When most people think of therapy they might picture meeting with a therapist in an office. But not all therapy looks this way, and some mental health treatments might take place in nature, in an art studio or at a gym.
Traditional therapies that focus on talking through thoughts and behaviors might not suit everyone, and different types of therapy can make it easier for some people to open up.
Experiential therapy is a type of therapy that focuses on hands-on activities or experiences that can take some of the pressure off of opening up to a therapist in a structured setting.
Experiential therapy might be a good option for people who find it difficult or traumatic to talk about their experiences or mental health and is used in the treatment of a range of mental health conditions.
Table of Contents
What Is Experiential Therapy?
Experiential therapy is a less-common type of therapy and can take many different forms. Some people may not know the goals of experiential therapy or what experiential therapy is.
Experiential therapy is a type of treatment for mental disorders that allows a patient to do a task or activity instead of exclusively focusing on thoughts and feelings. This can help them process feelings in a different way. Experiential therapy can be very beneficial for people who don’t want to, or find distress in, talking about their feelings.
The activities included in experiential therapy can help a patient work towards treatment goals and can allow them to address or identify emotions they aren’t able to articulate. The goal of experiential therapy is to explore and process what a person is feeling.
It can also include using action to develop skills, provide insight and increase self-development. It can also help people to work through unresolved problems, build a relationship with their therapist and be present in the moment.
History and Background
Experiential therapy is based on humanistic psychology, founded by Abraham Maslow, which considers the whole person and believes that humans are unique. Experiential theory is also tied to concepts of client-centered therapy developed by Carl Rogers and Gestalt therapy developed by Fritz Perls.
Many of these theories were developed out of the belief that psychology was too busy looking at thoughts, feelings and behaviors separately, rather than looking at the whole person. Experiential therapy is based on the belief that emotions and therapy are dynamic processes.
Experiential therapy gained traction in the 1970s and is still an effective treatment option offered by many modern mental health facilities and services.
Types of Experiential Therapy
Experiential therapy activities can take many different forms. Different activities may be better suited to different people, depending on a person’s interests or therapeutic goals.
- Examples of experiential therapy include:
- Role-playing: Role-play therapy has similarities to cognitive behavioral therapy, where patients can examine certain thoughts or behaviors from different perspectives. This promotes processing feelings and experiences and considering multiple perspectives.
- Equine therapy: Equine-assisted therapy involves completing tasks with horses and has been shown to reduce psychological stress and improve wellbeing immediately after treatment and up to 6 months after.
- Canine therapy: Canine therapy is similar to equine therapy, but includes tasks like obedience training or can involve recreation with dogs.
- Art therapy: Art therapy can help patients express how they are feeling by creating artwork or crafts.
- Music therapy: Music therapy can help people express or process their feelings through playing or listening to music.
- Dance & exercise therapy: Dance and exercise therapy focuses on expressing emotions through movement and physical activity.
- Adventure therapy: Adventure therapy includes risk-taking activities that are usually outdoors. The risk can be real or perceived but helps to build confidence.
- Wilderness therapy: Wilderness therapy often takes place in the remote outdoors, but can include any wilderness setting. As a dramatic change from ‘normal’ life, this can focus on adaptability and resilience.
- Gestalt therapy: Gestalt therapy focuses on the present moment, and has been compared to practicing mindfulness. The ‘empty chair exercise’ is considered a Gestalt therapy technique and includes working through emotions related to a person or thing, represented by the chair.
- Guided imagery: Guided imagery therapy can take a patient through specific scenery or help them picture certain things that evoke particular emotions.
- Play therapy: Play therapy is most commonly used for children and can help them express or process feelings they might not be able to explain or discuss.
- Drama therapy or psychodrama: Drama therapy or psychodrama therapy can help people express their feelings through a character and also to rehearse healthy behaviors.
Benefits of Experiential Therapy
There are many benefits of experiential therapy, particularly for those who don’t prefer traditional talk-therapy. Experiential therapy can help people begin to process emotional difficulties, while also helping them develop new skills and coping strategies.
- Other benefits of experiential therapy can include:
- Helping people feel purposeful and successful in completing tasks
- Allowing a therapist to observe a patient in a natural environment
- Gaining confidence in new skills and experiences
- Taking the pressure of talking about difficult subjects off, which can prevent some people from seeking help
- Processing emotions
- Having immediate benefits, rather than over several months
- Being suitable for different learning styles
Helping people to learn and heal through experiences can be more impactful than talking things through for many people. Experiential therapy is also beneficial for a wide range of mental health conditions, including substance abuse disorders.
Experiential Therapy in Mental Health & Addiction Treatment
Experiential therapy has many uses and is appropriate for any mental health condition that would be treated using traditional talk-therapies. These can include: substance use disorders, anxiety and depression, eating disorders, and trauma.
Experiential therapy can be beneficial in the treatment of substance use disorders and may be appropriate in dual diagnosis treatment. This therapy can help people express reasons or beliefs related to their drug or alcohol use, and help them process those experiences. This therapy may also be helpful in building new skills to support recovery.
The American Psychological Association has links to experiential therapy books and resources for people interested in learning the background and current uses of this therapy technique.
Other resources include:
- The Complete Guide to Experiential Psychotherapy 1st Edition
- Handbook of Experiential Psychotherapy (The Guilford Family Therapy Series) 1st Edition
If you or a loved one are struggling with a drug or alcohol abuse disorder, we can help. We offer different types of experiential therapy as part of our recovery programs. Contact us today to discuss the treatment options available to you.
Russell, Keith, C.; Gills, H. L. “Experiential Therapy in the Mental Health Treatment of Adolescents.” JTSP, 2017. Accessed September 27, 2019. Greenberg, Leslie; Safran, Jeremy; Rice, Laura. “Experiential Therapy.” Comprehensive Handbook of Cognitive Therapy, 1989. Accessed September 27, 2019. Klontz, Bradley T; et al. “The Effectiveness of Equine-Assisted Experiential Therapy: Results of an Open Clinical Trial.” Society and Animals, 2007. Accessed September 27, 2019. Ewert, Alan W; McCormick, Bryan P; Voight, Alison E. “Outdoor Experiential Therapies: Implications for TR Practice.” Therapeutic Recreation Journal, 2001. Accessed September 27, 2019. Aletraris, Lydia; et al. “The use of art and music therapy in substance abuse treatment programs.” Journal of addictions nursing, 2014. Accessed September 27, 2019. Pascual-Leone, Antonio; Greenberg, Leslie S. “Emotional Processing in Experiential Therapy: Why “the Only Way Out Is Through.” Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 2007. Accessed September 27, 2019.
Russell, Keith, C.; Gills, H. L. “Experiential Therapy in the Mental Health Treatment of Adolescents.” JTSP, 2017. Accessed September 27, 2019.
Greenberg, Leslie; Safran, Jeremy; Rice, Laura. “Experiential Therapy.” Comprehensive Handbook of Cognitive Therapy, 1989. Accessed September 27, 2019.
Klontz, Bradley T; et al. “The Effectiveness of Equine-Assisted Experiential Therapy: Results of an Open Clinical Trial.” Society and Animals, 2007. Accessed September 27, 2019.
Ewert, Alan W; McCormick, Bryan P; Voight, Alison E. “Outdoor Experiential Therapies: Implications for TR Practice.” Therapeutic Recreation Journal, 2001. Accessed September 27, 2019.
Aletraris, Lydia; et al. “The use of art and music therapy in substance abuse treatment programs.” Journal of addictions nursing, 2014. Accessed September 27, 2019.
Pascual-Leone, Antonio; Greenberg, Leslie S. “Emotional Processing in Experiential Therapy: Why “the Only Way Out Is Through.” Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 2007. Accessed September 27, 2019.