Experiential therapy is not a singular type of therapeutic technique. Instead, experiential therapy refers to numerous types of therapeutic interventions that use expression and activity, such as acting, music, animal care, or other hands-on experiences to process and evaluate past emotional experiences.
An individual in these therapies focuses on the activity, and through the experience of the activity, they begin to identify emotions that are associated with personal responsibility, self-esteem, disappointment, and success. These individuals work under the supervision of a trained experiential therapist who specializes in the particular type of therapy used and begin to explore negative feelings, such as shame, anger, resentment, emotional pain, etc., that may be present or buried within the individual’s unconscious.
When Experiential Therapies Are Used
Experiential therapies are used in the treatment of numerous psychological conditions/disorders, including eating disorders, trauma- and stressor-related disorders, anxiety disorders, and compulsive-type disorders, such as substance abuse or compulsive gambling. Experiential therapies can be used to help individuals motivate themselves to achieve goals.
These therapies are offered in a variety of settings, including private clinics, hospitals, and formal rehabilitation programs. They are typically not the primary mode of intervention for mental health disorders, such as an alcohol use disorder, but instead, they are adjunctive therapies that are used in conjunction with traditional forms of treatment. When used in this manner, they can improve an individual’s recovery program.
These therapies typically focus on experience and hands-on interventions under the guidance of a trained therapist. The therapist attempts to help the individual access their emotional processing, inner thoughts, creativity, and aspects of their relationships. The therapist actively participates in the session and then discusses the results of the session with the individual after completing whatever task is being performed (e.g., acting, creating art, working with animals, etc.).
Principles of Experiential Therapies
The fundamental premise of all types of experiential therapy is that an individual’s perception is important in determining their behavior. The activities used in experiential therapies allow the individual to re-experience and let go of negative emotions, memories, etc., from the past. This helps the individual achieve goals, such as changing their perception of reality, changing behavior, bettering relationships, forgiving others, etc.
Experiential therapies operate on the principles of humanistic psychology and client-centered therapy developed by Carl Rogers. The notion of experiencing actual emotional release in the therapeutic environment comes from Gestalt therapy. These therapies work under the assumption that the client’s preferences for certain types of interventions should be honored when practical. For instance, some clients might wish to engage in animal-assisted therapy while other clients might be interested in art therapy, and still others might be interested in adventure therapies where individuals participate in games and team activities.
Specific Types of Experiential Interventions
The use of the term experiential therapy is applicable to numerous types of interventions. It is a broad term that can be applied to psychoanalysis, Gestalt therapy, all types of psychotherapy that are developed from the humanistic paradigm, certain types of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, and certain types of complementary and alternative therapeutic techniques. This is because interventions that fall under this general descriptive term rely on the subjective experience of the individual reprocessing emotions, memories, desires, etc., as a therapeutic tool.
The American Psychological Association lists several types of psychotherapies that would fall under the heading of experiential therapies. All of these techniques are designed to help the individual develop an awareness of their own internal representations of reality, belief systems, expectations, regrets, fears, etc. The primary mechanism associated with change in these types of interventions is the insight developed through these experiences and then the reprocessing of these experiences with a trained therapist.
Since the 1970s, the term experiential therapies has included specific methods of personal interaction or personal reflection that reflect creativity, art, self-expression, and the ability to relate and care for other beings, such as animals or even people. The inclusion of numerous techniques that are often described as adjunctive therapies or complementary and alternative therapies has now become a focus in experiential interventions. Again, these techniques are often not designed to be the main form of intervention for individuals with alcohol use disorders, but are used as adjunctive or complementary interventions to augment traditional forms of treatment, such as talk therapy, medication, involvement in groups, etc. Some of these categories include:
- Expressive interventions/therapy: Interventions listed as forms of expressive therapy include those that encourage creativity and expression of feelings, such as:
- Music therapies, which use different types of music to process and re-experience emotions
- Play therapies, often used for younger individuals but can be used for adults, which incorporate therapeutic play situations to resolve emotional issues
- Art therapy, which uses techniques such as painting or sculpture to reprocess issues
- Poetry therapy, which involves reading poetry or writing poems
- Psychodrama, which uses acting to work out issues
- Adventure therapy: Adventure-type therapies provide active physical participation in exercises that include numerous self-expressions, such as expeditions into the wilderness, teambuilding exercises, zip line courses, cooperative competitive games, etc.
- Animal-assisted therapy: Animal-assisted therapeutic techniques use animals in the therapeutic sessions. This can include the use of therapy dogs or cats in actual psychotherapy sessions; becoming a caregiver to an animal, such as a horse or rescue dog; working as a volunteer in an animal shelter; etc.
How Experiential Therapies Can Be Incorporated into Treatment for Alcohol Use Disorder
Experiential therapy can enhance the effectiveness of recovery programs. Empirical research studies have found these programs can bring the following benefits:
- Reduction of denial and increased therapeutic cooperation: Research studies have supported the notion that experiential techniques can reduce issues with denial in individuals with alcohol use disorders, help these individuals develop insight into their beliefs, and increase cooperation with treatment providers.
- Increased trust and problem-solving abilities: Experiential interventions, such as adventure therapy, can help individuals develop trust in others when they have issues with trust, develop organized approaches to problem-solving, and even develop better communication skills.
- Greater empathy: Certain types of experiential therapy, such as equine-assisted therapy, which involves caring for horses, have been demonstrated by research studies to help individuals develop an understanding of how others express feelings and better care for others.
- Strengthening the working relationship in therapy: The use of dogs in therapy sessions has been demonstrated to increase the bond between the therapist and client. This therapeutic alliance is a crucial factor to success in all forms of treatment that employ psychotherapy.
Not for Everyone
While there are certainly benefits to the use of experiential therapies for the treatment of alcohol use disorders, these interventions are not applicable to many individuals who enter treatment for alcohol abuse. Some of the limitations of experiential therapies are outlined below.
- Many forms of experiential therapies require that the individual has an interest in the specific activity being used. Individuals should never be forced to participate in experiential activities, such as art therapy, music therapy, etc., that they are not interested in or do not wish to participate in.
- The intervention should only be applied when it is appropriate to do so based on the client’s maturity level, physical capability, and age.
- Individuals who have certain types of co-occurring disorders may not be appropriate for experiential therapies, such as individuals who are psychotic, who have significant cognitive compromise, who have issues with aggression, who are antisocial, etc.
- Therapists are advised to use discretion with certain types of clients. For instance, a person involved in art therapy who creates art and is very sensitive to criticism should be given special considerations by the therapist and any members of therapy groups.
- Certain types of experiential therapies, such as caring for animals, should be strictly supervised. When animals are used in therapy or individuals are involved in physically demanding activities, there should be close supervision to avoid accidents, abuse, etc.
- Therapists should always respect the individual in therapy.
- Experiential therapies should only be performed by individuals who are trained and certified in that particular type of intervention. For instance, therapists trained in music therapy should only use music therapy and should not attempt to use art therapy techniques, etc.
Individuals wishing to become involved in experiential therapies should seek out trained, licensed, and experience therapists who have a license to practice psychology within the state and certification in the particular type of experiential therapy.
Experiential therapies can enhance traditional treatment for alcohol use disorder, but should not be used as the only intervention in the treatment of alcohol abuse. It is important to make sure that the particular type of experiential intervention is appropriate for the client and that the treatment is supervised by a trained and licensed professional.