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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.
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: