Content Reviewed by Cameron Bolish, M.Ed., CEO of PaRC

There is no one-size-fits-all treatment for substance use disorders and addiction. While it is great that many people find recovery success in traditional Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) or 12-Step programs, there are still a handful of people that have not. Luckily, there are a growing number of unique recovery pathways available to those seeking refuge from addiction.

When substance use takes control of the body, it also takes over the mind and spirit. Many treatment facilities honor the belief that effective treatment must meet patients exactly where they are on their healing journey. As a result, addiction treatment must offer well-rounded, multiple approaches to recovery that recognize the personal needs of every patient. One of these approaches is called experiential therapy.

Experiential therapy is a non-traditional treatment method that helps patients work through challenging, repressed emotions caused by past trauma. Activities experienced in this therapy are hands-on and engaging for participants. Many factors set experiential therapy apart from other therapeutic interventions, making it a valuable treatment resource for anyone struggling with substance use problems.

What sets experiential therapy apart from other interventions in addiction recovery?

The most popular category of treatment intervention for substance use disorders, co-occurring conditions or even mental health disorders is psychotherapy. Also known as “talk therapy,” psychotherapy is an umbrella term for various treatment techniques that help patients identify and overcome troubling patterns of thought, emotion and behavior. Although psychotherapy is proven to be helpful for patients, some individuals may not feel comfortable enough to talk with a therapist in a traditional therapy setting.

One of the main factors that set experiential therapy apart from other interventions is that it environmentally meets patients where they are comfortable. Experiential activities are conducted in many different environments that help patients to draw out difficult emotions that may be buried within them. During sessions, therapists guide patients through a number of different exercises tailored to fit personal treatment needs. Many activities are physically demanding, such as rock climbing and hiking, which help to stimulate real-world stress. Patients are taught how to cope with challenging situations and stressors through these real-life scenarios. These lessons can then be taken back and applied to problems like managing substance use triggers and cravings. 

It is important to acknowledge that experiential therapy is rarely enough treatment on its own to build a foundation for successful, long-term recovery. Instead, experiential therapy is most effective when used alongside traditional rehab techniques to create an intimate and comprehensive treatment program for those in recovery.

Experiential Therapy Techniques and Activities

Experiential therapy is best described and understood as an umbrella term, like psychotherapy. However, experiential therapy can sometimes be considered a type of psychotherapy and vice versa.

Experiential therapy encourages participants to uncover hidden issues through a range of different activities such as role-playing or guided imagery. Participants participate in these activities while trained professionals use various therapy techniques to motivate change, growth and increase self-esteem.

Depending on the treatment facility, experiential therapies will likely use popular therapeutic techniques throughout treatment sessions. Some of these techniques may include:

  • Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR): This technique is most commonly used in trauma-informed care. During EMDR, a patient will visualize a traumatic event while a therapist guides them through different eye movements. EMDR alleviates the distress caused by past trauma and reduces the risk of self-medicating difficult emotions.
  • Motivational Interviewing: This approach helps patients find the motivation and willingness to make positive behavioral changes. Motivational Interviewing helps patients explore and overcome ambivalence to stop unhealthy behaviors.
  • Adventure Therapy: Adventure Therapy encourages interaction with the environment. Adventure Therapy can involve activities like hiking, camping and biking. This intervention aids in fostering better communication, problem-solving and personal responsibility while patients work in a group setting.
  • Art Therapy: This expressive therapy encourages patients to develop emotional awareness through creative processes such as painting and sculpting.
  • Animal-Assisted Therapy: It involves using animals to complement the therapeutic process. The unique ways patients interact with different animals can produce insight into their emotional awareness and internal state.

Who can benefit from experiential therapy?

In short, anyone can benefit from experiential therapy. It can treat substance use disorder and associated symptoms as well as co-occurring and mental health disorders individually. Some examples of conditions that experiential therapy may treat include:

  • Depression
  • Anxiety
  • Eating disorders
  • Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
  • Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD)
  • Addiction

Experiential therapy helps patients rationalize their addiction by making peace with past trauma and repressed distress. Any condition that may have developed because of trauma or unresolved pain may experience treatment success using experiential therapy. Many treatment center programs use experiential therapy as a valuable motivator of the healing process.

PaRC is an addiction treatment facility that offers specialized treatment for patients of all ages. We provide experiential therapy as a complementary treatment approach to help patients apply valuable lessons that they are learning in therapy to real-life scenarios. You will gain a deeper understanding of yourself through experiential therapy and foster greater emotional awareness. To learn more about our treatment facility or our experiential therapy activities, give us a call today at (713) 939-7272.