Everything You Need To Know About Experiential Therapy in Addiction Recovery

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Therapy is often stereotyped as a couch-and-desk type of session where you’re guided through various thought and emotional patterns. A lesser known form of therapy is called experiential family therapy, which is highly effective for addiction treatment. Understanding how this therapy works can help restore one’s relationships and improve their coping mechanisms.

Psychotherapy traces its roots to the pioneers of psychology, such as Sigmund Freud and Dr. Aaron Beck. The varying approaches branched out due to years of research and demonstrations until these types of therapies had developed principles, and are now used in different rehabilitation centers.

Many of these psychotherapies have a one-on-one setup where the client meets with the professional. During discussions, the therapist incorporates the principles that make-up the therapeutic approach. For example, Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) involves processing the Antecedent, Behavior, and Consequences of certain life situations.

In the realm of addiction, there is another type of treatment that doesn’t just involve one-on-one scenarios. Experiential therapy is one of those dynamic types of treatment that clients and their families can choose.

Experiential Therapy

You may be asking, “What is experiential therapy?” This unique approach involves the use of various techniques that are done to recreate certain experiences. From the word “experience”, experiential therapy has the main principle of individuals being immersed in situations where they can appropriately process their thoughts and emotions.

Different Types of Experiential Therapy:


Role-playing isn’t just confined to the realm of arts. Did you know that role-playing activities have educational and psychological benefits? It teaches people social skills such as learning the proper responses and building the spirit of teamwork. In the context of addiction, families can benefit from role-playing to practice anticipated situations such as addiction cravings, relationship problems, and other experiences.

Arts and crafts

One of the widely used experiential therapy interventions is through the venue of arts and crafts. It is often said that art is used to express the inner longings of the soul–and this is something vital for substance abuse treatment. People who are suffering from addictions have personal struggles that they sometimes can’t express easily through words. Thus, activities such as painting, sketching, knitting, and doing other crafts can be a wonderful outlet to regulate their thoughts and emotions. They are free to express anything through art–emotions such as loneliness, joy, pain, and healing can all be shown through art.


Music is a universal language. It can hold so many thoughts and emotions that are difficult to express through words. Thus, playing, composing, or even listening to music can be therapeutic. There are studies that show how music can provide healing and serve as an outlet for people who are going through challenges in life. Most people who have addictions are going through some form of trauma. Music can be one way to look introspectively and resolve issues that recovering addicts are going through

Nature immersion

There’s a reason why people associate nature’s views with tranquility. Researchers have proven that immersing or simulating a natural environment promotes a sense of calm and can be therapeutic, particularly in the treatment of addictions.

Whether it’s taking a nature walk, listening to ambient natural environments, or creating art in the midst of a waterfall, beach, or the woods–any type of immersion can help in decreasing stress, anxiety, or depression, all of which contribute to substance abuse and addictions, as well as serve as a way of physically removing people from toxic environments, which are common triggers of substance abuse.

Experiential Therapies in the Treatment of Substance Use Disorders

Experiential therapy is used in the treatment of addiction especially when there are co-occurring mental health problems and people prefer a method where they don’t have to usually verbalize their thoughts.

Just as some people would rather do something other than ‘talk it out’, experiential therapy may be used as an outlet to process bottled-up thoughts and feelings. Experiences are also enriching for many individuals, and this type of therapy may help some discover new passions or rediscover ones that have been buried over time.

Additionally, experiential therapy is built to provide positive associations with events. Many people experienced many negative events and relationships in their lives, causing them to develop a defensive or cynical mindset about life. Addiction for some serves as a coping mechanism to prevent the experiences from affecting them. However, it can be damaging to an individual as substance abuse affects one’s health, relationships, and other aspects of life.

Interventions such as experiential therapy are meant to serve as a healthy outlet that replaces the craving for substances while targeting the underlying issues that cause addiction.

What To Expect

It is important to remember that enrolling in experiential therapy intervention means that you should be open to trying a variety of activities. Since there is no single protocol for doing this type of management, your therapist will help you go through different experiences to see which one truly works for you. Here is a sample step-by-step process of experiential therapy in addiction rehab:

  1. In the first session, your therapist will run you through various experiential activities based on your preferences. You may have filled out a form about the types of activities you’re interested in. If a session lasts for an hour and you have three choices of activities, you will be spending about 20 minutes on each activity.
  2. Your therapist will then recap with you about your experiences doing each activity and ask how you think and feel about each one. You will then select a specific experiential activity that you would like to focus on.
  3. Each session may have a theme. For example, role-playing experiential therapy will have topics such as reenacting situations where you’re tempted to use drugs or alcohol, and how to respond appropriately. Art therapies may have themes such as painting about how you see yourself after addiction treatment.

The steps may vary depending on the therapist and the preferences of the client, but it all boils down to immersion, selection of experiences, and integrating them in topics that help in recovery.

When Is Experiential Therapy Used

Certain situations call for medically assisted treatment in addiction rehab, but others will try to go through a therapeutic route. Some individuals will benefit from various forms of talk therapy such as CBT or DBT, but there are those who prefer a more hands-on experience. Do you want to find out if experiential therapy interventions are the right choice for you? Below is a quick criterion to refer to:

  • You’re a well-rounded learner. Some people primarily learn through the visual domain and others through sound. However, if you see yourself as someone who integrates all the five senses (seeing, hearing, touching, smelling, tasting) to learn, experiential therapy may benefit you greatly.
  • You want your family to be involved. There are other types of talk therapies where families are free to join to discuss issues. Although this is a good fit for some, others would prefer therapy to be a bonding experience rather than opening up and exploring old wounds. Experiential therapy is a great way to integrate family while avoiding potential pitfalls of too much discussion.
  • You’d prefer to express in other means. It is true that verbal expression through counseling, therapies, and support groups can be helpful in dealing with substance abuse issues. Nevertheless, there are still people who aren’t comfortable opening up to others about their lives. Doing this type of therapy can help those types of individuals who would rather focus on gaining new experiences and learning therapeutic activities rather than discussing painful details.

Who Should Not Be Involved in Experiential Therapy?

Just like how there are criteria for people who are a great fit for experiential therapy, there are also factors when one is discouraged from doing so. In general, learning through experiences is exploratory in nature. However, below are some pointers that professionals and clients should avoid when considering experiential therapy.

PTSD and Trauma Triggers

Some experiences are not suited for patients who have experienced trauma in the past. It is important to know that people who have suffered from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) commonly have triggers that will bring about intrusive thoughts from the past. Before using experiential therapy for someone who has trauma or a diagnosed condition of PTSD, it is helpful to identify these triggers first.


Another factor to consider when going for experiential therapy is physical or mental limitations for individuals with addictions. As much as possible, professionals should empower their clients, so it is essential to be sensitive to the struggles of patients with disabilities and take time to understand what kinds of treatment suit their needs.

Treatment preferences

Some patients seeking treatment need a verbal outlet to express their thoughts and feelings. There will be instances where things can be discussed, but there are various types of psychotherapy that may provide a deeper level of insight and discussion that some clients need. If such is the case, then experiential therapy may not be the best fit.

How Experiential Therapy Works

How exactly does experiential therapy work? Although it may be simple as doing an activity, this type of management works because of the principle behind experiential psychology.

Since experiences have a strong emotional component, clients are encouraged to see familiar situations in a different light. This way, people in recovery can learn to associate positive, motivating emotions in a situation rather than having negative, defeated ones.

Through repeated experience and exposure, they can learn to assimilate these emotions they learned during therapy and apply them in real-life situations. This type of intervention is hinged upon the famous saying, “Experience is the best teacher.”

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Facts and Statistics on Experiential Therapy

  • Individuals who went for experiential therapy as a treatment for addiction experienced a significant decrease in feelings of shame and anxiety six months post-treatment.
  • Patients who have experiential therapy related to interacting with animals (pets, horses, therapy dogs) have lesser instances of distress and better perceptions of well-being.
  • Experiential therapy within groups is shown to be effective due to the natural opportunities for peer support and cooperation.
  • Experiential therapy also serves as a mode of assessment for intervention professionals in helping understand the client’s psyche.

Criticisms of Experiential Therapy

With experiential therapy’s non-traditional nature in treating substance use disorders, there are also perceived drawbacks in going for this type of intervention. Some criticisms of the treatment include the lack of consideration with cultural diversity. For example, people who grew up in a different country or situation may prefer activities and materials which are not available within the treatment facility.

There will also be limitations on this therapy based on one’s interest. If the facility only offers art materials when one is interested in music or sports, the client’s needs may be difficult to meet in this type of treatment.

Another potential problem of experiential therapy is the lack of understanding and insight on the root causes of addiction. Although experiences serve as a way to express one’s thoughts and feelings, it may be challenging for individuals to become self-aware of the root causes of their addictive personalities. For an approach that focuses more on understanding and addressing root causes,  traditional methods such as discussion psychotherapies are recommended.

Nevertheless, it is a great alternative route for people who prefer non-talk therapies or those who would want enrichment through experiences.

What To Look For In An Experiential Therapist

What makes one a qualified experiential therapist? The first step is to select a high-quality rehab center that offers this type of management for addiction. After this process, these are some things you have to look for in your experiential therapist:

  • Credentials: Do they have certification or have completed a degree in relation to psychotherapy?
  • Compassion: Do they take a genuine interest and the time to listen to your needs and understand your preferences during treatment?
  • Communication: Are they willing to go through discussions with you and your loved ones about the therapy’s advantages?

Having these traits in your experiential therapist will help make the intervention more fruitful and will give you a satisfying treatment.

Experiential Therapy and Other Treatments

Experiential therapy can be the sole course of addiction recovery intervention or can be combined with other treatment methods. Some individuals prefer that they have experiential therapy with other types of treatment in order to target the limitations of each kind. It is possible to benefit from a combination of treatments so as long as it is fitting for one’s needs.

Other treatment methods that can complement or supplement experiential therapy include:

  • 12-Step Method
  • Cognitive Behavioral Therapy
  • Holistic Treatments (Massage, aromatherapy, reflexology, meditation)
  • Family or Group Therapy

The type of treatment combinations that one should take all depends on the initial assessment, personal preferences, and recommendations of healthcare professionals.

Experiencing Healing Through Therapy

The principles behind experiential therapy are simple, yet powerful one. As you weigh the pros and cons of trying an alternative intervention such as experiential therapy, you will eventually find the type of addiction treatment protocol that is best suited for your needs.


  1. Ncbi.nlm.nih.gov – “History of Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy (CBT) in Youth”.
  2. Researchgate.net – “Role-playing Games Used Educational and Therapeutic Tools for Youth and Adults”.
  3. Onlinelibrary.wiley.com – “Expressive Art Therapy Techniques: Healing the Soul Through Creativity”.
  4. Cochranelibrary.com – “Music Therapy for Depression”.
  5. Guildfordjournals.com – “Incorporating Nature into Therapy: A Framework for Practice”
  6. Tandfonline.com – “Reports of Violence and Relationship Addiction: Triggers to Alcohol and Other Drug Relapse”.

Medical disclaimer:

Sunshine Behavioral Health strives to help people who are facing substance abuse, addiction, mental health disorders, or a combination of these conditions. It does this by providing compassionate care and evidence-based content that addresses health, treatment, and recovery.

Licensed medical professionals review material we publish on our site. The material is not a substitute for qualified medical diagnoses, treatment, or advice. It should not be used to replace the suggestions of your personal physician or other health care professionals.

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