Experiential Therapy can Change Your Life

Experiential Therapies and Addiction Treatment

When you think about therapy, maybe you imagine someone sitting across from a pipe-smoking doctor who is constantly asking you about your mother.


Or maybe you think about a group session with a bunch of people sitting in a circle sharing their stories as they drink coffee and donuts. Therapy can – and frequently does – involve these sorts of things, but an exciting and effective therapeutic technique has gained in popularity over the last twenty years or so is none of these things.

In fact, it’s quite the opposite.


Rather than just sitting and talking to one or more people, “experiential therapies” use activities designed to provoke emotional responses that mirror those that arose from triggering events – relationships, family issues, and even substance abuse. The idea is that by actually triggering these feelings in a situational, but controlled, setting the individual can develop skills and habits to counteract past negative behavior, thoughts, and emotions. The technique is extremely useful with people who have a great difficult experiencing, processing, and controlling their emotions since creating and dealing with emotions is what it’s all about.

What Are Experiential Therapies?

Experiential therapies are various tools and activities that can involve role-playing and acting, or they can include more recreational activities. This may involve going outdoors, playing games and much more.

Though it can take on any number of forms, the general idea remains the same. In experiential therapy, it’s believed that the way one perceives oneself and the world directly correlates to habits and behavior. Situations are created that allow the person to reconnect with themselves in an actual, real-world setting in order to experience positive thoughts and feelings, especially when encountering trigging situations that in the past led to negative behavior and consequences.

In addition to physical cravings, someone with an addiction issue will also spend a tremendous amount of time thinking about their drug of choice. These thoughts become a compulsion and impossible to control, which leads to drug-seeking behavior that can sometimes be criminal.

Feelings of depression, sadness, anxiety, despair, and the like are often at the root of substance abuse. The substance might temporarily mask these feelings, but they return once the high wears off, creating a vicious circle of drug abuse.

Taking a substance will temporarily stop the cravings and compulsion for it, but soon the same feelings return. In time, it takes more and more of the same substance to achieve the same effect it once had.

People addicted to drugs and alcohol may feel like they have no control over their drug use. Refraining from using or stopping seems to be an impossibility for them. The substance controls them, rather than the other way around.

Someone addicted to drugs or alcohol will continue to seek them out even if their addiction has made them lose friends, family, spouses, and jobs. Drug-seeking behavior can even lead to diseases such as hepatitis and HIV/AIDS.

Experiential Therapy Techniques

Some people believe that Suboxone is best used for short periods only.

There are a variety of experiential therapy techniques. Generally, they fall under the following three broad categories.

1. Expressive Arts Therapies, which even has its own association that includes, painting, sculpting, drawing, writing, and music. According to a report put out by the NCBI, “The actual characteristics of an expressive therapy group will depend on the form of expression clients are asked to use. Expressive therapy may use art, music, drama, psychodrama, Gestalt, bioenergetics, psychomotor, games, dance, free movement, or poetry.”

2. Animal-assisted therapy uses caring for dogs and horses to help a patient better understand and relate to their emotions.

3. Adventure therapy is a kind of specialized group technique that seeks to create stimulating, emotional situations through things like ziplining, rope courses, surfing, and trapeze.

No matter which activity is used, the general technique is the same: creating an emotional situation under the care and guidance of a trained professional in order to treat the whole person.

Experiential Therapy Activities

The above section only scratches the surface of the type of experiential therapy activities available.

There is really no limit to the number of activities – it’s up to the imagination and discretion of each therapist practicing in this field.

For expressive arts therapy, one therapist has patients in a group setting direct a scene about a joyful moment in their lives, using their peers as actors in the drama. She also encourages clients to draw pictures of nature in a “harsh environment” in order to help them better understand the idea of resilience.

In animal-assisted therapy, patients may groom, harness, feed, and lead horses. They are led to do this in a mindful way with the goal of exploring how they conduct their own lives from day to day.

A few adventure therapy examples have previously been given, but besides the handful of ones listed about, a counselor may take teach an entire group how to improve problem-solving and increase their interpersonal skills through hiking and rafting. For those who may have issues with control, some therapists take groups camping or backpacking out in nature where they have to rely on each other during the trip.

If you are considering treatment for yourself or a loved one, call us today.

Who Is Best Suited for this Approach?

People who tend to be over-intellectual and rationalize their addictive behavior can benefit a great deal by experiential therapy because it seeks to address the underlying emotions involved in different situations. Since you can’t get sober by clinically thinking about your issues, it’s thought that these techniques are especially useful in treatment for people who may be closed off emotionally.

Depending on the type of experiential therapy, it may not be right for people with severe cognitive impairment or physical limitations. People with particular phobias – such as being afraid of dogs or horses – also need to be careful in the types of activities they participate in.

Experiential Therapy and Addiction

Experiential therapies have become especially popular as part of a comprehensive program for the treatment of drug and alcohol addiction. Never administered on its own, experiential therapy is always part of a much broader program that features traditional therapy as well. Since group work is such an important part of recovery, experiential therapy has been found to be especially helpful in treating people who have trouble speaking in groups and relating positively to others.

Some clinics report that the profound, psychic and emotional changes needed for recovery, “happen more often as the result of an experience or an encounter as opposed to simply receiving information.”

Who Should Administer the Treatment?

Treatment should only be administered by a qualified professional.

As part of its holistic wellness program, Nexus includes a variety of experiential therapies in its intensive outpatient and regular outpatient programs. 

It’s always best to work with someone who has training and experience with experiential therapies. In fact, it’s a course of study in many university psychology programs and The International Society for Experiential Professionals has both training sessions and several levels of certification.

f you are interested in experiential therapy for an addiction issue, please contact Nexus for a free – and confidential – consultation today.

If you or a loved one are suffering from alcohol or drug addiction, we’re here to help. Contact us today and speak with one of our trusted recovery advisors.

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