Addiction treatment requires an individualized approach if it’s going to be successful in helping a client achieve sobriety. Cookie-cutter approaches don’t work for this type of chronic illness.
Experiential therapy is one technique that may be part of an overall treatment plan. It may be used in conjunction with other therapies, such as individual counseling sessions, group therapy sessions, and attending 12-step recovery program meetings.
What Is Experiential Therapy?
Experiential therapy has been used since the 1970s. As the name implies, it’s about the client’s “experience” as opposed to simply talking to a therapist to gain personal insight and solve problems. With this type of therapy, the client uses an activity, an expressive tool or a prop to re-experience strong emotional situations.
This technique is used to treat clients with a number of concerns. It has been used to treat clients with substance abuse issues, as well as people seeking help for behavioral addictions like gambling. Experiential therapy may also be used to treat eating disorders, trauma, grief and loss.
How Experiential Therapy Works
The basic premise of cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is that if you change your thoughts, you will change your behavior. In experiential therapy, the premise is that your perception determines your behavior.
When clients re-experience (and are then able to release) the negative emotions they have been repressing, they are in a place where they can experience positive feelings. It becomes easier to feel comfortable with feeling calm, peaceful and loving in the present. From this place, clients can practice forgiveness of themselves and others.
Key Aspects of Experiential Therapy
Here are some key aspects of experiential therapy in addiction treatment:
1. Role of Experience: Experiential therapy recognizes that learning and change often occur through direct experience, rather than solely through verbal communication. Engaging in specific activities can help individuals process and understand their emotions and behaviors.
2. Emotional Expression: Experiential therapy encourages the open expression of emotions, providing a safe space for individuals to explore and release pent-up feelings, such as anger, grief, or trauma.
3. Self-Discovery: Participants are guided through various activities designed to help them gain insights into their own behaviors, thought patterns, and reactions to different situations. This self-discovery is a fundamental aspect of recovery.
4. Holistic Approach: Experiential therapy takes a holistic approach to healing, addressing the physical, emotional, and spiritual aspects of addiction and recovery.
5. Active Participation: Clients actively engage in activities that may include art, music, drama, outdoor adventures, or mindfulness exercises. These activities vary depending on the program and therapist.
6. Creative Expression: Art therapy, music therapy, and other forms of creative expression can be part of experiential therapy, allowing individuals to express themselves in non-verbal ways.
7. Mindfulness and Relaxation: Mindfulness exercises, meditation, and relaxation techniques are often integrated into experiential therapy to help individuals manage stress and cravings.
8. Building Trust and Communication: Trust-building exercises, group activities, and team-building exercises are used to enhance interpersonal skills, trust, and communication, which are essential for recovery and building healthy relationships.
9. Problem-Solving Skills: Clients engage in problem-solving challenges and activities that promote critical thinking and problem-solving skills, which can be applied to real-life situations.
10. Coping Skills: Experiential therapy helps individuals develop healthy coping skills to replace destructive behaviors, such as substance use, with healthier alternatives.
11. Overcoming Fears and Trauma: Adventure-based therapy and outdoor activities may be used to help individuals face and overcome fears, as well as process past traumatic experiences.
12. Empowerment: The experiential therapy process empowers individuals to take control of their recovery and make positive changes in their lives.
13. Integration with Traditional Therapy: Experiential therapy is often integrated with traditional therapeutic methods, such as individual counseling and group therapy, to provide a comprehensive treatment approach.
14. Individualized Approach: Treatment plans are tailored to each individual’s unique needs and preferences, ensuring that therapy is relevant and effective for them.
Benefits of Experiential Therapy
There are a number of benefits for both the client and the therapist when including this type of therapy in the drug and alcohol treatment plan.
The therapist sees the client in a more “natural” setting.
Sitting across from a therapist in an individual counseling session can feel more than a little awkward for a client. Even though the purpose of examining past events and his emotion is to help him in his addiction recovery, he may feel as though he is under a microscope. During their conversation, the therapist is taking note of the words he is using, as well as his body language and other clues to gain an understanding of what he is trying to communicate.
During experiential therapy, the client is focused on completing the task that has been assigned, and is less concerned with his manner and how he is coming across. The therapist and the client can discuss his thoughts and feelings about different aspects of the task at the time or after the task has been completed.
Tasks give clients an opportunity to experience success.
Clients who check into an inpatient drug and alcohol treatment center are likely having self-esteem issues. They probably haven’t felt as though they have been successful for some time. When given a task they can be successful at, they start to feel better about themselves.
For example, equine therapy lets clients experience the satisfaction that comes with hard work and developing a positive, trusting relationship with the horse.
This doesn’t necessarily mean that each task will be an easy one. Part of the therapy involves learning how to recognize obstacles, staying calm while dealing with them and taking responsibility for one’s actions.
The therapist gives the client specific feedback.
After the task has been completed, the therapist and the client meet to discuss the therapist’s impressions of the client’s behaviors. The client has a chance to respond and share whether any aspects of performing the task brought up strong feelings that she wants to address.
Who would benefit from best from Experiential Therapy?
Experiential therapy can be particularly beneficial for individuals who may have difficulty expressing their emotions verbally or who are looking for alternative approaches to traditional talk therapy. When integrated into a well-rounded addiction treatment program, experiential therapy can play a valuable role in helping individuals achieve and maintain sobriety while addressing the underlying emotional and psychological factors contributing to their addiction.
Experiential Therapy at English Mountain Recovery
English Mountain Recovery offers experiential therapy to its valued clients. This therapeutic approach includes several types of activities, such as adventure therapy, expressive arts therapy, recreation therapy and an equine interaction experience.
By Jodee Redmond