What is Therapeutic Role-Playing?

Therapeutic Role-Playing Can Be Used to Treat Phobias

Student and psychologist talking in classroom. Credit: Hill Street Studios / Getty Images

Therapeutic role-playing has proved to be an effective treatment for phobia sufferers, who often believe that a feared situation is inherently dangerous. This type of therapy allows a therapist and patient to act out scenarios that are difficult for the phobia sufferer. Through role-playing the patient learns new behaviors to help overcome their particular phobia.

Treating Phobias

Many professionals believe that the most important causes of phobias are the environmental triggers and learned behaviors.

They argue that a phobia is ultimately a learned response to a stimulus. By “unlearning” the response and substituting rational reactions, the phobia can be cured. This model favors therapy as a preferred treatment.

Many phobia sufferers are best treated with a combination of medication and therapy. Most psychiatrists do not perform the types of therapy best suited to phobia treatment. Therefore, psychiatrists and therapists often form referral networks to help clients meet both needs. Mental health centers often have a range of mental health specialists on staff, offering their clients a one-stop solution.

Individual Therapy for Phobias

Individual therapy, which can include therapeutic role-playing, allows the therapist and client to focus on each other, building a rapport and working together to solve the client's issue.

However, psychoanalysis and related therapies may progress for months or even years, while brief therapies, such as cognitive-behavioral therapy, or CBT can produce results in just a few sessions.

How Does Role-Playing Therapy Work?

Therapeutic role-playing is a technique that allows a person with a phobia to practice new behaviors. In a role-playing session, the therapist takes the identity of someone that the person is afraid to confront, such as a parent or employer.

The person then interacts with the therapist, utilizing behaviors that she has learned during therapy.

After the role-playing session is complete, a debriefing takes place in which the client and therapist discuss what happened and ways to improve the interaction. This technique can be particularly helpful for those suffering social phobia, germ phobia, or other interpersonal phobias.

How Does Role-Playing Therapy Help?

When someone with a phobia is interacting with a therapist, he or she can put to use the new behaviors that were learned during treatment. Many people with phobias suffer from social or interpersonal fears that prevent them from actively participating in some aspect of their lives. Role-Playing Therapy can help people overcome their fears by learning new behavioral techniques. How well role-playing works often depends on the severity of the phobia.

A good mental health professional will customize a treatment plan for the patient, which may include role-playing therapy.

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