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Updated on November 22, 2021

Experiential Therapy (ET)

What Is Experiential Therapy (ET)?

Experiential Therapy (ET) is a therapeutic approach that uses expressive activities to help people manage emotions. It’s a non-traditional psychotherapy used for coping with a variety of issues, including addiction. 

Examples of ET may include:

  • Arts and crafts
  • Acting or role-playing
  • Use of props
  • Animal care
  • Guided imagery

The goal is to recreate, re-enact, and re-experience emotions and learn to deal with them productively.

This allows people in need to gain deeper access to difficult emotions, as well as creativity. It provides a tool for reflecting on experiences and evolving into a more authentic version of themselves.

Using experiential therapy allows one to explore and release repressed negative feelings.

For those dealing with addiction, it can bring about lifestyle changes and help them achieve long-term sobriety.

ET can also treat issues such as:

  • Behavior disorders (in adults and adolescents)
  • Trauma
  • Eating disorders
  • Grief
  • Family conflict
  • Anger management problems

Experiential therapy is not limited to just one activity. It is a hands-on approach used in combination with talk therapy and other methods of treatment. If one thing doesn’t feel right, there are other options. 

How Does ET Work?

Through various activities, a person releases negative emotions and then experiences positive ones like love and forgiveness. The therapy changes his or her perception of reality. 

Some might prefer animal therapy, while others might enjoy music or art therapy. A therapist is still involved, but the activity makes it easier for someone to speak openly and honestly about their feelings.

This is because the focus isn’t solely on “dealing with the issue.” It makes it easier to deal with feelings surrounding the issue in a safe, less direct way.

It is especially helpful when dealing with alcohol and drug addiction because it can tap into the emotional and spiritual aspects of healing. ET allows them to feel their emotions instead of turning to drugs or alcohol. 

Experiential Treatment alone won’t “cure” alcoholism or drug addiction, but it’s another coping skill to use when trying to manage these disorders.

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Is ET Effective In Treating Substance Addiction?

Yes, for many people ET is effective for dealing with alcohol and substance use disorders.

It provides an opportunity for someone to change his or her psyche. Essentially, it helps with altering perspective.

During therapy, a person can relax and focus on the ET activity. This helps them feel less guarded and better able to deal with emotions. 

Who Should Not Be Involved in Experiential Therapy?

Experiential therapy is not suitable for everyone.

Any type of experiential therapy should only be provided to suitable individuals in terms of age or maturity level. They must also be physically able to participate.

Those who are actively psychotic should not be involved in most experiential therapies.

Likewise, individuals with severe mental or physical limitations should not participate in some expressive or adventure therapies.

During any animal-assisted therapies, these individuals should be very strictly supervised.

During expressive therapies, it is essential to respect the wishes of the individual involved.

For instance, clients participating in art therapy may create art to express themselves but be sensitive to criticism. They may not want others to see or comment on their artwork (except the therapist).

These individuals should not be forced to have their work assessed by others.

Likewise, individuals who are frightened of animals should not be forced into animal-assisted therapies.

Animal-assisted therapies should only be led by someone who is trained and certified in the approach.

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Common Experiential Therapy Techniques & Methods

Experiential techniques are focused on activity. They help to provide insight into addiction and recovery by exposing someone’s challenges that result in rewards.

Some of the most common methods of ET include:

Art Therapy

Art therapy, as its name indicates, uses artistic expression and creativity to enhance emotional well-being. Art therapy is based on the beliefs the creative process and art:

  • Help resolve conflict
  • Help a person gain access to deeper emotions
  • Make it easier to manage behavior
  • Reduces stress
  • Increase self-esteem
  • Allows someone to gain insight into an addiction

This type of ET has helped people manage their feelings of shame and denial and communicate more effectively. It includes activities such as painting, sculpting, drawing, writing, and more.

Exercise, Dance & Movement Therapy 

Movement therapy, which might incorporate dance or other forms of physical exercise, helps people integrate the cognitive, emotional, and physical aspects of themselves.

It lets them experience sensations in their body, including their craving for their substance of choice, but also provides a way to modulate stress and reduce anxiety.

Animal/Equine Therapy

Animal therapy offers many benefits to those recovering from alcohol or substance use disorders. It provides a non-judgmental and unbiased environment because the animal reacts only will to someone’s behavior and emotions.

Animals, especially horses, tend to mirror someone’s behavior or emotions, conveying understanding and connection that allows the person to feel safe and self-aware.

When emotions are too painful to speak of, it’s easier to process them using the animal as an example to approach and process through.

Role-Playing/Drama Therapy 

Role-playing or drama therapy brings together the body and the mind. It might include stories, myths, play, puppetry, masks, or improvisation.

The goal is to help those battling addiction understand their negative behaviors and instead, practice new ways of reacting and being.

Wilderness

Wilderness therapy uses the challenges that exist in nature to help someone better manage his or her addiction.

It also allows people with similar experiences to:

  • Connect and address their addiction
  • Learn life skills
  • Take responsibility for their circumstances
  • Build self-esteem.

Guided Imagery

Guided imagery is the use of visualization to reduce anxiety and other issues. Is a technique that requires one to use their mind to imagine a picture. It also helps reduce stress.

When dealing with drug or alcohol addiction, a therapist guides a person through the process to help them address subconscious emotional connections and boost self-esteem.

Guided imagery targets people’s perception, helps them deal with obstacles, and see the fruits of their effort.

Music Therapy

Music therapy offers an opportunity to express emotions even during challenging times. It might include songwriting, lyric analysis, singing, musical games, or listening to music.

Music therapy increases positive emotions, decreases anxiety, and promotes relaxation.

Benefits of Experiential Therapy for Substance Addiction

Experiential Therapy benefits people struggling with alcohol or other substance use disorder in a variety of ways.

For example, ET allows people to:

  • It offers more than just an opportunity to rationalize or intellectualize an addiction
  • Deal healthily with the complexities of self-esteem and difficult emotions
  • Identify their triggers and explore new ways of dealing with those triggers
  • Deal with repressed memories and feelings and emotions that tend to be triggers 
  • Be guided through experiences that once traumatized them and learn new ways of dealing with the hurt they caused

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Experiential Therapy Combined With Other Treatments

Experiential Therapy is usually combined with other treatments.

People may attend both ET and cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) sessions. CBT uses incentives to change a person, while ET encourages healthy and productive self-expression.

Combining the two often has the most effective results.

It’s also possible to use more than one ET method in therapy. For example, someone might benefit from art therapy, music therapy, and creative writing.

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Resources

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  1. Thompson, Sanna J., et al. "Keeping Families Engaged: The Effects of Home-based Family Therapy Enhanced with Experiential Activities." Social work research vol. 33, 2, 121-126, 2009.
  2. Experiential Therapy.” Psychology Today.
  3. Marcus, Marianne T., and Aleksandra Zgierska. “Mindfulness-Based Therapies for Substance Use Disorders: Part 1.” Substance Abuse, vol. 30, no. 4, 27 Oct. 2009, pp. 263–265.
  4. Art Therapy: An Effective Addiction Treatment Method.” Crisis Prevention Institute, 2020.
  5. Binson, Bussakorn, and Rachel Lev-Wiesel. “Promoting Personal Growth through Experiential Learning: The Case of Expressive Arts Therapy for Lecturers in Thailand.” Frontiers in psychology vol. 8 2276. 5 Feb. 2018, doi:10.3389/fpsyg.2017.02276. Tuttle, L C. “Experiential Family Therapy: An Innovative Approach to the Resolution of Family Conflict in Genetic Counseling.” Journal of genetic counseling vol. 7,2 : 167-86. doi:10.1023/A:1022802006630.

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