Published Article: How to release repressed emotions through drama

Published in Positive Health Magazine

The Sunflower Effect for emotional health and well-being

The therapeutic benefits of theatre are as old as history itself. The very earliest forms of theatre derived from Greek Dionysian rituals (1) in which active expression was given to the chaotic forces of life expressed through the stories of Dionysus.

Greek Drama how to improve emotional health
Theatre of Dionysus, Athens

These later evolved into drama competitions in which classical stories were reenacted by masked actors. Plays such as the Orestia tell of family tragedies on a grand scale which makes most family dysfunctions look positively tame.

In Dionysian rites, participants reached an altered state known as ecstasis (from which the word ecstasy is derived). This enabled the release of powerful emotions through wild ecstatic expression. This was developed by Aristotle into the theory of catharsis in which the dramatic action of the play events climaxed into a release of emotion which had a purging effect and brought about transformation (2).

The Greek perspective on Health

The Greeks very clearly saw that it was necessary and healthy for the well-being of their society for emotions to be released. Theatre has developed considerably from these origins so that nowadays we equate theatre more often with being entertained. Or with being educated or being encouraged to think in a new way.

It is unlikely that we will associate theatre with healing or being changed ourselves.

In my twenties, I became fascinated by theatre and I obsessively went, understanding very little about it as a genre. Other than that I loved the feeling of sitting in the auditorium. I was thrilled by the emotions expressed by the actors, dazzled by the language and how all the elements of the performance made me feel.

I became inspired to pursue acting myself and found it liberating to express all the emotions that the experience of growing up had damned up inside me. It opened a whole realm of possibilities, enabled me to feel more confident and also to explore hidden aspects of myself.

Limitations of Theatre

I turned to other avenues to pursue my quest for self-exploration until I discovered dramatherapy, where I was able to bring together the two things I loved most: theatre and personal development. It was a marriage of two soulmates. And has become one of the most fulfilling career paths of my life, allowing me to explore the healing power of theatre and its potential to bring transformation into people’s lives. Perhaps what was most gratifying about it was the knowledge that I was returning to the ancient, Dionysinian roots of theatre. Of healing through emotional release.

In time I developed the Sunflower Effect.

For some time now, I have been aware of the link between health and play. This is mainly because people have come into my sessions feeling ill, tired and unwell and, by the end, have felt energised and inspired. There have been instances of flu bugs completely lifting.

But theatre in itself is not particularly geared up to self-discovery and therapeutic holding. As I continued in my journey, I found the business of being a professional actress detrimental to my emotional well-being.

Hardly surprising when there is such a strong link between mind and body. Storing angry emotions is, of course, particularly detrimental to health. What the Sunflower Effect® does is gives people permission to express all manner of emotions in a light-hearted and fun way, which at the same time is profoundly healing.

Tribal Medicine

In a tribal society, medicine is not limited to substances taken into the body. In addition, the medicine man may perform a ritual in which there may be a sacrifice or ritual enactment that mirrors the desired healing effect. Of getting rid of toxins so that body can return to balance.

This is no difference, in essence, from the theatrical convention of catharsis. This is when the dramatic action moves towards an emotional release. Evil or wrongdoing is excised so that balance can return to the kingdom.

The enactment of myths from ancient cultures, which distil archetypal energies and express all aspects of the human psyche, follow this pattern too. Robert A Johnson, the Jungian analyst says (3):

“When a myth transcends mere storytelling and truly comes alive for us, we experience deep psychological understanding.”

Robert A Johnson Ecstasy: Understanding the Psychology of Joy

how to improve emotional health through drama
Enactment of the myth of Jason and the Golden Fleece

Catharsis, a Space for Change

In enacting a myth and exploring its personal relevance for us, there is an opportunity for catharsis to take place. This subsequently opens up a space for change. In a classic myth, there is usually a threat from an outside source that calls the hero to take action. The hero undergoes many obstacles but eventually triumphs. The threat is banished and order restored, often bringing a greater good.

This structure acts as a container for the individual to express and release aspects of themselves that feel stuck or are calling for expression. By enacting the story, he or she is able to move these energies and bring about transformation and healing. At the time, it may feel like having fun, playing in the way we did as children, and inhabiting different roles. But afterwards, on reflection, participants often discover the significance of what they experienced and felt through the enactment of the drama.


Expressing through a theatrical form intensifies the healing effect. The presence of an audience adds adrenaline, excitement, fear and a certain edge to the experience.

This heightened state (similar to the Dionysinian ecstasis) enables spontaneity to flow. It allows the unexpected to emerge and for emotion and blocked energies to be released. The healing effect comes from the attention of the audience and the experience of being seen in a compassionate context.

Most of us carry wounds from being shamed and made to look stupid, which inhibits us from expressing our true selves. Being seen and recognised for expressing our authentic selves can heal and liberate us to new levels of self-acceptance.

The presence of an audience adds adrenaline and excitement, and enables emotions and blocked energies to be released

What actually happens

How this works in practice is that participants divide up into small groups (usually about four or five people) in which to reflect on the personal relevance of the myth to them. They will choose the character or characters they are most drawn to, and pool ideas on how they might work together to create a short drama.

It is a creative collaboration. And this is as important as the end product in that it gives an opportunity for deep sharing, empathy and for sparking collective creativity.

A dressing up box of brightly coloured cloths, scarves, props and masks are available for the participants to costume themselves if they want to. This adds the visual aspect of theatre. There is also a box of musical instruments, a selection of music and lighting choices. Through this, the group become the performers, the director, the designer and the stage crew. It is a piece of “total theatre” in which they create all aspects of the performance.

The Performance Phase

The action then shifts into the performance phase, in which the groups take it in turns to present their pieces to each other. They may choose to work through movement, mime or dialogue. They can be active or choose to be more behind the scenes, i.e. playing music or creating visual effects and sounds.

Those that have been watching then have an opportunity to reflect on what they felt as they watched and what aspects of the performance particularly resonated with them. This gives those who performed an opportunity to hear the impact of their piece on others, of the feelings that were stirred and the insights gained through watching.

The performers then have an opportunity to reflect on how it felt from the inside. Unconscious aspects of themselves may have been revealed. Perhaps they were able to inhabit a new role or to express their power.

These are the words of a participant who was able to bring about major shift in her life as a result of the emotions she expressed.

I had moments when I felt high as a kite and free and empowered. Other moments were grim; disgusting, dark and revelatory. I came face to face with parts of my past and parts of myself that I had chosen to ignore for years. But I knew I had to confront the issues that arose and the people themselves and I succeeded in this, which was a shock!

Liberation of the Dark

Expressing the darker aspects of human experience can be extremely liberating for people. The myths themselves are rich in archetypal characters which give plenty of opportunities to explore the shadow and the denied aspects of the self. It is often these characters that give more opportunity for personal transformation.

how to improve emotional health
Expressing the darker aspects of human experience can be extremely liberating

The monsters, such as the gorgon Medusa, who turns anyone who sets eyes on her into stone, give us an opportunity to experience our personal power. The Indian goddess Kali, who brings destruction but also balance, enables us to transform the destructive aspects that we all have as humans into positive energy.

Robert A. Johnson describes the “gold in the shadow” (4). This is the power that we miss out on when we suppress our darker parts for fear it will be unacceptable to others. Expressing the shadow, therefore, becomes a way of reclaiming this lost power.

If anything, the most important aspect of expressing ourselves through a creative form is that it gives opportunities to celebrate our darker aspects. By playing characters that are tyrannical, angry, grotesque, selfish and destructive, we liberate the suppressed energy that has been trapped inside us.

Kali, goddess of destruction and balance

This does not mean that we are going to become angry and selfish etc. Instead, we will feel freer because we are no longer exerting huge amounts of effort to hold this energy down. We will find it easier to assert ourselves without being aggressive and to negotiate our boundaries.

Freedom from Emotional Addictions

I remember a woman who had a tendency to get sucked into debilitating emotional states, who choose to play the role of a despicable tyrant. She had great fun dressing up as this character, making herself as grotesque and fat as possible by stuffing material down her front. She had even more fun expressing the monstrous aspects of this character which enabled her to express her power and free herself from this form of emotional addictiveness.

Change may be experienced then and there. A sense that a toxic emotion has been discharged and a shift in awareness felt. Sometimes the change may be noticed weeks later when the person starts behaving in a new way. Or they feel freed from a trauma that had overshadowed their lives. Or they feel lighter and more at peace with themselves. Perhaps they are able to make changes that they have promised they would do for years. To follow a new career direction or an opportunity might suddenly drop into their laps.

No More Throat Problems

The health aspect of working in this way I notice is that I no longer suffer from minor illnesses. When I was younger, I suffered almost continuously from flu, colds, stomach problems, throat problems and depression. This was because I had been suppressing so much of my emotional life.

Because it is instinctive for me now to express my darker emotions in a creative form, these energies do not stay around me for long. It is not hard to see that my longstanding throat problems came from the fact that I had things that I needed to communicate and was afraid to speak, and my depressions were the result of buried anger.

The link between body and mind is a core aspect of health. You can eat all the right foods, take the best supplements, avoid additives, and exercise regularly, but this is not necessarily going to bring you health if you are also carrying toxic emotions.

Expressing through healing theatre brings body and mind together, purges the body of toxic emotional states, stimulates the mind through expressing ourselves creatively, and enables us to let go of debilitating mindsets. Because it works indirectly through a creative form, the mind is distracted, which leaves the body free to do the work of healing itself.

how to improve emotional health
At the time it may feel like having fun, playing in the way we did as children, inhabiting different roles.

In addition, there is also the satisfaction of creating something aesthetic out of the traumas and the stuckness which we normally are critical of ourselves for. Making a piece of theatre that expresses the pain, transforms it and raises it into another dimension – that of a work of art. This also has the power to move and touch others deeply. And that in itself can have a profoundly healing effect.

The trauma, therefore, is no longer something that is holding us back. We can create out of it and transcend it so it becomes a collective sharing of the magnificence that lies within every one of us.


•  Godwin, J Mystery Religions Thames and Hudson 1981 p132-142 ISBN 0 500 272719

•  Johnson, R.A. Ecstasy: Understanding the Psychology of Joy Harper and Row San Francisco 1989 ISBN 0062504274

•  Johnson, R.A. Owning Your Own Shadow Harper San Francisco 1991 p42 ISBN 0 06 250505

Claire Schrader
(Positive Health Magazine March 2005)

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Why Tragedy is Good for you?

The Curse of Emotions – overcoming negative emotions

See the Sunflower Effect Confidence Building Courses aimed at beginners and for different levels and abilities in London.

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