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What is Experiential Therapy and Why Does it Work?

painting workshop as Experiential Therapy

Experiential therapy is a form of Emotionally Focused Therapy (EFT) that is more and more commonly used as a complementary therapy to cognitive behavioral therapy in addiction treatment and recovery. Experiential therapy focuses on recreational activities and self-expression to enable emotional expression – giving people tools to identify and focus what they are feeling. The goal is often to improve emotional literacy and self-awareness, to improve emotional intelligence, and to give patients the tools to succeed and do well in other aspects of their treatment.

While not a treatment for a substance use disorder on its own, experiential therapy can improve primary therapy tracks by improving well-being and functionality and helping individuals to overcome negative emotions and negative emotional loops.

Because that’s much of the work of rehab and addiction treatment, it means that experiential therapy can do a great deal for persons in substance use disorder treatment.

What Is Experiential Therapy?

Experiential therapy includes multiple individual types of experience play, like music, art, role-play, theatre, etc. Individuals are asked to participate in these activities as part of emotional expression and processing, often with assignments and tools to communicate emotions. The goal is to use an experiential therapy to figure out where the patient is individually and then to use tasks and learning options to help that person get in touch with where they are and to get away from negative emotions.

That can involve reinvoking memories and emotions, reexperiencing the same, or reflecting on them, with the intent of creating opportunities to identify and move on. Here, you’re asked to attune to emotions and communicate about them – in words or in art.

Experiential therapies classify patients into four general types to give the therapist a framework for responding to input:

  • Primary Adaptive – Emotional responses are first but have a clear beneficial value in the situation. E.g., sadness following a death.
  • Primary Maladaptive – Emotional responses are first and have a clear negative effect on the situation. E.g., road rage, anger at being cared for, etc.
  • Secondary Reactive – Emotional responses to the primary emotional responses are used to guide reactions. This can be problematic or part of healthy recovery depending on the emotions used. E.g., rationalizing an emotion and taking a more healthy approach and remembering trauma and responding to the trauma instead of the initial emotion are both examples.
  • Instrumental – The entirety of the response is a learned one, which the patient uses to get a desired response, such as “approval” or “not anger”, rather than expressing what they actually feel.

Therapy then works on improving principles including awareness of emotion and emotional literacy, emotional expression, emotional regulation, ability to reflect on emotional experiences, using emotion to transform and control other emotion, and creating new, lived experiences to correct emotions.

For example, all primary types are seen as an “Emotional first” response, which is a survival mechanism. People have to get in touch with the underlying emotions to adjust their behavior.  For example, emotions that people are unaware of may drive behavior, like using or drinking. Validating those emotional responses and finding new coping mechanisms or working to change the emotion can be a powerful tool in changing that.

woman doing some art work

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Types of Experiential Therapy

Experiential therapy can integrate a large number of physical activities. Some of the most common include:

man listening to songs as music therapy
  • Dance therapy (usually mixed with music therapy but not always)
  • Psychodrama
  • Crafting therapy

In each case, the therapy revolves around a form of self-expression (normally one of the arts) to create self-awareness for emotions and experiences.

Why Is Experiential Therapy Effective?

Experiential therapy focuses on helping individuals to get in touch with and understand their emotions, normally by following a defined framework. In addition, by using a hands-on approach that involves people physically, it can feel more real and make more impact than talking about those same issues, especially when the patient doesn’t have the words to describe how they are feeling or has been repressing how they are feeling.

Most experiential therapy breaks this down into 14 goals, which are often but not necessarily completed in this order:

1. Empathetic exploration

2. Empathetic affirmation

3. Bonding with therapist

4. Talking with therapist

5. Creating emotional space, typically in the form of practicing without goals

6. Experiential focusing (showing willingness and ability to focus on therapy, emotions, and goals)

7. Allowing and expressing emotions

8. Trauma retelling

9. Reprocessing reactions and behavior in the light of emotional understanding

10. Creating meaning or revising old meaning/beliefs

11. Self-evaluation and acceptance

12. Self-expression and self-empowerment instead of blocking and hiding emotions

13. Letting go of negative emotions

14. Learning healthy coping mechanisms and self-soothing

Therapists may also add new and custom goals for the individual based on their specific needs and expression. These goals are expressed through tasks, which start with talking and therapy and work towards allowing the individual to apply what they learned in an active environment.

Experiential therapy is normally used as a supplement to cognitive therapy rather than as a standalone treatment. This means that it works to give patients the tools they need to function well in other parts of their treatment. In addition, it can improve quality of life, by teaching skills to manage and deal with emotions. Even as a post-rehab treatment without cognitive therapy, experiential therapy can improve quality of life, which will improve how you’re able to react to emotions and interact with others based on those emotions.

For example, experiential therapies work to help you better understand your emotions and to respond to those emotions in a healthy way by expressing them, rationalizing them, and understanding them.

Experiential therapy

That can help to improve how many people use drugs and alcohol to cope with emotions or to dull them. It can also help you through early recovery by giving you better tools to understand yourself and how you feel.

Eventually, experiential therapy helps people to get in touch with their emotions. That will improve how you are able to respond to those emotions, in turn improving quality of life, and giving you better options for coping with and dealing with negative emotions like stress, shame, guilt, anger, and fear. And, that’s extremely important in recovery, where you’ll often have to work through those difficult emotions to gain a deeper understanding of yourself and what you want.

If you or a loved one is seeking help for alcohol or other substance abuse, contact us at Stairway Resource Center today. At Stairway Resource Center we provide a 60 to 90-day outpatient program that takes place in an engaging and supportive community setting. We offer dual diagnosis treatment and daily group and individual therapy for our clients, in addition to fun community-based events and activities.

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Medical Disclaimer: Nothing on this Website is intended to be taken in place of medical advice. Before making any decisions regarding your health, please consult your doctor. The staff at Stairway Resource Center develops a custom treatment plan for each of our patients. Specific medical advice will be provided to our patients by our professional providers while in our care.