Experiential therapy is a non-traditional form of psychiatric treatment that uses engaging, hands-on activities that take place outside of a therapist’s office. This therapeutic modality has been used to treat a variety of mental health issues, from trauma to eating disorders. It has also been utilized successfully in the treatment of drug and alcohol addiction.
People suffering from addiction aren’t always the type of person that you would expect to see in a therapist’s office. Many of them know they need help but may be unwilling to participate in traditional forms of talk therapy. By taking therapy out of the office and into the world, Experiential Therapy allows addicts and alcoholics to open up about their emotions in an organic, interactive way.
What is Experiential Therapy
Experiential therapies are real-world activities that are designed to cause a shift in a person’s perception of themselves and their environment. These therapies provide people with a safe place to explore complicated thoughts and challenging emotions and to create meaningful connections between them to develop healthy coping skills. With the guidance of a skilled therapist, this technique can help individuals live in the present, without running to their drug of choice to deal with uncomfortable emotions and situations.
Some experiential therapies include:
- Equine Therapy
- Canine Therapy
- Art therapy
- Play Therapy
- Music Therapy
- Dance Therapy
- Ceramic Therapy
- Stage performance
- Creative writing/poetry
- Adventure Therapy
- Wilderness Therapy
- Gestalt (role play with an chair)
- Guided imagery, focusing on mental images
The common thread among this diverse collection of activities is that they are all action-oriented. By focusing on an experience rather than a conversation, Experiential Therapy demonstrates the skills and lessons that the therapist wishes to impart to the patient rather simply explaining it to them.
For example, in equine therapy, the patient is instructed to put a bridle on a horse. What the patient soon realizes is that they can’t manipulate the horse into cooperating. They see firsthand that they are powerless over the horse. They cannot force the horse to bend to their will through physical means. This experience teaches them humility as they attempt to deal with their shortcomings and must try different tactics to accomplish their goal. They will also get nowhere by blaming the horse or other participants, this is a one on one activity that requires patience and empathy. Equine Therapy rewards authentic, genuine feelings with pride and happiness.
Can Experiential Therapy Be Used to Treat Addiction?
A lot of addiction treatment centers use Experiential Therapy in conjunction with more traditional forms of psychotherapy like Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) and Dialectical Behavioral Therapy (DBT) to treat drug and alcohol addiction. Along with a medical detox and a twelve step program, this comprehensive treatment method has helped a lot of people achieve sobriety. Treating addiction is a very complex task. It is often difficult to determine which techniques are effective and which are superfluous when a concert of techniques are performed in a relatively short amount of time. However, the ability of Experiential Therapy to allow patients to participate in their recovery and learn lessons through trial and error has been proven to be effective in teaching people who suffer from addiction how to deal with the obstacles that they will inevitably face in the future.
Unfortunately, you cannot talk an addict into getting sober. Recovery from drug and alcohol addiction cannot be taught the way you can teach a person long division. In fact, patients who attempt to solve their addiction intellectually often end up becoming frustrated and depressed. By trying to control or minimize their addiction they will undoubtedly fail again and again, leading them to beat themselves up to the point where they erode their self-esteem. After multiple unsuccessful attempts to get sober on their own they may consider themselves a failure or think of themselves as morally flawed, weak-willed, and unworthy of a happy life. It is this type of patient that benefit the most from Experiential Therapy.
A huge part of Alcoholics Anonymous’ 12-Step Program is the “Spiritual Awakening” this is described as a psychic change that alters the way a person interacts with the world. This phenomenon is experienced differently by different people, but it basically involves an overhaul of a person’s perspective. More often than not, this is the result of an experience not as a result of receiving information. Experiential Therapy attempts to create a similar experience for addicts in recovery. The desire is to create an “ah-ha” moment when a patient comes to a conclusion based on their experiences. By focusing on the task at hand, not the process of therapy itself, patients tend to be less guarded and are more open to exhibit authentic reactions and emotions. Through mirroring the way that people learn and create behavioral patterns in real life, not the classroom, Experiential Therapy gets results unattainable through other forms of talk therapy.
Addiction is seen as a three-dimensional illness. This disorder affects a person physically, emotionally and spiritually. Similarly, the treatment of addiction must also seek to help a person recover their physical body, emotional stability and spiritual malady. Experiences tap into the emotional and spiritual aspects of recovery. This opens the way for patients to embrace their emotions fully and see themselves as a spiritual being that exists beyond their immediate circumstances. For example, if an Experiential Therapy involved hiking to the top of a mountain, the patient may feel physically exhausted, they may not think they are able able to reach the summit. They may be so tired that they want to give up and return home in defeat. But if they are able to push passed those immediate feelings and work through the preconceived expectations of what they are capable of, then they prove to themselves that they are capable of overcoming their immediate desires in order to accomplish a greater goal, one that they never thought possible.
This experience can then be reflected back on when the patient finds themselves back in their day-to day-life. If they come across a trigger or a stressor that makes them crave their drug of choice, they can reflect back on their prior experience and the lessons that they learned. Because this was an experience, not a lesson in a book, it will be a vivid memory with a sight, a smell, and a feeling of triumph attached to it. The person can then apply this lesson to their present circumstance and decide to rise above their immediate need to numb themselves with drugs or alcohol. They can peer through the clouds and see the mountaintop. Refocused with the determination of someone who knows the path ahead of them, they can trudge passed the temptation and move on with purpose toward their goal.
If you or a loved one is suffering from drug or alcohol addiction, help is available to you.
Contact Southern California Sunrise Recovery Center Today.