Experiential Therapy in Addiction Treatment

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When people are focused on an activity or task at hand—rather than the therapy itself—they tend to be less guarded, with more authentic reactions and emotions.

Experiential therapy is probably not what comes to mind when you think of therapy. Rather than talking with a therapist in a traditional office setting, an experiential psychotherapy session could take place at an art studio, a horse stable or during an outdoor hike. That's because experiential psychotherapy involves a physical, hands-on activity or experience that provides interactive opportunities for individuals to open up to their therapist. For those who have trouble expressing deep emotions or talking about painful times in their lives, experiential therapy can be a game-changer.

The ideas behind experiential therapy can be attributed to a range of psychiatrists, psychologists, researchers and family therapists, including John Warkentin, Thomas Malone, Otto Rank, Jessie Taft, Carl Rogers, Frederick Allen and Carl Whitaker, who used unconventional strategies—including humor and play—in therapy sessions. Experiential therapy, as we know the approach today, can be credited to philosopher and psychologist Eugene Gendlin.

According to Psychology Today, this nontraditional psychotherapy is most typically used in the clinical treatment of trauma, eating disorders, anger management, compulsive gambling, mood disorders, grief, and loss recovery and various physical and behavioral addictions. The therapy approach can be particularly beneficial in treating substance abuse, helping individuals understand why certain experiences have shaped their behaviors, what's keeping them "stuck" and how to move forward.

We asked clinicians at Hazelden Betty Ford to discuss experiential therapy and its relation to substance use disorders, treatment and recovery.

What Is the Focus of Experiential Therapy?

Experiential therapies are real-time events or encounters that may cause a shift in a person's perception of themselves or the world around them. As an integral part of an effective treatment program, this therapeutic method provides patients with a safe place to explore complicated thoughts and challenging emotions make important connections between these thoughts and emotions and develop healthier coping skills. With the help of a skilled therapist, this therapy can guide individuals toward living in the here-and-now, without numbing the pain (and the joy) through drugs or alcohol.

How Is Experiential Therapy Used in Addiction Treatment?

A main theme of Twelve Step recovery, as discussed in the Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous, is to initiate a change in the psyche (a "psychic change"). This experience is different for everybody, but basically involves an overhaul of your perspective. In the treatment setting, we find that these types of changes happen more often as the result of an experience or an encounter as opposed to simply receiving information. When people are focused on an activity or task at hand—rather than the therapy itself—they tend to be less guarded, with more authentic reactions and emotions.

Who Can Benefit from Experiential Therapy?

Many successful addiction treatment centers use experiential therapy in facilitating the healing process. We find that patients who rationalize and intellectualize their addiction, hoping that information alone will be sufficient enough to mount a defense against the first drink, often benefit most. If alcoholism could be "solved" by information alone, people could get sober by simply studying the topic. Achieving sobriety is much more complex—with issues surrounding self-esteem, emotional triggers and deep feelings.

How Does Experiential Therapy Work?

We characterize alcoholism as a three-dimensional illness: physical, emotional and spiritual. Experiences or encounters tap into the emotional and spiritual aspects of healing, opening the way for patients move from their heads to their hearts and feel their emotions fully instead of drinking or using drugs. It's a way to sort through negative feelings, understand them and move on. Once you work through negative feelings, you're open to more positive feelings of forgiveness, love and inner peace.

How Does Experiential Therapy Help Individuals Work Through Repressed Feelings?

Repressed memories could keep a person trapped in a cycle of addiction. Challenges that evoke the same feelings as a past trauma (either through re-enacting or re-experiencing emotional situations) can help individuals address the hidden hurts and make room for positive experiences. 

Popular Experiential Therapy Techniques

Techniques are usually action-oriented, thereby creating an experience. For example, in equine therapy, the participant may be asked to put a bridle on a horse, confronting the idea that the horse can't be manipulated into cooperating. Other interactions between the participant and the horse can provide insight into addiction and recovery, with themes of powerlessness, humility, and blaming, and—on the flip side—authentic, genuine feelings of pride and happiness.

Types of experiential methods include:

  • Role-playing
  • Equine
  • Canine
  • Art therapy
  • Play
  • Music
  • Dance
  • Stage performance
  • Creative writing/poetry
  • Adventure
  • Wilderness
  • Psychodrama
  • Gestalt (role play and the empty chair)
  • Guided imagery, focusing on mental images to evoke specific feelings

Is This Therapy Used in Conjunction With Other Approaches?

At Hazelden Betty Ford, experiential therapy are used in conjunction with traditional evidence-based therapies such as cognitive behavioral therapy. Several experiential therapies can also be combined, such as music, poetry reading or writing, or other forms of art therapy.

Why Is Experiential Therapy Effective in Treating Addiction?

This approach can serve as a catalyst for significant lifestyle changes, ultimately helping individuals achieve sustainable, long-term sobriety.

If you are struggling with substance use issues, we're here to help. Hazelden Betty Ford offers comprehensive rehab options, including experiential therapy facilitated by certified therapists.

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