Experiential therapy isn’t really a specific type of psychotherapy. Rather, the term is used to refer to different types of therapy, as well as therapeutic techniques, that require engaging in some type of activity or action such as role playing, sculpting, rock climbing, or using props. Experiential therapy helps clients tap into underlying issues – such as unconscious conflicts, unresolved trauma, repressed emotions, poor problem solving skills, or maladaptive relationship patterns – that they may find difficult to identify and explore via traditional talk therapy alone. The experience itself gives clients an opportunity to improve their problem solving skills and practice new behaviors in a therapeutic environment.
Experiential therapy helps clients develop a greater sense of self awareness. It allows them to get in touch with their deepest needs, desires, motives, and emotions – both good and bad. Negative emotions that have been buried for a long time are destructive. Once identified, they can be processed in a healthy manner that facilitates healing.
Clients can learn how to be proactive rather than reactive when faced with challenging situations in experiential therapy. The process enables them to develop a greater understanding of the impact their choices have on themselves and others. One of the goals of experiential therapy is to help them begin making better choices – choices that not only align with their true values, but that also allow them to get their needs met in a healthy manner.
One of the greatest advantages of experiential therapy is that it allows the therapist to observe clients in settings and situations that mimic the real world. This gives the therapist greater insight into his or her clients. It also allows clients to focus on something besides therapy itself. Many clients are more likely to show their true colors during an activity than they are while just sitting and talking to a therapist. They tend to be less guarded, and their emotions, behaviors, and reactions more authentic, during an activity, which helps facilitate the therapy process.
Types of Experiential Therapy
Many different types of therapy utilize various types of experience to foster healing and promote psychological growth. Following are several types of experiential therapy:
Equine-assisted psychotherapy (EAP) – Equine-assisted psychotherapy, as the name suggests, involves the use of horses as part of the therapy process. Therapy clients don’t ride horses in this experiential approach; rather, they engage in various tasks, such as harnessing, leading, grooming, and feeding them. The manner in which clients interact with the horses reveal patterns in their day-to-day lives. Horses are the therapeutic tool that enables clients to identify, work through, and change self-defeating behaviors, negative emotions, and other problematic issues. EAP is often used in residential treatment centers for eating disorders and alcohol and drug addiction.
Psychodrama – Psychodrama is a form of experiential therapy that’s often conducted in a group setting. One member takes on the role of protagonist while other members in the group take on supporting roles. By dramatizing a particular problem or scenario (e.g. an unresolved conflict), therapy clients can look at situations from a new perspective, try out new behaviors, explore internal conflicts, and work through painful emotions.
EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing) – EMDR is an experiential therapy often used in the treatment of posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Therapy clients re-experience thoughts, images, and feelings associated with traumatic events while engaging in certain eye movements under the guidance of the therapist. The goal is to eliminate the distress caused by the traumatic experience.
Gestalt therapy – Perhaps one of the oldest and most well-known types of experiential therapy, Gestalt therapy focuses on personal responsibility, living in the here-and-now, and addressing unfinished business. Experiential methods are often used including role play and the “empty chair”. The empty chair technique involves having a therapy client imagine someone or something (e.g. a parent, a goal, a symptom) in it, and having a conversation with the person or thing to work through internal conflicts.
Sandtray therapy – Also called “sandplay therapy”, this therapeutic approach involves the use of a tray of sand with various objects (e.g. miniature people, animals, trees, stones) to use in it. Clients are instructed to play freely with the sandtray, creating a story or scene with the sand and objects. As the process unfolds, the meaning of the client’s play slowly emerges. Sandtray therapy is often used with children, but is also used with adults and families.
Adventure therapy – Adventure therapy is an experiential therapy that involves some sort of adventurous activity, such as hiking, biking, camping, white water rafting, completing an obstacle course, or indoor-rock climbing. Often geared towards troubled teens, adventure therapy helps participants develop better problem solving skills, initiative, personal responsibility, self-awareness, interpersonal skills, and the ability to work as part of a team. The activities represent various real life challenges.
Wilderness therapy – Wilderness therapy is a form of adventure therapy that takes place in the great outdoors. It typically involves backpacking and / or camping in the wilderness. Conducted in a group format, wilderness therapy is often used for adolescents with behavioral problems. The wilderness represents something that group members can’t manipulate, bully, or bend to their will. The challenges of the wilderness experience help teens become more responsible, self-aware, open, and accountable, while learning to be a productive member of a larger group.
Art therapy / Music therapy – Art therapy and music therapy are experiential therapies that allow individuals to express themselves through the respective mediums. Therapy clients can use music or art to work through and heal painful emotions and memories, increase self-awareness, build self-esteem, and improve interpersonal skills.
Play therapy – Although most commonly used with children, play therapy is also used with adults, families, and couples. Play therapy is particularly beneficial for individuals who are unable to (or find it difficult to) express themselves verbally. Conflict, behavioral problems, unresolved trauma, and painful emotions are slowly revealed through the process of play. Therapists help their clients use play to bring about growth and healing.
Best Candidates for Experiential Therapy
Although anyone can benefit from experiential therapy, it is often recommended for individuals who:
- Have a difficult time expressing themselves verbally (e.g. young children, extremely timid children, adolescents, or adults, anyone with a physical condition that hinders speech)
- Are unable to talk about their issues without losing their temper or becoming agitated or upset
- Have been abused sexually, physically, or emotionally
- Have experienced other types of trauma (e.g. combat, natural disaster, car accident, school shooting, etc.)
- Are reluctant, unwilling, or find it very uncomfortable to talk about painful, private, or embarrassing issues
- Have a dual diagnosis (a substance use disorder and other mental health disorder, e.g. bipolar disorder and alcoholism)
- Are very interested in or excited about using art, music, animals, the outdoors, or some type of adventure in therapy
Benefits and Advantages of Experiential Therapy
There are many wonderful benefits and advantages to experiential therapy, including:
- Increased ability to manage stress
- Build rapport and enhance the client’s relationship with the therapist
- Improved ability to focus on the here-and-now; to be present in the moment rather than dwelling on the future or the past
- Reduction in perceived distress
- Increased sense of personal control
- Healthier body image
- Improved focus and attention
- Better communication skills
- Improvements in coordination, dexterity, and movement
- Reduction in undesirable or destructive behaviors
- Increased sense of adequacy and competence
- Improvements in self-esteem and self-confidence
- Increased capacity to follow direction
- Increased ability to be independent
- Decrease in impulsivity
- Decrease in compulsive behaviors
- Greater cooperation with others
- Increase in motivation
- Mental stimulation
- Greater ability to love and care for others
- Greater empathy and compassion
- Improvements in mood / decrease in depressive symptoms
- Decrease in feelings of anxiety and stress
- Greater leadership skills
- Greater interpersonal skills
- Better coping skills
- Increase problem-solving skills
- Greater capacity to work as part of a team
- Increased sense of self-awareness
- Opportunity to fully address and release pent-up negative emotions
- Improved capacity for authentic self-expression
- Increased willingness to try new things
- Greater capacity for meaningful relationships with others
- Healthier expression of emotions, including both negative and positive emotions
- Increased ability to handle anger appropriately
- Greater sense of connection and community
- Increased optimism regarding one’s future
- Increased insight into one’s needs, desires, and emotions
- Increased ability to trust others as well as oneself
- Increased flexibility
- Increase sense of self-sufficiency
- Ability to replace negative emotions with more positive ones
- Ability to work through unresolved conflicts by recreating situations from real life
- Opportunity to identify and overcome personal obstacles
- Increased sense of personal responsibility
- Increased creativity
Disorders, Issues, and Conditions that can Benefit from Experiential Therapy
Experiential therapy can be beneficial in the treatment of a vast array of psychiatric disorders, life problems, and other issues, including, but not limited to, the following:
Recovery from trauma – One of the greatest benefits of experiential therapy is that it is particularly helpful for individuals recovering from trauma. Emotional and psychological wounds can be confronted and released through therapeutic experiences in a safe and supportive environment. Children and adolescents who have been sexually or physically abused often respond well to play therapy and other types of experiential methods.
Resolving family conflict – Role play and other experiential methods can be very helpful for couples and families striving to resolve conflicts, heal emotional wounds, and learn healthier ways of interacting.
Addiction – Various forms of experiential therapy, such as equine-assisted therapy, are frequently used in residential treatment centers for drug, alcohol, and other types of addiction. For example, animals are non-judgmental creatures and offer unconditional acceptance; something that many addicts haven’t experienced in a long time. This can facilitate healing and foster self-acceptance.
Eating disorders – Many eating disorder treatment programs utilize experiential therapy to help patients improve self-esteem and body image, address and work through internal and interpersonal conflicts, and find healthy ways to express negative emotions and get their needs met.
Adolescent behavioral problems – Adolescents with behavioral problems often benefit greatly from experiential therapy. They are often unwilling or highly reluctant to participate in traditional talk therapy, assuming that an adult can’t possibly understand or genuinely care. Experiential therapies like adventure therapy, wilderness therapy, and equine-assisted therapy allow feel less like “treatment” and, in turn, enable many troubled teens to let their guard down enough to truly benefit from the therapeutic process.
Substance abuse and addiction in adolescents – Similar to (and often overlapping with) teens with behavioral problems, adolescents who battle substance use disorders often respond much better to experiential therapy than traditional talk therapy. Experiential therapies allow them the opportunity to confront underlying painful emotions and self-esteem issues that fuel their substance use.
In addition to the above, experiential therapy can also be beneficial in the treatment of:
- Mood disorders
- Grief and loss
- Compulsive behaviors and disorders
- Anxiety disorders
- Autistic spectrum disorders
- Stress management
- Issues with poor boundaries
- Difficulties trusting others
- Dementia and other types of cognitive impairment
- Learning difficulties
- Social isolation
- Relapse prevention
- Obsessive-compulsive disorder
- ADD / ADHD
- Poor communication skills
- Social anxiety disorder
- Attachment issues in children
- Poor self-esteem
- Poor coping skills
- Traumatic brain injury
- Neuro-degenerative conditions
- Coordination problems
- Postpartum depression and anxiety
- Postpartum pain
- Pain issues
- Personality disorders
- Impulse control disorders
- Body dysmorphic disorder
Although still a scientifically based form of treatment, experiential therapy can bring an element of fun, variety, and even adventure to the therapeutic process. It has been used for decades to effectively help individuals overcome addiction, recover from trauma, and learn to effectively manage or overcome many other disorders. It has helped countless individuals make substantial improvements in different areas of their life that had previously been causing pain or hindering them from living the quality of life they deserve.