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.
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.
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.
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:
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.
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: