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Experiential Therapy

Some recovering addicts feel uncomfortable working through their problems in a traditional therapy setting. Experiential therapy takes addiction treatment into the art studio, the outdoors and more.

What is Experiential Therapy?

Rock ClimbingExperiential therapies are hands-on, engaging activities that help recovering addicts process and cope with past trauma.

Experiential therapy uses nontraditional treatment settings to help addicts work through repressed feelings and emotions.

Some recovering addicts may be uncomfortable talking to therapists in a traditional counseling setting. Experiential therapies put recovering addicts in environments where they feel comfortable, such as the outdoors or in an art or music studio.

Common experiential therapies include:

  • Sculpting
  • Rock climbing
  • Ropes courses
  • Music therapy
  • Wilderness therapy
  • Recreation therapy
  • Adventure therapy

Experiential therapy is designed to help those in recovery develop a stronger sense of self by coming to terms with buried emotions and past traumas. Through experiential therapy, a recovering addict can learn how to face these issues without turning to drugs for an escape.

Experiential Therapy in Addiction Treatment

Physically demanding activities like rock-climbing and hiking help simulate real-world stress for recovering addicts to overcome. Experiential therapy can teach recovering addicts how to cope with everyday stressors like cravings and substance abuse triggers.

Recovering addicts may be less guarded during experiential therapy, allowing for more accurate patient evaluations for therapists and mental healing for addicts.

Experiential therapy has also proven effective in treating many disorders that co-occur with addiction. Treating these disorders alongside addiction can help decrease mental health-related stress and triggers, reducing the likelihood of relapse.

Co-occurring mental disorders experiential therapy treats include:

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Therapies and Techniques in Experiential Therapy

During an experiential therapy session, therapists guide recovering addicts through several treatment exercises, tailored to their specific treatment needs.

Common techniques used in experiential therapy include:

  • Equine-assisted psychotherapy

    Equine-assisted psychotherapy (EAP) includes the use of horses during therapeutic recovery exercises. Patients won’t ride horses, but they will groom, feed, harness and walk them throughout the session.

    The different ways recovering addicts interact with the horses can reveal insights about their emotional and mental states. EAP can help recovering addicts process negative feelings or traumas they might not otherwise recognize or address.

  • Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR)

    EMDR is a therapy where patients visualize a traumatic event while a therapist leads them through specific eye movements. EMDR has been proven effective in helping those in recovery alleviate negative emotions and feelings of distress that can lead to substance abuse.

  • Adventure Therapy

    This therapy consists of outdoor activities such as hiking, camping, biking, rock climbing or white-water rafting. Adventure therapy helps recovering addicts develop personal responsibility, communication skills and problem-solving skills while working within a group setting.

  • Art Therapy

    Art therapy allows recovering addicts to express themselves through the use of art or music. By creating art, patients can work through distressful and negative emotions and process them in a healthy manner.

Experiential Therapy and Other Treatments

Because withdrawal from many drugs causes uncomfortable or even dangerous symptoms, it’s important to begin any treatment program with a medical detox. Both inpatient and outpatient recovery programs can treat withdrawal symptoms during detox. After this, several therapies may be used in conjunction with experiential therapy to properly treat the person in recovery.

Experiential therapy is often used alongside traditional rehab techniques to create a comprehensive treatment program for recovering addicts.

Experiential therapy pairs well with other psychotherapy techniques like motivational enhancement therapy and cognitive behavioral therapy to focus on changing self-destructive behaviors. These activities allow recovering addicts to apply the life skills they’re taught during psychotherapy sessions in practical, hands-on environments.

Get the Complete Treatment You Deserve

If you are having problems with substance abuse, give us a call to find you an addiction treatment program. Some drug rehab centers specialize in experiential therapies, with obstacle courses, rock climbing walls and art studios on their premises. Treatment centers across the country have the medical and therapeutic resources you need to overcome drug addiction.

Sources & Author Last Edited: January 12, 2017

  1. Gendlin E (1973). "Experiential Psychotherapies." Current Psychotherapies. Retrieved on July 30, 2015 from: http://www.focusing.org/gendlin/docs/gol_2029.html
About the Writer, Kayla Smith

Kayla Smith is the editorial director for Addiction Center. After working for years as a journalist, she joined the Addiction Center team in hopes of spreading awareness about addiction and mental health issues and helping people get treatment.

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