What Is Experiential Therapy?

The notion of experiential therapy is a bit difficult to formally define, and there are a lot of misconceptions regarding what experiential therapies are.
 
There are a number of experiential therapeutic methods that are designed to recreate real experiences that allow feelings, attitudes, and beliefs that are considered subconscious, or below the level of conscious experience, to merge into awareness. Running a search of the term experiential therapy on the American Psychological Association’s website results in a list of a number of different therapeutic methods that could be considered forms of experiential therapy, including Gestalt therapy, dynamic therapy, and even methods of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy. Many sites only list various alternative forms of experiential therapy, such as animal-assisted therapies (e.g., equine-assisted therapy), psychodrama, recreational therapy, art therapy, music therapy, adventure therapy, wilderness therapy, and others.

Thus, experiential therapy is not just one form of therapeutic intervention but a number of different types of therapy and therapeutic interventions designed to focus on actual involvement with different types of experiences, including emotional processing, interactions with others, creativity, and reflections of events that go beyond traditional “talk therapy.” Essentially, these therapies help to make a person more aware of their internal representations of the world.

Experiential therapy has its roots in the humanistic paradigm fostered by such individuals as Abraham Maslow and his hierarchy of needs and Carl Rogers’s client-centered therapy as well as the Gestalt therapy of Fritz Perls. The therapeutic approaches of Rogers and Perls are still highly experiential in nature and still reflect forms of experiential approaches to therapy. In addition, we might also include the experimental use of LSD in psychiatry to expand the consciousness of patients in the 1960s as a type of experiential therapy.
Other more common types of interventions now classified as being types of experiential therapy include music therapy, art therapy, equine therapy, and psychodrama. These programs get the individual involved in a process of interaction or creation that allows for the development of insight and realization into the nature of their inner thoughts, feelings, and experiences. These realizations, like the realizations that occur in various forms of talk therapy, allow the individual to develop insight and learning about their own nature, needs, and proactive methods to address these.

 

facility outdoorsAgain, it is important to remember that a hard definition of experiential therapy would include many traditional types of therapy, such as Gestalt therapy, client-centered therapy, and even certain applications of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy and dynamic therapy. In these therapies, individuals directly experience their emotions, and the focus is on the experience, understanding, and reconceptualizing of one’s emotions and how they affect one’s behavior. Many of the descriptions of experiential therapy define more recent therapeutic approaches that involve specific types of personal interactions with people or animals, reflections of artistic works, or the creation of art. Some of these are:

  • Certain types of expressive therapies:
    • Drama therapy or psychodrama: These approaches use drama or theater to help individuals achieve therapeutic goals. These can include acting out one’s own personal story or interacting with others in a form of drama.
    • Music therapy: This involves any number of techniques using music to instill positive changes in behavior.
    • Art therapy: Images or creative artistic processes, such as painting or sculpting, are used to develop awareness and reduce negative experiences.
    • Play therapy: Therapeutic play is used to resolve psychological difficulties.
    • Poetry therapy: This involves the use of literature or poetry to achieve personal growth.
  • Animal-assisted therapies involve the use of animals in the therapeutic process, such as equine therapy (caring for horses), the use of dogs in actual therapy sessions, and other forms of caring for the needs of animals as actual therapeutic interventions.
  • Adventure therapies occur when there is active participation in events, such as cooperative games, wilderness or outdoor expeditions, zip line or rope courses, etc.

Many of the above interventions are used in the treatment of substance use disorders. One of the important things to consider here is that these interventions are typically not the primary form of treatment used in addressing an individual who has a substance use disorder, but they are used in addition to traditional empirically validated treatments that include withdrawal management techniques (if needed), medically assisted treatment, substance abuse therapy, and support group involvement, such as the use of 12-Step groups.

Experiential techniques can be quite useful in assisting in the treatment of substance use disorders, particularly for individuals who may experience difficulty interacting with others in traditional talk therapy approaches. For instance:

  • Research has indicated that many of the types of expressive therapies listed above can help to reduce issues with the denial, foster cooperation in treatment, develop insight, and develop a more positive approach in substance use disorder treatment.
  • Research has indicated that using dogs in substance use disorder treatment groups can increase the working bond between the therapist and client in a group or even in individual therapy. This bond is known as the therapeutic alliance, and it is crucial to success in treatment.
  • Many individuals with substance use disorders have difficulty relating to people. Equine-assisted therapy, where individuals relate to horses and care for them, has been demonstrated to increase the capacity of individuals involved in these activities to relate to people and to progress in substance use disorder treatment.
  • Adventure therapies offer individuals the opportunity to develop trust, to learn problem-solving techniques, and to become better at expressing themselves, which can be useful in sustaining recovery.

Thus, all of these techniques can be useful when incorporated into substance use disorder treatment depending on the individual; however, they are not typically used as standalone treatments for substance use disorders.

Who Should Not Be Involved in Experiential Therapy?

Like any intervention, there are also a number of different counter indications for different types of experiential therapies. Some are general to experiential therapy as a whole, and some are more specific to the particular type of intervention. These include:

  • Any form of experiential therapy should only be delivered to individuals who are appropriate in terms of age or maturity level, and who are physically able to be involved in the particular mode of therapy.
  • Individuals who are actively psychotic should not be involved in most of these therapies.
  • Individuals with severe cognitive impairment or physical limitations should not be involved in adventure therapies and certain types of expressive therapies. They should be very strictly supervised in animal-assisted therapies.
  • In the delivery of expressive therapies, it is very important to respect the particular wishes of the client involved. For example, individuals who are in art therapy may create art as a means of expression, but some may be very sensitive to criticism and do not want others to see their works of art (except for the therapist). They should not be forced to have their work evaluated by others. Individuals who are extremely afraid of animals should not be forced into animal-assisted therapies.
  • The particular therapy should only be administered by someone who is trained and certified in that particular approach.

Conclusions

Doctor VisitExperiential therapies broaden the range of potential interventions that can be used in a number of different types of treatment, including treatment for substance use disorders. While they are not typically designed as primary modes of intervention or standalone treatment protocols, they can be very useful in supplementing traditional substance use disorder treatment interventions. It is important to ensure that the particular type of experiential therapy used is appropriate for the person and situation involved, and that the treatment is only delivered by someone who is experienced and certified in that form of therapy.

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