What is Experiential Therapy?
Experiential therapy is a therapeutic technique using expressive tools and activities, such as role-playing or acting, arts and crafts, music, animal care, guided imagery, or recreation to address hidden or subconscious thoughts and emotions.
In this type of therapy, the client focuses on the activities and, through the experience, begins to identify emotions associated with success, disappointment, responsibility, and self-esteem. Under the guidance of a trained experiential therapist, the client can begin to release and explore negative feelings of anger, hurt, or shame as they relate to past experiences that may have been blocked or still linger.
Experiential therapy is an evidence-based practice that helps participants became more emotionally focused and mindful of their surroundings. This systematic way of learning can help increase awareness so that effective ways of coping can be discovered and old, negative patterns of behavior can change.
Experiential Therapy in Addiction Treatment
Some may describe addiction as similar to an iceberg.
The portion that is visible above the surface can be chipped away or melted, but the vast portion beneath remains intact. It is here—beneath the surface— where our most entrenched pain lives, feeding our physical and behavioral addictions.
In traditional therapy settings, as fears and past painful experiences become exposed, we deploy our defenses to protect ourselves from re-injury. On both a conscious and subconscious level, we work hard to prevent this exposure and emotional pain, limiting our access to true healing.
In experiential therapy, the conscious mind is fixed on the activity and stimulating surroundings. During this active process, the body remembers things the brain has forgotten. Our experiences reawaken us to the rewards of exploration, excitement, validation, and fulfillment—all without the use of chemicals.
Though we may not remember or retain the things we hear, we nearly always remember what we see, feel, and experience. Recovery must go beyond theory, instruction, and institutional formats and encompass a 360-degree fully-lived experience of the mind, body, and soul.
At Three Strands, we use experiential therapy to bring Hope. Grit. Healing. back to our clients.
Benefits of Experiential Therapy in Treatment
Experiential therapy involves both physical movement and process discussion, all facilitated by a trained therapist. There are several benefits to this type of therapy, all of which serve to and connect the mind, the body, and the spirit. At Three Strands, we believe experiential activities are an essential and necessary element to recovery treatment and programming.
To optimize brain function and unlock our potential, physical activity is one of the most powerful tools we have. It is widely considered “nature’s best cure.” That’s why we make physical well-being one of the cornerstones of our experiential program—burning off stress, reducing muscle tension, and boosting endorphins are all great benefits to a recovering body.
Experiential therapy can be implemented in a variety of ways, and at Three Strands we use our ranch program and a 30-day wilderness expedition to create experiences that are both fun and exhilarating for our clients. We believe that by designing a recovery experience that is enjoyable, exciting, and interesting, it’s more likely that our clients will succeed in their long-term recovery goals.
Recovery Skills Learned Through Experiential Therapy
Experiential therapy not only helps to uncover and heal emotional pain, it also helps clients build important life skills that will carry them through a successful long-term recovery.
When substance abuse takes over a person’s life, their focus narrows—everything but the addiction is occluded. It makes sense, then, for people in recovery to feel lost and directionless—feelings that can derail the process of getting better.
Experiential therapy is designed to address these feelings and to help each client rediscover their passions, interests, and special abilities. Pursuing passions and interests, knowing what activities, thoughts, and actions create happiness and satisfaction, is the key to helping clients build a full, healthy life beyond addiction.
Addiction is a disease of isolation. Learning to re-engage with life—with friends, family, and colleagues—is a critical part of recovery.
Through ice-breakers and other social and collaborative activities, experiential therapy creates opportunities for clients to ease back into social engagement and positive, healthy communication. Experiential activities can create intimate connections, teach clients about themselves and others, and rebuild the ability to trust, care for, and bond together.
As social creatures, positive relationships with others light up our spirit and carry us through difficult times. Experiential therapy helps clients re-learn the communication and relationship-building skills that are key to success after treatment.
Shame and guilt are the lifeblood of addiction, lying in wait to sabotage a person’s recovery. To overcome these destructive feelings, it is important to develop a strong, positive self-esteem.
Experiential therapy gives clients the opportunity to do just that. Through a range of activities and challenges, clients in experiential therapy learn to negotiate obstacles, to problem-solve, and to cope with negative feelings and self-doubt.
Activities in experiential therapy allow clients to work hard and reap the rewards, to succeed and achieve beyond what they ever thought possible. With therapy, clients can restore lost confidence and leave empowered for the next step in their recovery.
Coping with Feelings
Substance abuse masks most emotions—leaving room only for the destructive feelings that validate addiction. In early recovery, identifying emotions can be difficult and painful.
In experiential therapy, all feelings are valid and welcome. A facilitator helps clients identify emotions in real-time, creating a safe place for clients to learn how to name, talk about, and cope with their feelings.
Hope is where recovery is born. The successful 12-step philosophy of recovery is based on the idea that one single individual does not need to possess the skills to live a sober lifestyle—they simply need to borrow hope from another demonstrating sobriety.
In experiential therapy, it’s common to doubt yourself and your ability to overcome an obstacle or reach a goal—but with encouragement and hope borrowed from others, everyone can overcome their fears and succeed.