The Benefits of Experiential Therapy

Experiential therapy is a type of therapy that allows patients to use expressive tools, activities, and other methods to reenact or recreate specific situations from past and present situations in their lives. Patients engage in role-playing and use props, music, or art to help bring awareness to certain thoughts and emotions that have influenced and are influencing their successes, disappointments, responsibilities, and self-esteem.Overall, experiential therapy helps individuals analyze and release negative thoughts and emotions that are associated with certain memories or situations they may be subconsciously or consciously blocking out or denying. Healthy coping mechanisms are taught during experiential therapy exercises to set clients up for life after addiction treatment.

Specific Benefits

Experiential therapy is helpful in treating trauma, behavioral disorders, intense anger, eating disorders, grief, drug addiction, and compulsive behaviors. People are able to cope with past pains and harmful memories. It can also be helpful for those who are wanting to change their current or future relationships with others.The benefits of experiential therapy ultimately differ from person to person. However, most people usually learn to release negative emotions. They also learn how to cope with painful memories and the guilt and shame attached to them.

What Does Experiential Therapy Treat?

Experiential therapy can be used to treat a wide variety of disorders and afflictions with success. These include:

  • Addiction
  • Dual diagnosis
  • Trauma
  • Family conflict & communication issues
  • Eating disorders
  • Adolescent behavioral problems

Where Does Experiential Therapy Take Place?

Clinical, medical, or individual psychology practices typically utilize forms of experiential therapy. However, it can occasionally occur in rehabilitation programs alongside other talk therapy treatments such as cognitive-behavioral therapy or dialectical behavioral therapy.

Types of Experiential Therapy

Equine Therapy

Equine therapy has patients interact with horses through feeding, grooming, haltering, and leading horses. Behavior patterns as well as thoughts and emotions are identified and discussed with the mental health professional on-site.


Patients undergo role-playing and group dynamics to help bring awareness to certain emotional conflicts and concerns through action methods.

Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR)

This has patients visualize certain traumatic events while being directed through different eye movements by the therapist. It can help alleviate negative emotions and distress that led the individual to addiction.

Art Therapy

Through non-verbal communication, individuals are able to express their thoughts and feelings through the artistic process. This way they can work through the distress and negative emotions brought upon by past situations in a healthy and productive way.

Adventure Therapy

This includes individuals doing outdoor activities such as camping, biking, hiking, rock climbing, running, and white water rafting, among others. Usually done in a group setting, this helps the group work through and improve communication skills, build problem-solving skills, help with personal responsibility, and work on trusting others.

Play Therapy

Typically used for treating children, a therapist examines a child’s emotions through the observation of playtime. It can help children cope with trauma and learn appropriate behaviors.

Music Therapy

Music therapy has patients create, move to, sing-along with, and listen to music to help improve mental, physical, and emotional help. Under the guidance of a music therapist, patients explore and learn to cope with their emotions, and thoughts associated with different concerns such as mental health, trauma, addiction, and others.

How Does Experiential Therapy Work?

The foundation of experiential therapy is that one’s perception determines one’s behavior. It works by having patients relive or re-experience their repressed negative thoughts and emotions from their past. By reliving these, patients are able to learn positive emotions and feelings such as forgiveness, love, and peace in their present lives.Overall, it changes the person’s perception of reality rather than focusing solely on past negative events and memories. In the beginning, clients are asked to do a task that may initially seem unrelated to recovery and the actual therapy session.While the task is taking place, clients are asked to explain what they are thinking and feeling. They also begin to become aware of certain emotions that the body or mind was hiding. Typically, these emotions are associated with a trauma that the patient experienced in the past.Details of what is happening during the activity are pointed out by the therapist. For example:

  • During an art therapy session, a client may be asked to draw a picture of their parents.
  • As the drawing begins to take shape, the therapist will begin to point out details.
  • If the drawing depicts the parents as big and threatening, the client is asked why they drew them this way.
  • The feelings and experiences that caused the client to draw their parents in this way will be discussed for further insight.

Experiential Therapy for Addiction Treatment

Experiential therapy helps recovering addicts deal with everyday stressors and triggers. This can include triggers that remind them of their addiction, cravings, and other negative things associated with the addiction. For example, a recovering addict taking place in adventure therapy such as hiking or rock climbing is stimulating real-world stress. This way, they are able to learn how to overcome the stress in the present moment.Experiential therapy is especially helpful in addiction treatment because it provides more space for mental healing and more accurate evaluations by the medical professional or therapist. Recovering addicts are typically less guarded and on-edge during experiential therapy.

Is Experiential Therapy Right for Me?

Experiential therapy is good for those that:

  • Endured physical or sexual abuse in the past
  • Have a dual diagnosis along with their addiction
  • Feel uncomfortable talking about their past
  • Have trouble expressing thoughts and feelings without getting angry, defensive, or upset
  • Show happiness when animals, art, or music, are part of their recovery process

Experiential therapy is a modern approach to mental health and addiction treatment that treats the whole person. Individuals are able to relive and reenact experiences associated with their past and learn to overcome the negative emotions that are attached to them. NorthStar Transitions utilizes experiential therapy alongside other forms of evidence-based therapy to give their clients the best chance at long term recovery. To learn more about how experiential therapy can help you, contact NorthStar at (303) 558-6400.

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