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What is Experiential Therapy: How it Works

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Medically Reviewed By: Diana Vo, LMFT

November 28, 2023

Table of Contents

When it comes to treating substance abuse, there’s no one-size-fits-all approach to addiction therapy. Every person is different and all of us have faced unique circumstances that brought us to where we are today. Whether you are facing addiction, substance use disorders, or working on your mental health, experiential therapy might be exactly what you are looking for.

Though outpatient or inpatient treatment, cognitive behavioral therapy, and other options work well for some people, perhaps you need something a little bit more.

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What Is Experiential Therapy?

You are probably at least somewhat familiar with traditional styles of therapy, like “talk therapy” Experiential therapy is very different from that. Rather than being classified or defined as any specific type of therapy, experiential therapy is sort of a category of therapy that involves many parts.

Throughout the 20th century, many researchers, psychiatrists, psychologists and family therapists used unorthodox strategies in sessions with their patients. The most prominent names associated with this type of therapy are Carl Rogers and Fritz Perls.

Eugene Gendlin is the father of experiential psychotherapy, and he reasoned that there was much more to treatment than words. Gendlin felt that words could only be used as tools for therapy, and that psychotherapy must be lived in order to have any lasting impact.

In experiential therapy, the goal is for the person to be involved in an experience that is hands on or immersive while exploring the issues at hand. While participating in the activity, the person is better able to tune into themselves, to develop insight and come to realizations.

How Does Experiential Therapy Work?

Many people find it easy to talk about their struggles with mental health or their addictions and what led to them, but many others struggle greatly with this task.

Childhood trauma often leads to a life of addiction, and evidence suggests that experiential therapy interventions can be highly beneficial in helping adults navigate those experiences.

Traditional talking-type therapy will be of no use to someone who has deeply buried the memories and pain associated with trauma. A number of people subconsciously avoid discussing their experiences at all, which makes it difficult to get to the root cause of the issues. Repressing these memories can lead to a variety of psychological problems like anxiety, PTSD, depression, or addiction.

Many people who enter therapy or treatment for substance use disorders exhibit high levels of emotional avoidance. Equipping these people with the necessary skills to navigate life is vital to recovery from whatever their issues may be.

When involved in experiential psychotherapy, a person is focused on the task or activity they are participating in and less on the fact that they are in therapy. The person is living in the present, and they are more likely to let down their guard while talking.

This type of therapy can feel less confrontational for those involved, and it gives the therapist the opportunity to observe the behavior and body language of the person they are treating.

Though experiential therapy activities can seem like fun (and you can absolutely have a good time participating!), it is important that you remember that all therapy is work. While experiential psychotherapy is an unconventional approach to therapy, a certified and trained therapist must oversee the process.

When participating in experiential therapy, a person can come face to face with tough feelings or situations but being in a safer environment can make it easier to face them. For example, with the help of a skilled psychotherapist, an alcoholic can face a stressful situation – perhaps while rock climbing or navigating a rope skills course – and learn to cope with the stress in the moment without turning to the liquor.

What Benefits Can Be Had From Experiential Therapy?

As with all styles of therapy, this particular therapy comes with benefits and drawbacks.

One major benefit to programs utilizing experiential therapy techniques is that the overall success rate is much higher. In one study, researchers found that when used in conjunction with other treatment programs, experiential therapy methods were more likely to result in recovery.

Another study showed that when people participate in this therapy activities, retention in treatment improves. People stick with their therapy and are more likely to complete treatment. Completing treatment is vital for positive long-term recovery outcomes.

Many people seeking therapy are hurting people who are unable to come to grips with the situations life has thrown at them. When these people are unable to get to the root cause of what is leading to their addiction, anxiety, or other problem, there is no way to recover. The hands-on method used in experiential therapy activities is beneficial for giving people a new pathway to get to those feelings.

Additionally, many of the skills learned and knowledge obtained through this treatment is beneficial for keeping idle hands busy. If an addict learns to paint for example, when the cravings for their drug of choice set in, they can busy themselves with their art instead of turning to their addiction.

Some of the other positive benefits that can be gained through experiential therapy are:

  • Better ability to focus on the present
  • Higher self-esteem
  • Personal growth
  • Experiencing success
  • Identifying and moving past obstacles
  • Higher self-accountability and personal responsibility

There are a few drawbacks to experiential therapy, though. It can be expensive and because it is an alternative more holistic approach to treatment, many insurance providers do not cover it.

Because it is not a mainstream treatment option, there is also not much research or evidence to back up the claims. This is changing, albeit slowly.

Experiential Therapy In The Treatment Of Substance Use Disorders

Techniques employed in this therapy can be effective in treating substance use disorders, especially for people who have difficulty discussing their addiction in a traditional setting.

Research has shown that people who participate in expressive therapy are less likely to deny their situation and are more likely to cooperate in their treatment plan. Additionally, they develop deeper insight and have a positive approach to their treatment.

Certain types of therapy make it easier for patients to relate to other people and to progress faster in their treatment for substance abuse.

There are a number of benefits to adventure therapy and people who participate in this learn to trust while developing problem-solving skills and to better express themselves. This is vital to long-term recovery.

Experiential Family Therapy

When treating individuals for substance use, addiction, and mental health disorders, individual therapy is highly beneficial.

However, when safe for the patient, bringing the family into it can be therapeutic. With the help of a trained psychotherapist, experiential family therapy techniques can greatly assist the patient in their recovery, especially if verbal methods of therapy have not been effective.

Rather than focusing on the past, the therapist can use experiential therapy activities to help the family focus on the here and now.

When employing experiential family therapy techniques, the therapist can help to bring the family members closer together and help facilitate better connections. While participating in experiential family therapy, the patient can learn that they can rely on their family while the family can learn to be a support system for their loved one.

Experiential Therapy Activities

There are a wide variety of experiential activities available, though which ones are available to you will depend on your treatment center and location.

Some of the more common experiential treatment therapy options include:

  • Experiential Family therapy
  • Music therapy (playing, composing, listening)
  • Art therapy (drawing, sculpting, painting)
  • Animal therapy (equine, dog / training, care)
  • Adventure therapy (rock climbing, ropes course, kayaking)

Is Experiential Therapy Right For Me?

Not all types of experiential therapy will be beneficial to all people, just as not all people will benefit from this method of therapy.

Working with your therapist, you can determine if this is an ideal path for you. If you have experienced any of the following, you might benefit from experiential therapy techniques:

  • Suffer from mental illness in addition to your addiction (dual diagnosis)
  • Can’t communicate without getting angry
  • Traditional therapy methods haven’t worked
  • Enjoy art, music, animals, or adventure
  • Feel uncomfortable talking about memories or past traumas
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Experiential Therapy At Renaissance Recovery

At Renaissance Recovery, we pride ourselves in offering non-traditional rehab treatment options for mental health and addiction recovery. We are proud to offer different options for experiential therapy activities to aid in your healing.

These experiential therapy techniques can be used in conjunction with

If you or a loved one is facing life while addicted to drugs, alcohol, or other substances – don’t lose hope!

The experts at Renaissance Recovery are here to help you through detox and recovery so that you can have a better life.

Contact us today for more information about our experiential treatment programs in Orange County and make your sober life full of adventure!



At Renaissance Recovery our goal is to provide evidence-based treatment to as many individuals as possible. Give us a call today to verify your insurance coverage or to learn more about paying for addiction treatment.

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Joseph Gilmore has been in the addiction industry for three years with experience working for facilities all across the country. Connect with Joe on LinkedIn.

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