About CRC Health Find Treatment Contact Us

Experiential Therapy What Is It?

As its name indicates, experiential therapy involves actions, movements, and activities rather than the more traditional “talk therapy.”

Developed in the 1970s, experiential therapy is a therapeutic approach that encourages patients to identify and address hidden or subconscious issues through activities such as role playing, guided imagery, the use of props, and a range of other active experiences.

Experiential therapy is actually a category, rather than one specific type of therapy. Examples of experiential therapy include recreation therapy, equine therapy, expressive arts therapy, music therapy, wilderness therapy, adventure therapy, and psychodrama.

One of the many advantages of experiential therapy is that the experiences and activities that form the core of the process provide opportunities for the therapist to observe patients in situations where the patients are not focused on the therapy itself.

For example, during an equine therapy session, the patient will likely be focused on completing an assigned task with a horse, and will be more likely to let his/her guard down than he or she would during a traditional individual or group talk therapy session.

What are the Benefits of Experiential Therapy?

As patients progress through structured experiential therapy activities under the guidance and supervision of an experiential therapist, they have the opportunity to experience successes, identify obstacles, develop improved self-esteem, and take greater responsibility for their actions.

Change, emotional growth, and personal empowerment are all among the benefits of participating in an effective experiential therapy program. Because experiential therapy patients are often focused on the task or activity at hand — rather than on the therapeutic aspect of the experience — they are more likely to behave in a more unguarded and genuine manner.

When the experiential therapist and the patient process the experience — a discussion that may take place during or after the activity — the patient receives specific feedback regarding specific actions or behaviors. At the same time, the patient has the opportunity to identify and evaluate the behaviors that he/she exhibited during experiential therapy, as well as the thoughts or prior experiences that may have prompted those behaviors.

Though not necessarily a primary focus of experiential therapy, the activities that patients participate in may also serve the purpose of providing them with new ways of filling leisure time or other “down times” during their daily lives.

This may be particularly important for individuals who are in treatment for substance abuse or addiction, as part of the recovery process involves finding healthy and productive leisure activities to fill the hours previously occupied by searching for, acquiring, and using alcohol or other drugs.

What Conditions/Disorders Does Experiential Therapy Treat?

Experiential therapy has been an effective component of comprehensive treatment programs for individuals who are struggling with a range of issues and disorders.

Experiential therapy has been successfully integrated into treatment programs for adults and teens who are being treated for substance abuse, addiction, behavior disorders, mood disorders, eating disorders, grief/loss, trauma, sex addiction, compulsive gambling, bipolar, depression and related conditions.

by Michael Hurst