now, I am trying to create a process that has the healing elements baked into it so that I can minimize the need for the therapist to interpret. Because I do so much program development, I wanted to create a process that has maximum potential for healing whether or not the therapist is a good interpreter or psychodrama director, I am attempting to minimize risk.
So this group process of milling and choosing becomes educational and at the same time game-like or playful which is bonding for groups. It becomes the solving of the “puzzle of me” by “finding the words that apply to me” sort of thing. Then in the sharing of the choice is immediate, and more authentic and no one feels alone and on the spot which is a trigger in itself when it comes to processing trauma because it’s isolating. And if there is an “isolate” (which is Moreno’s term in sociometric investigation of group dynamics), they become evident because they are not choosing.
The trauma narrative I like to say is something we “bump into” so that we bypass the conundrum of being asked to “tell our story” which we all know is that last thing a traumatized person can easily do, as during the time of fear/terror/bracing(?) the thinking mind is so often off line. So rather than come up with a story which has not yet been formulated, SOCIOMETRICS are a sort of walk about through the potential manifestations of any issue be it anger, grief, trauma or resilience: a journey or game where you learn to observe which “symptom” or “words” are triggering something inside of you that draws you towards them. It’s the reverse of “tell me your story”. Our story emerges spontaneously and through manageable bits.
As sociometrics both teach and heal, they can take on an almost playful group exploration that offers a smoother entry into the psychodrama or role play. They offer what we refer to in psychodrama as a “warm-up”. There is also the advantage that the role play itself becomes more focused as the material to be explored has been surfaced or even triggered through the group psychoeducational process, through the researched “prompts”. The art for the therapist then lies in identifying those moments wherein the protagonist is sufficiently warmed up so that deep work flows freely and is well focused, in other words the protagonist knows exactly who they want to talk to and enough of what they are inspired and propelled to say to make a beginning easy and worth the risk or what does their body want to do. Their search has also been focused through a process that is not willy-nilly, the issues involved are research based so have a better chance at accurately helping them to hone in on the issues involved in recovery and healing.
I see these “teachable” or “feelable/healable” moments emerge through observing the protagonist’s body and what it is revealing. Are they unusually still or even frozen, do they look like they have an almost stunned expression on their faces, are they trying to find words to articulate an inner experience that is hard to put into words? Is emotion surfacing on their face that clearly wants to come forward or equally is the pain being blocked or caught in the body in which case a slow and careful invitation to explore a bit more might allow the protagonist to experience enough safety to dare the next moment? All of this is what the body is trying to tell us and where the polyvagal exploration, I believe, could further focus the exploration and the healing possibilities through deepening my understanding of what’s going on through a polyvagal lens.
Dr Tian Dayton
Senior Fellow at Meadows Behavioral Health & Director at The New York Psychodrama Training Institute.
Dr. Tian Dayton is a senior fellow at The Meadows and Director of The New York Psychodrama Training Institute, author of fifteen books including, Neuropsychodrama in the...