Experiential Therapy Program

Experiential therapies are relatively new to psychology. Emerging in the 20th century, these therapies rely on methods other than talk therapy to help patients deal with trauma and other mental and emotional issues. 

While experimental therapies aren’t for everyone, they are effective for various conditions, including substance abuse. Experiential therapy can help patients reconnect with friends and loved ones, particularly when coupled with other therapies.

Experiential therapy isn’t a replacement for talk therapy, withdrawal therapy, or group therapy. Still, it is helpful for patients to express their emotions and work through their issues differently, which can assist these therapies greatly.

What is Experiential Therapy?

Experiential therapy is when patients focus on experiences as a means of therapy. This can vary greatly, from client-based relationships and Gestalt therapy to classic painting or music therapy which helps patients express themselves creatively.

There are dozens of therapies under this umbrella term, but essentially it is a therapy where the focus is on the client and their experiences. For example, a patient might be asked to draw a scene from their childhood or someone who hurt them. 

As they draw and focus on the event or person, they’re forced to consider them from a different perspective or can work through their thoughts and feelings toward it.

This experience decreases avoidance and helps patients think about their problems differently, leading to breakthroughs. The therapist can also use the drawing as a reference, ask the patient about certain decisions they made when drawing, and help the therapist understand what the patient is going through and how to help them.

Types of Experiential Therapy

As mentioned, there are many experiential therapies, from acting out traumatic events or problems in a safe environment to climbing a mountain and camping with a group of people.

Experiential therapy is a client-based approach, and different types of therapies resonate with different people. It depends on the patient, their problems, and their preferences. Someone who gets a lot out of drama therapy might not respond well to outdoor therapy, and someone who connects with animal-assisted therapy may have trouble in art and music therapy.

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Psychodrama/Drama Therapy

If you look up a picture of experimental therapy, this is probably what you’ll find. Drama therapy, also known as psychodrama, is where patients act out scenarios in a safe space. Roleplay is typical, and reacting to past situations in different ways can help patients understand their emotions and how to deal with future events.

The scope varies from patient to patient. Perhaps it’s a reenactment of a traumatic event for one patient and a problematic future situation a patient will have to deal with for another. For substance abuse and addiction, drama therapy can help them deal with future events healthily rather than spiral into old habits. 

It helps them find healthy coping mechanisms and can help them deal with situations they have already “prepared” for. However, this isn’t the only way drama therapy can help. If a patient uses substances to deal with past traumatic events or shame, drama therapy can help them work through their emotions in a healthy and safe environment.

Animal-Assisted Therapy

Animal-assisted therapy is widespread and with good reason. When a human connection fails and patients have trouble opening up to therapists, animals can help them find a sense of connection and purpose again. 

Equine therapy is a popular animal-assisted therapy, as it entails a patient caring for and riding a horse. As they build a connection based on trust and responsibility, the patient can learn how to open up to others and make connections with other people.

Dogs and other animals are also often used in animal-assisted therapies. The patient either cares for the animal, or the animal is used to bring therapists and groups together and build relationships.

This therapy is particularly effective in addiction and substance abuse cases as patients often have trouble forming bonds with others. Animals help get them past that roadblock and reconnect with the people around them.

Art and Music Therapy

Art and music therapy is where the patient expresses themselves creatively. They can be asked to recreate or perform past events or emotions, which allows the patient to think about them and how to tell them creatively.

This type of therapy is where patients draw, paint, sculpt, play, write, or otherwise creatively express themselves. It covers a wide range of activities and helps patients who have difficulty expressing themselves through words or trouble talking about past events. It’s not for everyone, but this therapy can be very effective for patients who enjoy these activities.

Art and music therapy reduce avoidance of issues and can give the patient and the therapist a fresh perspective. Asking patients to think critically about their emotions leads to breakthroughs and understandings, which in turn helps them get past whatever is bothering them.

Plus, expressing yourself creatively can help relieve stress and create something that brings satisfaction and joy. For addiction and substance abuse patients, it can help focus on creative activities when experiencing withdrawal, self-loathing, or other harmful feelings. It’s not for everyone, but it helps those who resonate with creative endeavors.

Play Therapy

Play therapy or theraplay is mainly used with children. Children don’t have the same range of words adults have and can have trouble expressing their reactions and emotions to past events. But play therapy allows a therapist to see how a child expresses themselves when playing and can even be used to help children get past these experiences.

Dolls, roleplay, and other types of play help the therapist understand how the child sees the world around them and their thoughts and emotions in different situations. It also forms a bond of trust between the therapist and child that can help them open up and talk about complex subjects they wouldn’t usually.

It’s not often used in addiction and substance abuse patients, as most patients are adults. However, play therapy can be effective in cases where a child is the victim of such issues.

Adventure Therapy

Adventure therapy consists of several types of therapy, such as social bonding activities, wilderness therapy, and outdoor activities like hiking and camping. It typically takes place outside and focuses on building trust between groups of people, confidence, and self-esteem.

Activities such as hiking or kayaking help people build trust, and social activities build relationships and support systems. This therapy is beneficial with addiction and substance abuse as it allows patients to connect with others and learn to trust others positively.

Wilderness and outdoor therapies help patients unplug and focus on their environment. It can be very therapeutic just to get outside and reflect on your life while surrounded by nature.

Group Therapy

Now, most wouldn’t consider group therapy on its own to be experiential therapy. However, doing the above therapies in groups can lead to good results. Being surrounded by people who share similar experiences can help patients connect and heal.

Adventure therapy is typically done in groups, as are many other experiential therapies. It helps patients build support systems that can last for years and reduce the feeling of isolation, one of the leading factors of addiction and substance abuse.

Studies show that using group therapy with patients with addiction and substance abuse helps them feel better and connect with others, and using groups in experiential therapies can improve results. For this reason, talking circles and groups such as Alcoholics Anonymous are common outside of professional therapeutic settings.

Benefits of Experiential Therapy

Experiential therapy is most effective when paired with other therapies to help addiction and substance abuse patients work through their problems and emotions. It takes the focus off talking and lets the patient express themselves in other ways.

Whether they’re reenacting a future event or kayaking with other patients, experiential therapy can help build good habits and good relationships, preparing the patient for the future while assisting them in moving on from their past. 

Effectiveness of Experiential Therapy 

In studies of addiction and other mental health issues, the addition of experiential therapy to therapy sessions and schedules helps patients more than regular talking therapy alone, and in cases of substance abuse, using experiential therapy to help build trust and relationships with patients has yielded better results than traditional addiction therapy alone.

Experiential therapy can give patients the tools they need for the future, from healthy ways of dealing with trauma and future cravings to relationships with others they can contact to reduce their feelings of isolation and the desire to fall back to old habits.

Who Needs Experiential Therapy?

Experiential therapy isn’t for everyone. While one type of experiential therapy may resonate with someone more than another, some people don’t respond well to experiential therapy at all. Either they refuse to participate or just don’t have the same breakthroughs and emotions as other people when experiencing.

Moreover, not everyone needs experiential therapy in addition to other types. Yes, experiential therapy can help, but some people recover just fine with talk and addiction therapy, with no need for the expansion into experiential therapy.

Experiential therapy is most effective for specific situations and traumas. Abuse, whether physical, sexual, or emotional, is one such situation, as drama therapy or art therapy can be effective for helping patients think about their past experiences and move past them.

In the case of substance abuse and addiction, therapies that focus on rebuilding their connection to others, such as animal-assisted therapy and adventure therapy, can be very effective, particularly if the patient has a dual diagnosis such as depression, bipolar, or other types of mental disorders. 

It can also help patients who become angry, defensive, or upset when talking about their feelings. There’s no one-size-fits-all for experiential therapy, as it depends on the patient and their needs.

However, patients with psychosis or similar hallucinatory disorders don’t do well with some types of experiential therapy, such as drama therapy or animal-assisted therapy. If the patient has trouble reasoning or distinguishing hallucinations from reality, chances are most types of experiential therapies aren’t for them, but it depends on the individual patient.

Why Do We Use Experiential Therapy in Addiction Treatment?

Experiential therapy can help addiction and substance abuse patients recover from their past and old habits while building the tools they need to stay clean in the future. It can help them develop healthy relationships with others who’ve had similar experiences and prepare them for the harsh future where they’ll be tempted to relapse.

Experiential therapy is still relatively new to psychology and is still being studied. From its introduction in the early 20th century to now, psychologists are trying to understand how experiential therapy helps patients and to what extent. 

New guidelines, training, and councils are being developed to regulate treatment and train young therapists on administering experiential training, from its basic principles to the client-centered approach. As it pushes forward, we learn more about how patients react and how experiential therapy can help them.

Studies have shown that experiential therapy can help addiction and substance abuse patients more than talking, group, or addiction therapy on its own. It helps them reforge connections, gain self-esteem, and learn to trust and rely upon others, all in a safe environment.

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Experiential therapy is particularly effective for patients who don’t respond well to talk therapy, have other mental disorders that make therapy more difficult, or need extra help with the healing process. While experiential therapies aren’t for everyone, those who do need them benefit from the additional activities.

Experiential therapy isn’t a replacement for other types of therapy or medication. It’s for helping patients heal past trauma and build healthy habits and relationships, and prepare them for the future. The goal is that the patient will recover from their past and move forward with a healthy lifestyle and mindset for the future.

If you feel you or someone you love would benefit from experiential therapy at our Anaheim treatment center, please contact us today via phone, live chat, or by filling out our form. Whether reenacting a past event or painting a picture helps them come to terms with their emotions and problems and work through them, we’ll help patients however we can. 

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