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Experiential Therapy

Unfortunately, when it comes to addiction, there is not a one size fits all cure. Using just one therapy simply cannot treat the different components that accompany this disease. Experiential therapies assist other evidence-based treatments by bringing real-world application to the program.

In this article

What is Experiential Therapy?

Historically, experiential therapies come from humanistic and client-centered psychological theories from Abraham Maslow and draw on principles from Gestalt and Existential psychology. The purpose of experiential therapies is to take real-world experiences where stressors or unconscious feelings and emotions may be present and to use those learned skills to deal with them. Gestalt principles ask clients to view things as part of a greater whole. Similarly, experiential therapies work to treat clients as a whole rather than focusing only on symptoms. 

There are many different types of experiential therapy which makes this one of the most versatile types of treatment as it can be fit to each person’s interests. These activities go beyond the more traditional individual therapy sessions and allow clients to apply coping skills outside of individual or group therapy.  

Types of Experiential Therapy

Experiential therapy is a relatively broad term and can include a number of different activities. Each activity is going to combine real-world experiences with emotional regulation and processing, communicating with others, and creative expression. Some types of experiential therapy include:

  • Animal-Assisted Therapies
  • Art or Music Therapy
  • Play Therapy
  • Drama Therapy
  • Adventure Therapy
  • Journaling or Writing Therapy
  • Wildnerness Therapy

How Can it Help Substance Abuse?

When these therapies are used to treat substance abuse, they are often supplemental to other therapies such as cognitive behavioral or motivational enhancement. They are especially helpful in getting clients to engage in their program, especially if they find it hard to make connections with others in traditional group settings. 

Different experiential therapies can help in different ways. For example, adventure therapies such as hiking or ropes courses help clients work together with their peers, create bonds, and communicate effectively. Animal-assisted therapies can increase trust between clients and their therapists, and this may make them more open to engaging in talk therapies. 

Other Conditions

Experiential therapies can benefit people dealing with all types of conditions, making them a critical piece to most dual diagnosis treatment plans. Though they do not treat substance abuse directly, they can improve symptoms of mental health conditions such as anxiety disorders or depression which in turn can alleviate some of the causes of that addiction. It is so important to treat co-occurring disorders simultaneously, and experiential therapies are often the bridge between what clients learn in therapy and how they use those skills in real situations. 

Does it Really Work?

In recent years, experiential therapies have gained increasing popularity. With that comes increased interest in whether they actually work when it comes to treating substance abuse and mental illnesses. Studies have shown that:

  • Having been studied with regards to treating depression, experiential therapies are effective. 
  • Cognitive behavioral therapies are still most effective in treating generalized anxiety and panic disorders, however experiential therapies have some benefits and are effective when used as supplemental treatments.
  • Experiential therapies are effective in helping to treat substance abuse when there is some co-occurring mental health condition.

Benefits of Experiential Therapy

The most beneficial part of experiential therapy is giving clients the chance to use newfound skills in real situations that are still somewhat structured and guided. Instead of being thrown into possible stress-inducing situations, experiential therapies ease them into these situations. 

Most benefits will depend on which type of activity is used. Activities such as hiking or sports may increase communication and teamwork, while art therapy may allow clients to express emotions that they have a difficult time verbalizing. Other benefits may include:

  • Increased communication 
  • Development of positive relationships
  • Increasing motivation for continuing treatment
  • Forming positive habits and coping skills
  • Developing interests in areas they may not previously have had
  • Giving clients purpose
  • Increasing confidence
  • Experiencing some fun while in rehab

Who Should Not Participate?

Though experiential therapies can be beneficial to substance abuse treatment, they aren’t for everyone. They should only be used in the plans of those who are physically able to participate and who are old enough to participate. These therapies should be avoided in people who:

  • Are actively psychotic or in a psychotic state
  • Have severe physical or cognitive impairments

Experiential therapies can sometimes bring about emotions or criticisms that may be difficult to handle, especially since they typically do not take place within the safety of a therapists office. They should only be led by certified or trained professionals in a respectful manner that takes into consideration each client and their specific needs. 

How We Use Experiential Therapies

At The Summit Wellness Group, we use a variety of different experiential activities to get our clients out of the facility. We may take trips to different coffee shops, spend time with animals, or engage in adventure activities. We also offer music therapy in our facilities. 

When we do adventure therapy, we don’t just sit in a parking lot. We go to a coffee shop. We go to The Mill, we go to Save the Horses. 

Bob Schalit – CEO of The Summit Wellness Group

Because it is a theory more than it is a specific set of groups, we use experiential therapies to assist in our evidence-based treatment programs. We work with clients at our substance abuse treatment centers in Georgia to determine which activities may be helpful or may be of interest, and we try to incorporate them when possible. 

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