What do you picture when you think about therapy? Most people picture talking to a therapist in an office. Although that is the case for many types of therapy, experiential therapy is different. Instead of in an office, experiential therapy may take place in a horse stable, an art studio, or on a wilderness hiking trail.
What Is Experiential Therapy?
A type of hands-on therapy, experiential therapy involves action. The person uses expressive activities and tools, such as arts and crafts, poetry, animal interactions, music, props, role-playing, acting, outdoor activities, or other forms of recreational activity. They use these experiences to recreate or re-enact specific situations that happened in their lives. By focusing on the activity, the individual becomes aware of emotions and thoughts that influence their responsibilities, successes, self-esteem, and disappointments. Their therapist helps them explore and understand their negative feelings associated with situations or memories from the past. The individual can then release the negative feelings, such as anger, shame, hurt, or guilt.
A Brief History
Based on humanistic psychology, experiential therapy first emerged in the 1940s. Its founder was Abraham Maslow. He believed that humans were unique and the whole person needed to be considered when treated. Experiential therapy fell out of favor for some time but regained popularity in the 1970s when Carl Whitaker helped develop the field of experiential family therapy, also called the symbolic-experiential approach to therapy.
According to GoodTherapy, Carl Whitaker used unconventional strategies in his family therapy sessions. These strategies included play, humor, and directness to get the family members to talk about their issues. Over the years, experiential therapy has gained popularity. It is known to have many benefits, especially for those struggling with addiction and mental health disorders.
Therapy & Addiction Recovery
Experiential therapy is helpful to those in recovery from a drug or alcohol addiction. This type of therapy is used in conjunction with other forms of therapy. Often when a person has a substance use disorder, they also have a trauma-related co-occurring disorder, such as post-traumatic stress disorder, depression, or anxiety. Many times, the person finds it difficult to talk about their feelings and behaviors associated with the trauma or mental health disorder. They may be uncomfortable talking about them, or they may be unable to put their emotions and feelings into words.
When people focus on a specific activity, they become more relaxed and less guarded. The therapist can learn more about the person’s mindset and behavioral patterns by watching and interacting with them during experiential therapy sessions. This type of therapy helps individuals gain a stronger sense of self, as they deal with past traumas and buried emotions.
Through experiential therapy, people in recovery build self-esteem and self-reliance, improve focus, reduce impulsivity, and learn healthy coping strategies to deal with everyday triggers and stressors.
Experiential therapy helps individuals learn new strategies and coping skills to deal with stress. As they learn new skills and experience different things, they gain confidence in themselves. It gives them a sense of purpose, and they feel successful when they complete a task. Several additional benefits of experiential therapy include processing emotions, promoting healing, changing perspectives, reducing avoidance, reducing anxiety, and helping develop creative expression.
Types of Experiential Therapy
There are numerous types of experiential therapy. One of the most popular forms is psychodrama. In this form of experiential therapy, the person takes a situation from their life and turns it into a play. Even if the situation occurred many years in the past, making it a psychodrama brings it into the present, where it can be dealt with and resolved. The person role-plays the situation. They know they are in a safe place and can develop positive ways to cope with the situation.
Examples of experiential therapies based on the arts include painting, sculpting, drawing, dance, music, poetry, and creative writing. Adventure therapies include wilderness therapy, excursions, sports, and outdoor activities such as rock climbing, kayaking, or camping.
Several additional types of experiential therapies include:
- Equine-assisted or canine-assisted therapy
- Stage performance
- Guided imagery, focusing on mental images to evoke specific feelings
- Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR)
Do You Need Help?
If you or someone you love struggles with addiction, help is available. You are not alone. Call and speak with a professional at English Mountain Recovery, located in the Smoky Mountains of Tennessee. We will answer your questions and help you begin your journey to recovery.
About the Author:
Terry Hurley is a retired educational professional and freelance writer with more than fifty years of experience. A former reading specialist and learning center director, Terry loved her years working with children in the educational field. She has written extensively for print and online publications specializing in education and health issues. For the last six years, her writing focus has been on addiction and mental health issues.