What is Experiential Therapy?

The word “experiential” is used to describe things that are based on experience and observation. So, what is experiential therapy? Dating back to the 1940s, the therapy model involves a wide range of therapeutic exercises designed to encourage patients to be creative, caring, social, physically active, cooperative, and expressive. It’s considered to be a supplemental technique and is most often used in conjunction with other forms of trauma therapy.

Examples of experiential therapy activities include music, arts and crafts, role-playing, animal care, outdoor recreation, and guided imagery. The approach can help people express themselves, develop communication skills, be more open, learn new things, release negativity, overcome emotional distress, and discover themselves.

Northbound Treatment recognizes that each of our clients is unique and that there is no one-size-fits-all approach to addiction recovery and mental health treatment. To serve the individual needs of each client, we draw from a vast toolbox of therapeutic approaches at our rehabilitation center — including a variety of experiential therapies — to create personalized recovery plans. Here’s what you should know about the technique, including how it works and specific experiential therapy activities.

How Does Experiential Therapy Work?

During experiential therapy, a clinical therapist will usually ask the patient questions about what they’re feeling in the current moment. When a patient focuses on an activity and is present throughout the experience, they can often identify certain thoughts and emotions they associate with self-esteem, compassion, fulfillment, love, success, and happiness. This process helps a person gain a better understanding of the emotions they attach to various behaviors.

Additionally, patients can usually begin to access negative thoughts and emotions, such as shame or anger, that they associate with past experiences. These thoughts and emotions typically include some that were previously difficult to acknowledge. In many instances, experiential therapy helps individuals to not only face this negativity but also to release it.

Who Can Benefit from Experiential Therapy?

Experiential therapy is an effective form of treatment that can be beneficial to many different people. As we mentioned, there are myriad advantages to using the technique in addition to other types of research-based psychotherapy.

Experiential therapy is often part of treatment plans for those suffering from:

  • Drug and alcohol addiction
  • PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) and other forms of trauma
  • Anxiety
  • Depression
  • Personality disorders
  • Eating disorders
  • Anger issues
  • Grief
  • OCD (obsessive-compulsive disorder)
  • Gambling addictions

The expressive therapeutic approach can be useful for individuals who are looking to free themselves of the distress, pain, or unhappiness caused by disturbing experiences, compulsive behaviors, destructive habits, or poor decisions they’ve made. Experiential therapy helps Northbound clients address their issues, adjust their behaviors, get sober, and learn to live more fulfilled lives.

Experiential Therapy Activities

An experiential approach to treatment creates a path for effectively working through psychological disturbances, and there are numerous activities to choose from. In some cases, experiential therapy activities are solo exercises (or performed one-on-one with an experiential therapist), and sometimes, they involve group activities. Some of the most common experiential therapy activities are adventure therapy, equine-assisted therapy, art therapy, sand tray therapy, and guided imagery therapy.

Adventure Therapy 

Adventure therapy (or wilderness therapy) can involve a number of different outdoor recreational activities, such as hiking, backpacking, rock climbing, rafting, canoeing, or camping. This type of experiential therapy generally involves a group setting and can be beneficial for those struggling with anger or compulsiveness. Adventure therapy helps clients become more self-aware and confident while improving their problem-solving and interpersonal skills.

Equine-Assisted Therapy

With equine therapy, clients have the opportunity to groom, feed, and harness horses, which can help them develop practical behavioral tools for their day-to-day lives. Experiential therapy activities that involve animals have shown to foster personal growth and emotional breakthroughs. It can also help people be more compassionate and empathetic, which is particularly beneficial for those who have a hard time interacting with other people. 

While caring for horses, clients learn how to read body language, tend to the needs of someone other than themselves, and create a positive working bond. Additionally, animals tend to provide affection and devotion to their caregivers, which is pleasantly therapeutic for many individuals suffering from mental health issues.

Art Therapy

Art therapy is a widely used and highly beneficial form of experiential therapy. It can involve virtually any type of art creation or craft project, such as painting, drawing, journaling, jewelry-making, sewing, photography, ceramics, sculpture, making collages, or acting. Under the guidance of a psychotherapist, patients are often instructed to create art that represents their thoughts or emotions. The activity can help people express themselves without the need for a verbal discussion. Not only that, but art therapy for trauma provides a creative outlet, which for many, is a critical component of healing.

Sand Tray Therapy

Sand tray therapy is a technique involving a literal tray of sand — typically small enough to fit on a table — with a variety of objects, such as plants, figurines, miniature toys, and stones. Sand trays also often include small shovels, rakes, and other handheld tools. Clients are instructed to create a narrative with the sand and objects while telling a story to the trained therapist. The idea behind sand tray therapy is that it provides a safe outlet for acknowledging and finding solutions to various problems a client may be facing. Research indicates that this type of experiential therapy can alleviate anxiety and help individuals be more resilient.

Guided Imagery Therapy

Guided imagery therapy is a mind-body treatment approach in which a psychotherapist has their patient concentrate on mental imagery. By directing a person’s focus on imaginative images, guided imagery utilizes the connection between the brain and the nervous system. The goal is to make patients feel relaxed, in touch with their senses, and able to confront anxiety, stress, anger, and other psychological setbacks.

Experiential Trauma Therapy

Trauma is the psychological turmoil that develops after a person experiences a disturbing event or series of occurrences. Some of the most common examples include childhood neglect, sexual abuse, experiencing or witnessing violence, loss of a loved one, surviving a car accident, exposure to war or combat, or living through a natural disaster.

After an individual experiences a traumatic event, they’ll often relive it through recurring memories and frightening thoughts. Sadly, trauma affects all aspects of a person’s life, including their job, relationships, self-esteem, and physical health. Multiple forms of psychotherapy can be beneficial for those with trauma, and in many cases, patients can fully heal from their distress.

Since the disturbing thoughts and harrowing memories of trauma can be difficult for some people to express through words, experiential therapy is often helpful as a supplemental treatment. Furthermore, trauma isn’t always accessible by the conscious part of the brain. Experiential exercises can allow patients to access emotions and memories they weren’t able to previously and get to the root of their psychological issues. Experiential therapy is a safe and effective way for trauma sufferers to not only address their emotional pain but also release it.

Northbound’s Approach to Mental Health Therapy

For more than three decades, Northbound has been providing addiction treatment, and we’re proud to offer a variety of psychotherapy and counseling treatments as part of our mental health services, including experiential therapy and trauma-informed care. We offer both outpatient programs (including telehealth outpatient treatment) and residential rehabilitation (including detox) for those struggling with substance abuse, addiction, trauma, anxiety, depression, and other mental health disorders.

Dual Diagnosis Treatment

Our experiential therapy treatments are designed to support clients who face psychological distress and also struggle with drug and alcohol abuse. This is called a dual diagnosis or co-occurring disorder. Northbound’s integrated dual diagnosis treatment program addresses addiction while simultaneously approaching trauma or other psychological issues. 

When both problems are acknowledged at once, they can be implemented into a comprehensive addiction recovery plan, which is often more effective than treating them individually. Dual diagnosis treatment provides our clients with the essential tools they need to sort through their emotional and mental disturbances, achieve sobriety, find themselves, maintain healthy relationships, and live freely.

At Northbound Treatment, we offer both short- and long-term programs for individuals struggling with debilitating mental health disorders and addiction. Our treatment programs include a range of unique services that provide clients with the support they need to obtain their personal goals. Learn more about the Collegebound, Careerbound, music, and family therapy programs from Northbound.

The right time to begin treatment is now. We’re admitting new patients every day and accept all major insurance plans. Northbound is committed to making treatment accessible to everyone, and we’ll work with you to find a payment plan that fits your current needs.

Contact Northbound Treatment for more information about experiential therapy and other treatment approaches we use. If you’re ready to start your journey to recovery, fill out our online form or call (844) 919-0403.

Fore more information, visit our blog articles on Accelerated Resolution Therapy and What is EMDR Therapy & How Does It Work? 

Article Reviewed by Paul Alexander

Paul AlexanderPaul Alexander is the founder and CEO of Northbound Treatment. He received his Certified Addiction Treatment Specialist training at Saddleback College in Mission Viejo, CA, and was awarded Outstanding Alumni Service Award in 2002. Paul holds a Bachelor of Arts degree in Criminology, Law and Society, Summa Cum Laude, from University of California, Irvine, and a Juris Doctorate degree from Loyola Law School of Los Angeles. He believes wholeheartedly in transformational leadership, organizational health and effective, fully integrated substance use disorder treatment.

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