Exploring Experience Through Experiential Therapy
By: Julia Thomas
Updated January 05, 2021
Medically Reviewed By: Aaron Horn
We often hear, or say to ourselves, "The past is in the past. What's important is today." In a way, this is true. After all, you can't go back and relive the past. Healthy communication generally takes place in the here and now. But, what do you do if your past is preventing you from enjoying all the present has to offer you? Experiential therapy offers a wonderful answer to this question.
What Is Experiential Therapy?
Experiential therapy is a type of mental health treatment that can help you deal with past events and apply your learning to your current situation. It involves taking part in hands-on activities, such as expressive arts or physical challenges.
Experiential therapy isn't just about experiencing something in the here-and-now, though. Taking part in these activities may bring up intense emotions you'd never fully experienced before. You may confront your fears, your insecurities, your feelings of failure, and your sadness from days gone by that are still affecting your life now.
Who It's For
The people who gain most from experiential therapy are those who have trouble talking about painful times in their lives or otherwise expressing their deepest emotions. People who have been abused may be able to get in touch with the pain of those experiences, That way, they can process those feelings in healthier ways.
People with substance use disorders, compulsions, or eating disorders are good candidates for this type of therapy as well. People with issues of grief and loss can come to terms with those emotions. Families who have poor interpersonal functioning can learn to get along in healthier ways. Individuals who have patterns of unhealthy relationships can get to the root of the problems and discover what goes wrong within the relationships. They can forge a stronger and healthier identity as someone who deserves to be happy.
How It Works
Typically, experiential therapy is only a part of the therapy you receive. It is often used in conjunction with talk therapies such as cognitive behavioral therapies. Usually, the first thing that happens is your therapist or someone in charge of the activity provides an introduction to the activity along with rules or instructions on how to do it. During the experiential therapy activity, bad feelings may come up. This is a good thing because it allows you to explore those feelings and resolve the issues they've caused for you.
Seeing you in unguarded moments as you struggle to express your feelings or meet some physical challenge gives the therapist a clearer picture of who you are as a person and what types of things are most painful to you. This gives them greater insight into what you need and how they can best help you.
The therapist may work with you as you engage in the activity and/or provide talk therapy later to explore the impact of the activity. You may delve into emotional issues that stemmed from childhood or recent trauma, abuse, grief, loss, substance use issues, or anger issues. When you're faced with a challenge that evokes the same feelings as a past trauma, you have the opportunity to sort through it, feel it, understand it, and move on. Once you deal with your negative feelings, you may begin to have richer experiences and more profound positive feelings of happiness, joy, safety, self-esteem, and love for others in your life.
Who Provides Experiential Therapy?
Any therapist may use experiential techniques during sessions. Unless the therapist has special training, activities are typically limited to role-play, puppetry, guided imagery, and other therapies that can take place easily within the confines of an ordinary session of talk therapy.
Several types of allied health professionals are certified to provide experiential therapy. These include occupational therapists, art therapists, music therapists, and more. If you're inpatient in a medical or psychiatric facility, you may be able to participate in several different types of experiential therapy while you are there.
Allied Health Professionals
Where Does Experiential Therapy Take Place?
Often, experiential therapy takes place in your therapist's office. If your therapist is trained in using experiential techniques, they may add it to your sessions to help you deal with specific issues that come up. Typical experiential therapies used in an ordinary therapist's office include role-playing, puppet play, and guided imagery.
Some facilities even have a ropes course or other challenge-type courses on their grounds. They may be set up to provide animal-care therapy as well as various recreational therapies. Sometimes, therapy might take place in a resort, retreat center, or recreational facility equipped for this type of therapy.
Types of Experiential Therapy
The types of activity that therapists choose for experiential therapy range from simple role-playing exercises to intense challenge courses. The following is a partial list of the types of therapy that may be available to you.
Usually done in a group setting, psychodrama is an experiential therapy in which a client acts out the role of the main character while other clients take on supporting roles. The subject of the acting exercise is an unresolved conflict that the main character needs to deal with.
Therapists often use role-playing exercises to help people see what other significant people in their lives feel and to see the situation from their perspective. A mother and child doing a role-playing exercise might pretend to be the other one, saying what they might say and acting the way they do.
The therapist and the client both use puppets to act out traumatic experiences from the client's past. In the case of family experiential therapy, each family member would use a puppet to represent themselves as they act out family issues. Puppet therapy works because people sometimes find it easier to put emotional words in the mouths of their puppets than to address the problem directly as themselves.
Your therapist may use guided imagery to recreate negative and positive experiences from your recent or long-ago past. This merely 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 a discussion of how this affects your life now.
Sand Tray Therapy
Therapists often use sand tray therapy for children, but adults and families can also benefit from it. In sand tray therapy, you're given a tray of sand and small objects such as toys, action figures, etc. As you build a scene, the therapist notices how you work, what frustrates you, what makes you happy, and if you're working together in a family group, what problems family members have working together. The talk portion of this therapy can happen before, during and/or after the sand play.
Expressive art therapy allows clients to get in touch with deeply negative emotions they've repressed before. They don't have to speak at all as they dive into the emotional turmoil they've never felt or dealt with up to that point. Once they reveal their feelings, talk may come easier as the therapist helps them make sense of what has happened. Types of art used in experiential therapy may include drawing, painting, sculpting, and making collages.
When you're doing crafts in experiential therapy, you might find yourself easily sliding into thoughts and feelings from the past. One of the reasons for this is that you're focused on the activity at hand and not guarding against those thoughts and feelings. A savvy art therapist can use those moments wisely to help you examine what has happened, how you felt about it, and how it's still affecting you now.
Music, as is often said, is the universal language. It isn't a language of words, but of deep emotions. Music therapy can consist of listening to and rating different songs, playing percussion instruments while listening to a recording or live music, or even drawing pictures of what the song says to you. The music therapist may do talk therapy between songs or at the end of the session.
When people interact with animals, something almost magical happens. As they take care of a dog or a horse, they may begin nurturing themselves as well. They feel a connection with the animal, knowing that it doesn't judge them and that they're doing something for it that it can't do for itself. This may put them in touch with their inner child, a child who may be wounded from childhood trauma or abuse.
Play therapy is a type of experiential therapy often used for children. However, teens, adults, and family groups can also benefit from it. As you all engage in a game of make-believe, storytelling, sand play, or any other play activity your therapist suggests, you may be able to get past the part of yourself that edits your words before you speak. That open, honest child within you has room for expression and emotional growth.
Often, medical and psychiatric facilities have their own challenge courses on the grounds. One of the most popular types is a ropes course. Challenge courses give you intense physical activities to engage in that keep you grounded in the here-and-now while presenting you with what might be similar challenges to the ones that caused you emotional pain in the past. You're in a situation in which you can't give up easily or withdraw into yourself. This may bring up intense emotions, giving you a chance to experience them and put them in the past.
Adventure therapy is usually done away from the clinical setting. Common adventure therapy activities include white-water rafting, obstacle courses, rock-climbing, hiking, camping, and bicycling. This type of therapy is done in groups and often with teens. You get a chance to solve your own problems, learn to take the initiative to accomplish tasks, accept personal responsibility, become more self-aware, practice getting along with others, and adapt to working as a team. Challenge courses can also be used for adventure therapy.
Experiential Family Therapy
Experiential family therapy is a kind of group therapy in which family members interact while doing an activity. Each member reveals more about themselves with each session. Any poor interaction patterns may come up during the activity. The therapist may stop the activity long enough to deal with this new information or discuss it during group talk afterward.
Online therapists can conduct experiential therapies through video conferences. The clients are guided in an activity such as role-playing or sculpting as they discuss their issues with their therapist.
In a study involving 6 participants in online occupational therapy, the outcome showed that the participants found that communication was easy for this mode of treatment. Participants also shared that the software used was straightforward and posed few problems. Overall, participants rated their experiences as positive.
How BetterHelp Can Support You
If you're ready to begin therapy now, counselors are available at BetterHelp to work with you. You can engage in these activities in the comfort of your own home or wherever you have an internet connection and at a time that’s convenient for you.
If your family is interested in improving the way you interact with each other, an online therapist can work together with you in experiential family therapy to help you develop healthier relationships. BetterHelp is only one click away. It all begins with your desire to live a better life. Below are some reviews of BetterHelp counselors from people experiencing similar issues.
“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 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 my 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.”
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