Experiential therapy is a classification of therapies in which clients are encouraged to surface and work through subconscious issues by engaging in real-time experiences. Experiential therapy departs from traditional "talk therapy" by involving the body, and having clients engage in activities, movements, and physical and emotional expression.
Experiential therapy modalities include: equine therapy, play therapy, music therapy, and art therapy (aka expressive arts therapy), which can involve writing, drama, dance, painting, and more.
How does experiential therapy work?
Emotions form the basis of much of one's experience of life. They are indications of how safe or unsafe a person feels in the world, and they are the impetus for most behavior. Experiential therapy helps people uncover emotions they may have hidden or repressed. When they are able to surface such emotions and express them safely, they are then able to move past them.
In treating drug and alcohol addiction and substance abuse, recovery is much more likely when root causes are discovered, explored, and resolved. For example, research shows that an overwhelming number of addicts have some history of trauma, whether physical abuse, sexual abuse, neglect, extreme loss, broken family systems, or a chaotic upbringing. Until the original trauma is healed, many people will simply repeat or find themselves recreating traumatic circumstances, or self-medicating with something like a drug or alcohol addiction.
Experiential therapy helps give people a way of identifying unresolved emotions and patterns, and working through them safely, gently, and thoroughly. Once old patterns and traumas are neutralized, addiction often loses its grip on a person, and that person is able to successfully navigate life more peacefully and resourcefully.
What does experiential therapy treat?
Experiential therapy been successfully utilized in treatment programs for both teens and adults struggling with:
- Substance abuse
- Drug and alcohol addiction
- Behavior disorders, including sex addiction and gambling addiction
- Mood disorders
- Eating disorders
What is a session like?
In an experiential therapy session, a certain modality (like painting or music) is used to explore a patient's present or past experience or relationship, as facilitated by a therapist. As the person engages in the modality, they naturally begin to express whatever is associated with that part of their life (for example, painting a certain episode from their childhood).
As the person paints the situation, they may experience or re-experience the emotions related to it. They may then be able to identify the emotions associated with it (which they might not have had the resources to do at the time), and process them with the experiential therapist.
Rather than using words to talk about something difficult or traumatic (or being told to read a book or go through a list of things to work on), clients who engage in experiential therapy actually recreate their felt experience of certain circumstances, which can trigger feelings that can then be worked through. They are then able to overcome damage by creating new solutions. Focus is placed on client-centered solutions – them finding their own way, rather than being told something by the therapist.
What are the advantages of experiential therapy?
The goal of experiential therapy is for individuals to become more mindful of their own emotions, needs, and behavior patterns. In reliving past and sometimes present relationships, they're able to uncover stifled negative emotions that have a direct impact on their current life choices. In other words, by healing the past they are able to create a healthy present.
Correct use of experiential therapy helps clients free themselves from destructive patterns and attain greater levels of self-confidence and self-esteem. Healing old traumatic episodes not only helps demonstrate how suppressing negative emotions can be destructive (and how better to express such feelings), but it clears the way for new and more resourceful patterns like sobriety.
Neutralizing old trauma can also result in reducing or even eliminating "triggers", or things that would previously have prompted the desire to engage in substance abuse. This kind of healing is also clearly linked to the ability for clients to establish and maintain healthy relationships with both self and others, sometimes for the first time.
Experiential therapy helps people process trauma, memories, and emotion quickly, deeply, and in a lasting fashion. It has been shown to dramatically diminish anxiety, depression, and promote self-actualization, which leads to substantial and ongoing healing.