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What is Experiential Therapy?

experiential therapy

Experiential therapy is a therapeutic technique developed in the 1970s that uses different expressive tools and activities to help a patient reenact or re-experience certain emotional situations from their past. Experiential therapy is a category of hands-on, interactive activities that can supplement traditional substance use disorder treatment, and has also been used in treating trauma, other mental disorders, chronic medical conditions, other behavioral addictions, compulsive behaviors, eating disorders, anger issues, grief and loss and relationship problems. 

These activities can include techniques such as role-playing, arts and crafts, animal care, music therapy, guided imagery or other forms of recreation in contrast to the traditional model of therapy. The idea behind this is that under the therapeutic guidance of a trained experiential therapist, a patient can focus on the activity and experience while also identifying the emotions that emerge as they are confronted with them. This hands-on, interactive form of therapy enables a patient to identify hidden feelings that they may have otherwise repressed. For some patients in particular, past feelings, emotions, issues and painful memories have been stifled for so long that they may not even know they are there, thus making it difficult to access in a traditional therapy setting. Experiential therapy allows a patient to focus on a different experience first, and then allows their feelings and emotions to flow naturally from that experience. 

What Are The Potential Benefits and Goals of Experiential Therapy?

One of the advantages of experiential therapy is that it allows both the patient and the therapist to focus on activities and situations other than the actual problem, which allows the therapist to observe the patient in different situations, and may put the patient at ease so they can experience successes, overcome obstacles, build on self esteem and take ownership and responsibility for their actions. When the therapist and the patient process the experience afterwards, the patient is able to identify the emotions and feelings they felt during the experiential therapy and process and evaluate their actions and behaviors. Perhaps they felt frustrated during an activity or maybe the experience reminded them of a previous issue or trauma that they once experienced. The goal is to encourage patients to identify and address their deeper rooted issues and traumas that they once experienced through an indirect approach. These repressed emotions, issues, and traumas might have been affecting their physical, emotional, and mental well being and may have served as a factor for their substance use. By using experiential therapy, patients are often less guarded than in the traditional therapy contexts and able to integrate their past with their present to overcome unresolved conflicts. 

Another benefit of experiential therapy is to provide patients with alternative coping mechanisms or hobbies that they otherwise may not have been exposed to while in their active addiction. This may help in helping patients who struggle with substance abuse since part of recovery is identifying healthy and productive activities that were previously spent drinking or using drugs. Experiential therapy also teaches individuals how to solve problems and be accountable for the choices and decisions a patient makes. Finally it can serve as a starting point for building personal relationships.

How It Works

As clients progress through experiential therapy, they will continue to experience different roadblocks, identify activities that elicit satisfaction, build their self-esteem and potentially find new hobbies that they may enjoy. Experiential therapy encompasses a category of different types of therapy, all with the common goal of helping a patient experience and understand their emotions and how it impacts their subsequent behaviors. 

Some examples of experiential therapy include:

  • Expressive therapies which incorporate action into therapy. Examples of expressive therapies include role playing where the patient acts out their personal story or certain experiences, music therapy where music is used to connect to emotions and behaviors, art therapy where art and artistic processes are used to draw out emotional awareness.
  • Animal therapies which involve the use of animals such as horses (equine therapy), dogs or other animals in the therapy sessions or as part of the therapeutic intervention/
  • Adventure or experience therapies where patients are encouraged to actively participate in events such as cooperative games, outdoor wilderness activities such as zip line, rope courses etc. to encourage problem solving, relationship building, self-esteem building as a part of therapy.

Research has demonstrated that using experiential therapies in substance use disorder treatment can help reduce issues of denial, increase participation by patients, develop different insights, and foster interactions between therapists and patients. This can be particularly useful for patients who have difficulty engaging with traditional therapy methods and can help build the relationship between the therapist and patient so that they work together towards a common goal. Many of the adventure based therapies can also help build trust among patients, which can be a foundation for support networks. Often people in addiction find it difficult to make friends and find people who they trust in early recovery. Experiential therapy can help patients learn to rely on others, ask for help, express their frustrations or emotions and develop friendships while experiencing “real-life” scenarios. This style of therapy also allows patients to experience and explore negative experiences and roadblocks which can be difficult in early recovery. By processing the emotions a patient experiences, it can give a patient the confidence that the negative feelings will pass, and that they don’t need to numb their emotions using drugs and alcohol.

Addiction Treatment in California

If you are looking for a different way to find sobriety, or are struggling with traditional modes of therapy, experiential therapy might be a different approach for you to explore. If you or someone you care about has a problem with substance or alcohol use, Asana Recovery can help. Contact Asana Recovery or give us a call today at 949-763-3440.Our trained professionals will walk you through the admissions process and make sure all of your questions are answered. The first step is admitting you need help, and is often the hardest. Once you take that first step, there will be a team on your side to help you be successful in your new future.