Updated on 04/09/24

Content reviewed by Christian Losch, LCSW, LCADC

For many people seeking treatment and recovery from mental health or substance use disorders, the idea of talking one-on-one with a therapist often seems intimidating. Most people assume that treatment consists solely of traditional psychotherapy, or “talk therapy,” sessions. While psychotherapy is a primal element of treatment, it is important to understand that many different approaches exist to keep patients comfortable and engaged with therapy.

Experiential therapy is one of these many psychotherapy approaches. In general, experiential therapy helps patients immerse themselves in action while engaging in conversation. This action promotes physical engagement, which encourages patients to access deeper psychological parts of themselves that they may otherwise not be able to. There are many different types and techniques of experiential therapy that one can become comfortable with. Recognizing both the availability and benefits of experiential therapies is essential because it can make one’s treatment experience more engaging and successful.

Experiential therapies are unique because they encourage direct, physical engagement.

In order to understand the benefits that experiential therapies can have on treatment effectiveness, it may be helpful to acknowledge a few of the many experiential therapies that are commonly offered at treatment facilities. Although every experiential therapy is specialized in its own way, all of them use expressive tools and activities to help increase patients’ awareness of their personal experiences, especially their awareness of emotions and behaviors.

Experiential therapies can occur in clinical, medical, or independent treatment facilities. They may be considered experiential therapies on their own or deemed experiential approaches used in combination with traditional psychotherapy.

Some examples of therapies and approaches that are associated with the umbrella term of experiential therapy include:

  • Psychodrama Psychodrama involves role-playing and acting to help patients re-experience or re-create emotional conflicts in a safe space. Psychodrama helps patients release repressed or unresolved emotions from past memories or traumas.
  • Art therapy Art therapy utilizes creative expression to encourage self-discovery and self-awareness for patients. Art therapy may take on various forms, including painting, drawing, sculpting, crafting and writing.
  • Animal-assisted therapy Animals have healing properties. Interacting with and caring for animals can complement the traditional psychotherapy process. One popular form of animal-assisted therapy is equine therapy, which invites patients to work with horses by feeding, leading and grooming them.
  • Music therapy Music therapy is being continually researched for its potential mental and emotional health benefits. With the guidance of a music therapist, patients are encouraged to sing, dance, play an instrument or listen to music while they learn how to explore and cope with their own emotions.
  • Adventure therapy Adventure therapy involves engaging with outdoor activities such as hiking, biking, rock climbing and other excursions. Typically experienced in a group setting, adventure therapy helps patients’ interpersonal communication skills and personal responsibility.

Experiential therapies can help to treat a range of conditions and symptoms effectively.

Every therapy has unique benefits on its own. Still, as a whole, experiential therapies can be used to effectively treat a range of different mental health conditions and symptoms, some of which include:

  • Substance use disorders, including addiction
  • PTSD or symptoms of unresolved trauma
  • Eating disorders
  • Family conflict and communication problems
  • Emotional distress from the result of grief, anger and depression
  • Co-occurring disorders
  • Anxiety or anxiety-related conditions
  • Behavioral addictions, such as gambling

Experiential therapies help patients increase their level of awareness. Such treatments can be helpful for patients that are experiencing ambivalence surrounding change or their need for change. They can help patients learn to recognize harmful coping strategies while working to replace those strategies with positive and healthy coping mechanisms. Even if a patient has no diagnosed substance use or mental health condition, experiential therapies can be beneficial for those who want to change their thought or behavior patterns or improve their interpersonal relationships. The main benefit of experiential treatments is that they aid in stress relief and encourage patients to release negative emotions, whether recognized or suppressed.

Experiential therapy teaches patients how to manage emotions during addiction treatment.

Negative emotions instigate initial substance use and perpetuate continuing substance use. If individuals complete a substance use treatment program without effectively learning how to manage their emotions, particularly distressing ones, they are at higher risk of relapse during recovery. 

Experiential approaches offer a valuable opportunity for patients to navigate and overcome emotional distress that may link back to substance use. They help patients work through underlying causes of substance use and teach them how to manage those feelings appropriately when they arise. Experiential therapy is essential because it recognizes that there is no one size fits all with treatment, emphasizing that treatment must be individualized for clients in order to be effective.

Pinelands Recovery Center of Medford is a drug and alcohol treatment center that offers programs for adults and young adults. We offer several experiential therapies as a way to complement our traditional psychotherapy processes and encourage patient engagement with treatment. We recognize the value of experiential therapy. To learn more about our treatment programs or for more about experiential therapy, do not hesitate to give us a call today at (877) 557-5372.