Experiential Therapy

The idea of sitting down with a professional and doing talk therapy doesn’t appeal to everyone. Some people struggle to express themselves in words, and it can be difficult to convey emotions in such circumstances. Many people are also intimidated by other options, like group therapy. In addition, some patients can be very good performers in a talk therapy treatment session, which creates trouble for therapists who are trying to get to the bottom of problems.

An approach that has appeal to both counselors and patients trying to address such situations is experiential therapy. The idea behind this sort of treatment option is that people may be able to recover and heal by engaging in hands-on activities. This can be especially beneficial if it’s outside the traditional setting where talk therapy typically occurs, such as a psychologist’s office or an addiction treatment center.

For a practitioner, this can be beneficial because they get to learn:

  • How the client responds to different interactions
  • What the client does when confronted with difficulty and adversity
  • How the client feels when the discussion isn’t about “what’s wrong”

The advantage of providing therapy in a setting that may be seen as less judgmental often works well for everyone involved.

Goals of Experiential Therapy

One of the major objectives of the process is to help people address feelings of pain, unhappiness, and grief. By taking a less direct path toward accessing those feelings, a therapist may be able to gain insights into serious problems such as:

  • Past instances of sexual, physical or emotional abuse
  • Anger management problems
  • Compulsive behaviors, such as gambling or eating disorders
  • Substance use disorders

Notably, experiential therapy isn’t seen as a single approach. Instead, it’s a general style of counseling, and it can be readily integrated with other methods. A therapist has to play a lot of it by ear. The very experiences a patient may be interested in following are informative about their feelings. For example, does a person prefer to create artwork or interact with animals? It’s important for counselors to always remember to honor, as best as possible under the circumstances, the types of activities the client wants to engage in.

At the core of the treatment plan is the notion that the expression of a person’s behavior is often dictated by their perceptions. Re-experiencing negative feelings from the past may allow a person to:

  • Access their emotions
  • Think about why they’re upset by what happened
  • Express ideas that don’t necessarily bubble up in a directed talk session

Another interesting aspect of the treatment method is that activities can carry over to the home environment. This makes it easier for therapists to provide ways for clients to sustain progress and further engagement in between sessions. Many types of problems don’t really create roadblocks for patients until they’re back out in the world. For example, someone who has a substance use disorder might be fine while in residence at an addiction center but find themselves in difficulty once back home. By focusing on experiences and activities, they can maintain focus during trying times. This makes it worth considering in any situation where the client is considered high-risk.

Philosophically speaking, experiential therapy has a lot in common with experiential learning in the educational field. In a learning setting, there are benefits to not feeling like you’re being talked at. Experiential learning places an emphasis on being exposed to situations and then discussing what can be learned from them. This includes asking questions about:

  • Roles that different people play in what happened
  • Dynamics of who was involved
  • The breakdown of what occurred
  • How things could be handled differently

As the client engages with these questions and the possible answers to them, the hope is that they’ll develop a greater sense of self-awareness. Likewise, they’ll be encouraged to extend that self-awareness to an awareness of what others bring to different situations, ultimately fostering more empathy.

Examples of Experiential Therapy

Therapists need to work with patients to discover activities that are within their abilities. For a very athletic client who wants to get out and be active, this might mean incorporating things like rock climbing. A more artistically inclined person may be nudged toward painting, music or sculpture. Activities can also be framed as adventures or trips.

More goes into these activities, though than just doing activities. The goal is to re-create circumstances that led to traumas, addictions and other negative feelings. This means fostering an environment where the client can mindfully reflect on:

  • What actually happened
  • How they feel about those events
  • How their later actions may have followed from what occurred
  • The triggers that either led to events or that have formed since
  • Ways to respond better to situations in the future

To some extent, the experiential approach is about disarming the client. The dialectic nature of talk therapy can feel adversarial to some people. Likewise, discussing matters in group or family therapy can leave them feeling emotionally exposed. Worse, these feelings often emerge in settings where the client doesn’t have a sense of agency. The counselor is in control of talk sessions. Family members or group members can and do often railroad group sessions. That said, experiential therapy does not preclude family and group methods; all three can be incorporated.

It’s worth noting that patients have to be open to the experiential process. In a lot of ways, it is fundamentally play-driven. If a patient demonstrates a tendency to undermine sessions with humor and avoidance, for example, it may be necessary for a therapist to look into other options.

Core Concepts

Four ideas form the core of the experiential process. These are:

  • Existence
  • Encounters and interactions
  • Authenticity
  • Value

Existence

Existence is grounded in the notion that life is pre-conceptual and differentiable. This means we come into it thinking certain things, and we also are conscious and free enough to break these preconceptions down into understandable pieces. In particular, this entails that the counselor needs to confront the fact that concerns expressed by the patient might not fit squarely into any framework. No matter how much we might prefer to use one word, such as “anger” or “shame,” to describe an experience, that single word is never going to be fully up to the job of expressing the situation. In other words, the world is only experienced from the inside.

Differentiation is important. Experiences like anger, stress, grief, and shame can become completely entangled with each other, making it challenging to track responses down to single sources. Breaking these up into their constituent pieces may make it easier for a patient to draw a straight line from previous experiences to their present reactions to different problems. This can be advantageous when dealing with a client who might have coexisting issues arising from addiction, childhood abuse, and depression, for example.

Encounters

Interactions and encounters suggest the idea that each of us is encountered as we go through our daily lives. As we go into these encounters, we often feel concerns about how we’ll be perceived. We hope people will like us and want to do what we desire. We also experience anxieties about how these encounters will go.

This disposition can lead us to express ourselves in negative ways. We may end up expressing anger in order to relieve stress, to manipulate others into doing things our way or to pre-empt their attempts to interact with us. People also frequently make decisions in these encounters in order to present as reliable friends, trusted family fixtures or members of society in good standing.

Encounters in the present are shaped by previous encounters. It might sound like a psychological trade cliché, but these encounters trace all the way back to interactions with our parents, siblings, teachers, neighbors, family members, and peers. Cultural norms also feed into these encounters, ultimately shaping how we respond to new situations.

Authenticity

Human beings spend their lives constantly trying to reconcile the past and the present. This is all done while also facing how we’re going to deal with the future. The problem for many people, though, is that the past and the present define too much of how they confront the future.

Change demands a degree of authenticity. Change only carries forward from the things we do in the present. To enact change, we have to think about how we’ve previously experienced encounters and then identify whether we want those feelings to carry forward into the future. If not, then we must ask how to make corrections.

Value

To accomplish the above, it’s important for one’s goal, purpose, value and focus to be imputed into what we do. Life is a constant of carrying forward. In the simplest form, we eat and drink so that we can get to the future. People also do lots of other things in anticipation of getting to the future. Not all of these choices will fully carry forward, though, and that can create frustration.

As we do all these things that make up our lives, we experience them. They can feel good, bad or somewhere in between. For someone who has anger problems, it may feel good to punch someone. A person with addiction issues might feel good while drinking, doing drugs or gambling. Unfortunately, these experiences rarely carry forward in a positive manner. The corrective treatment is to find ways to experience the good feelings we desire while also having our experiences carry forward positively.

Does It Work?

The experiential method covers a lot of territories. In fact, some forms of it can seem surprising and may even invite derision. Equine-assisted psychotherapy, for example, can look to an outsider like it’s just petting horses. For someone who has had an unstructured and a highly judged existence, though, grooming and feeding a horse at an addiction center may be a first-time experience. The animal responds positively to them without judgment. Caring for another’s needs may allow them to loosen some of their personal defenses.

One of the major challenges in assessing experiential therapy as a form of treatment is defining what counts as a specific therapy. Even though it doesn’t involve going out and doing things, eye movement desensitization and reprocessing are considered experiential because it entails working through experience. EMDR’s efficacy is considered as proven as more established processes like cognitive behavioral therapy. More importantly, experiential therapy offers an alternative for people who can’t be comfortable in traditional settings or working through things like talk therapy.

If you’re trying to cope with a mixture of problems like depression, anxiety, anger, and addiction, for example, working through those concerns in an experiential process may be advantageous. As with any effort to get control of one’s life, it takes time and commitment. There will be setbacks, and it’s important to remain focused on finding a way to carry positive developments forward. In time, you’ll start to see how you can be more mindful in addressing present issues and getting ready for the future.