What Is Experiential Therapy?

Medically reviewed by Melissa Guarnaccia, LCSW
Updated April 29, 2024by BetterHelp Editorial Team
Content warning: Please be advised, the below article might mention substance use-related topics that could be triggering to the reader. If you or someone you love is struggling with substance use, contact SAMHSA’s National Helpline at 1-800-662-HELP (4357). Support is available 24/7. Please see our Get Help Now page for more immediate resources.
Content warning: Please be advised, the below article might mention trauma-related topics that could be triggering to the reader. Please see our Get Help Now page for more immediate resources.
You may have heard others state that the present can be more meaningful than the past, as it is the only area you can change. This concept is a core belief of a type of mental health counseling called experiential therapy. This type of counseling addresses how your past might be causing you to struggle to focus on your present moment and how you can make changes now to relieve emotions from the past and start new.
Adventure therapies, equine therapy, and wilderness therapy are certain types of experiential therapy. These forms of experiential therapy are where patients re-enact past experiences and release negative emotions through creative expression, role-playing, and other therapeutic methods. Research has shown that these therapies, along with traditional talk therapy, can be effective in treating personality disorders cluster B and in promoting emotional processing and guidance for future relationships.
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Not comfortable talking in therapy? Try experiential therapy

What is experiential therapy?

Experiential therapy is a type of mental health treatment that addresses past events and applies them to learning lessons about the present. It is a common type of therapy in substance use treatment and involves taking part in hands-on activities, such as expressive arts or exercise. Equine-assisted therapy is just one form of experiential therapy where patients can feel safe and release negative emotions through therapeutic techniques. This type of therapy creates a safe space for patients to explore their inner thoughts and emotions. It has been shown to be effective through randomized controlled trials and is often used in rehabilitation programs to treat addiction and eating disorders.

Experiential therapy involves experiencing tangible moments in the present. However, taking part in this treatment may also bring up intense emotions from the past. You may confront fears, feelings of failure, or sadness from the past that might still impact you today.

Who can benefit from it?

Clients may benefit from experiential therapy when experiencing immense emotional distress, struggling to move on from the past, or living with a substance use disorder. It might also be used in the treatment of abuse recovery for those who have experienced a traumatic relationship or dynamic. 

Experiential therapy can also benefit individuals experiencing grief, as it addresses the past emotions of loss and how they connect to current realities. In addition, individuals with patterns of unhealthy relationships may gain self-awareness, arrive at the root of a problem, and discover the causes of interpersonal conflicts. Through experiencing their emotions, sensations, and roleplaying, they can fully immerse themselves in the experiential therapy session and within their experiences to potentially heal them. 

How does experiential therapy work?

Experiential therapy is an approach that might be used alongside other approaches. For example, it might be used in conjunction with talk therapies such as cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT). When beginning an experiential exercise, your therapist can introduce the activity along with instructions. During the activity, a mixture of emotions might emerge, allowing you to explore the memories surrounding them. 
Seeing you in unguarded moments as you partake in activities in everyday life may give your therapist a clearer picture of who you are and how you respond to adversity or challenges. As they observe you and talk to you about your symptoms, they can start to develop a treatment plan personalized to who you are. 
The therapist may work alongside you in the activity or talk to you as you complete it. As you receive experiential therapy treatment, you may delve into emotional issues that stem from childhood or recent trauma, abuse, grief, loss, substance use issues, or anger concerns. When you're faced with a challenge that evokes feelings you felt in the past, you can learn to address cognitive-behavioral responses in the moment. After addressing emotions and memories, you may have richer experiences and more profound positive feelings of happiness, joy, safety, self-esteem, and love. 

If you are facing or witnessing abuse of any kind, the National Domestic Violence Hotline is available 24/7 for support. Call 1-800-799-SAFE (7233) or text "START" to 88788. You can also use the online chat

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How can I find it?

Any therapist may use experiential techniques during mental health counseling. Standard techniques utilized include roleplay, puppetry, guided imagery, play therapy activities, and other forms of treatment which can take place within the confines of a traditional talk therapy session.

Several allied health professionals have additional training and are certified to provide experiential therapy in other ways. These providers include occupational therapists, art therapists, music therapists, and animal-assisted providers. They often receive extra training or licensing in their therapy method of choice, and sessions may be longer or differently structured. 

Where do experiential therapy sessions take place?

Experiential therapy often occurs in your therapist's office or an outpatient treatment center. If your therapist is trained in using experiential therapy techniques, they may add them to your sessions to help you address present feelings based on past experiences.

Some experiential therapy facilities may have facilities specifically structured to these types of therapy, such as an occupational room, craft center, bowling alley, swimming pool, or equine center. Therapy might also occur in a resort, retreat center, rehabilitation program, or recreational facility. 

Different types of experiential therapy

The types of activity that therapists choose for experiential therapy range from roleplaying exercises to challenging physical activities. Below are a few techniques you might try. 


Psychodrama is an experiential therapy in which a client acts out the role of a character while other clients take on supporting roles. The subject of the acting exercise is an unresolved conflict that the main character might want to address. For example, the client might act out a child talking to their parents about their needs while the group pretends to be their parents or other family. The therapist can guide the process to allow the client to find healing or restructure an event in a way that feels like closure to them. 


Therapists often use roleplaying exercises to help individuals practice social skills, rehearse a conversation, or see how another person might feel. For example, a parent and child trying a roleplaying exercise might pretend to be each other, saying what they might say during a conflict or conversation. Afterward, the therapist can ask the individuals what they felt about the exercise and how it gave them unique insights into the other person's role. 

Guided imagery

Your therapist may use guided imagery to recreate experiences from your past. This type of exercise consists of the therapist describing a scene while you picture what the therapist describes. Afterward, you can talk to the therapist about what you experienced and how it made you feel. The therapist can use this information to guide you in discussing how this affects your life in the present. 

Art therapy & crafting

Expressive art therapy allows clients to address painful emotions or symptoms through the expression of art and creation. Arts therapy may involve talk therapy, or the therapist and client might work on art simultaneously in silence. After the client has created a piece, they might talk to the therapist about its meaning or discuss their creative process. Types of art used in experiential therapy may include drawing, painting, sculpting, or making collages. 


Music can have many therapeutic benefits. For example, it is often utilized in treating clients living with dementia to increase cognitive function and memory. As music can be deeply connected to emotions, it may allow clients to understand their past experiences and connect to them more profoundly. Music therapy can consist of listening to and rating different songs, playing percussion instruments while listening to a recording, making art while listening to music, or watching someone play an instrument. The music therapist may do talk therapy between songs or at the end of the session.

Animal care

When people interact with animals, they may feel less guarded against emotions and empathetic feelings. As they take care of a living being, they may also begin nurturing themselves. Many clients feel connected with animals, as they can see them as innocent creatures that love them regardless of their concerns. This sensation may put them in touch with their inner child, who may be wounded from adverse childhood experiences. It is a commonly used technique for those experiencing post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

Not comfortable talking in therapy? Try experiential therapy

Play therapy

Play therapy is a type of experiential therapy often used for children. However, teens, adults, and individuals in groups might also utilize it. It can feel silly to play as an adult, but it may help you connect with your inner child. As you engage in a game of make-believe, storytelling, sand play, or any other play activity, you may be able to confront the part of yourself that edits your words before you speak. That open, honest child within you may have room for expression and emotional growth.

Challenge courses

Many inpatient hospitals, treatment centers, rehabilitation facilities, or outpatient mental health clinics include challenge courses or physical activity courses on their grounds. For example, there may be a ropes course, volleyball court, bowling alley, or obstacle course. Challenge courses give you intense physical activities to engage in that keep you grounded while presenting you with challenges. This type of experiential therapy may prove beneficial for those who like to express emotions through physical activity. In addition, physical exercise can improve mental health.

Experiential family therapy

Experiential family therapy is a group therapy in which families interact while doing an activity. Each individual may reveal more about themselves with each session. As conflict and problem-solving difficulties might arise during the team-building activity, the therapist can stop an activity to help families discuss their concerns and determine the reason for the conflict. 

Counseling options

Experiential therapy has various forms and can be practiced in a variety of environments. If you like the sound of this type of therapy but aren't sure you can afford it in your area, you can also take part in it online. Online therapists can conduct experiential therapies through video conferences. The clients are guided in an activity such as roleplaying or sculpting as they discuss their symptoms with their therapist.

In a study involving six participants in online occupational therapy, researchers found that the participants felt communication was more convenient than traditional therapy. Participants also reported that the software used was straightforward and posed few problems. Overall, participants rated their experiences positively. 

If you're ready to get started, an online platform like BetterHelp can work with you to find a therapist specializing in experiential therapy or another type of treatment. You can engage in fun activities in the comfort of your own home or wherever you have an internet connection at a time that works for your schedule. 

Counselor reviews

“Since I started working with Rainer she has given me a different perspective on how to handle work-related stress and how to deal with others at work. She has also given me Ideas on getting a better night's sleep such as no tv 1 hour before bed. Doing a Yoga Nidra to learn to completely relax before bed and in my last session she did a guided meditation with me which is something I haven't experienced since Covid started. She makes it very easy to understand the points she is trying to make to get me where I need to be to reduce stress in my life.”

“DeAndrea has been a godsend. She is patient, understanding, & honest. She has not only provided me with an outlet for my anxiety but given me tangible techniques to help myself & my family. I appreciate her open ear, warm personality, and words of advice. Looking forward to working with her more.”


Experiential therapy allows individuals, groups, families, and couples to try in-the-moment activities to address past distressing symptoms, adverse events, or suppressed emotions. If you're interested in trying experiential therapy, you can get started through an online platform or in person with a specialist in mental health and expressive activities. 

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