As its name indicates, experiential therapy involves actions, movements, and activities rather than the more traditional “talk therapy.”
Developed in the 1970s, experiential therapy is a therapeutic approach that encourages patients to identify and address hidden or subconscious issues through activities such as role playing, guided imagery, the use of props, and a range of other active experiences.
Experiential therapy is actually a category, rather than one specific type of therapy. Examples of experiential therapy include recreation therapy, equine therapy, expressive arts therapy, music therapy, wilderness therapy, adventure therapy, and psychodrama.
One of the many advantages of experiential therapy is that the experiences and activities that form the core of the process provide opportunities for the therapist to observe patients in situations where the patients are not focused on the therapy itself.
For example, during an equine therapy session, the patient will likely be focused on completing an assigned task with a horse, and will be more likely to let his/her guard down than he or she would during a traditional individual or group talk therapy session.
What are the Benefits of Experiential Therapy?
As patients progress through structured experiential therapy activities under the guidance and supervision of an experiential therapist, they have the opportunity to experience successes, identify obstacles, develop improved self-esteem, and take greater responsibility for their actions.
Change, emotional growth, and personal empowerment are all among the benefits of participating in an effective experiential therapy program. Because experiential therapy patients are often focused on the task or activity at hand rather than on the therapeutic aspect of the experience they are more likely to behave in a more unguarded and genuine manner.
When the experiential therapist and the patient process the experience a discussion that may take place during or after the activity the patient receives specific feedback regarding specific actions or behaviors. At the same time, the patient has the opportunity to identify and evaluate the behaviors that he/she exhibited during experiential therapy, as well as the thoughts or prior experiences that may have prompted those behaviors.
Though not necessarily a primary focus of experiential therapy, the activities that patients participate in may also serve the purpose of providing them with new ways of filling leisure time or other “down times” during their daily lives.
This may be particularly important for individuals who are in treatment for substance abuse or addiction, as part of the recovery process involves finding healthy and productive leisure activities to fill the hours previously occupied by searching for, acquiring, and using alcohol or other drugs.
What Conditions/Disorders Does Experiential Therapy Treat?
Experiential therapy has been an effective component of comprehensive treatment programs for individuals who are struggling with a range of issues and disorders.
Experiential therapy has been successfully integrated into treatment programs for adults and teens who are being treated for substance abuse, addiction, behavior disorders, mood disorders, eating disorders, grief/loss, trauma, sex addiction, compulsive gambling, bipolar, depression and related conditions. (Hurst, M. (n.d.).
How can therapy help me?
A number of benefits are available from participating in therapy. Therapists can provide support, problem-solving skills, and enhanced coping strategies for issues such as depression, anxiety, relationship troubles, unresolved childhood issues, grief, stress management, body image issues and creative blocks. Many people also find that counselors can be a tremendous asset to managing personal growth, interpersonal relationships, family concerns, marriage issues, and the hassles of daily life. Therapists can provide a fresh perspective on a difficult problem or point you in the direction of a solution. The benefits you obtain from therapy depend on how well you use the process and put into practice what you learn. Some of the benefits available from therapy include:
Attaining a better understanding of yourself, your goals and values
Developing skills for improving your relationships
Finding resolution to the issues or concerns that led you to seek therapy
Learning new ways to cope with stress and anxiety
Managing anger, grief, depression, and other emotional pressures
Improving communications and listening skills
Changing old behavior patterns and developing new ones
Discovering new ways to solve problems in your family or marriage
Improving your self-esteem and boosting self-confidence
Do I really need therapy? I can usually handle my problems.
Everyone goes through challenging situations in life, and while you may have successfully navigated through other difficulties you've faced, there's nothing wrong with seeking out extra support when you need it. In fact, therapy is for people who have enough self-awareness to realize they need a helping hand, and that is something to be admired. You are taking responsibility by accepting where you're at in life and making a commitment to change the situation by seeking therapy. Therapy provides long-lasting benefits and support, giving you the tools you need to avoid triggers, re-direct damaging patterns, and overcome whatever challenges you face.
Why do people go to therapy and how do I know if it is right for me?
People have many different motivations for coming to psychotherapy. Some may be going through a major life transition (unemployment, divorce, new job, etc.), or are not handling stressful circumstances well. Some people need assistance managing a range of other issues such as low self-esteem, depression, anxiety, addictions, relationship problems, spiritual conflicts and creative blocks. Therapy can help provide some much needed encouragement and help with skills to get them through these periods. Others may be at a point where they are ready to learn more about themselves or want to be more effective with their goals in life. In short, people seeking psychotherapy are ready to meet the challenges in their lives and ready to make changes in their lives.
What is therapy like?
Because each person has different issues and goals for therapy, therapy will be different depending on the individual. In general, you can expect to discuss the current events happening in your life, your personal history relevant to your issue, and report progress (or any new insights gained) from the previous therapy session. Depending on your specific needs, therapy can be short-term, for a specific issue, or longer-term, to deal with more difficult patterns or your desire for more personal development. Either way, it is most common to schedule regular sessions with your therapist (usually weekly).
It is important to understand that you will get more results from therapy if you actively participate in the process. The ultimate purpose of therapy is to help you bring what you learn in session back into your life. Therefore, beyond the work you do in therapy sessions, your therapist may suggest some things you can do outside of therapy to support your process - such as reading a pertinent book, journaling on specific topics, noting particular behaviors or taking action on your goals. People seeking psychotherapy are ready to make positive changes in their lives, are open to new perspectives and take responsibility for their lives.
What about medication vs. psychotherapy?
It is well established that the long-term solution to mental and emotional problems and the pain they cause cannot be solved solely by medication. Instead of just treating the symptom, therapy addresses the cause of our distress and the behavior patterns that curb our progress. You can best achieve sustainable growth and a greater sense of well-being with an integrative approach to wellness. Working with your medical doctor you can determine what's best for you, and in some cases a combination of medication and therapy is the right course of action.
Do you take insurance, and how does that work?
To determine if you have mental health coverage through your insurance carrier, the first thing you should do is call them. Check your coverage carefully and make sure you understand their answers. Some helpful questions you can ask them:
What are my mental health benefits?
What is the coverage amount per therapy session?
How many therapy sessions does my plan cover?
How much does my insurance pay for an out-of-network provider?
Is approval required from my primary care physician?
Does what we talk about in therapy remain confidential?
Confidentiality is one of the most important components between a client and psychotherapist. Successful therapy requires a high degree of trust with highly sensitive subject matter that is usually not discussed anywhere but the therapist's office. Every therapist should provide a written copy of their confidential disclosure agreement, and you can expect that what you discuss in session will not be shared with anyone. This is called “Informed Consent”. Sometimes, however, you may want your therapist to share information or give an update to someone on your healthcare team (your Physician, Naturopath, Attorney), but by law your therapist cannot release this information without obtaining your written permission.
However, state law and professional ethics require therapists to maintain confidentiality except for the following situations:
* Suspected past or present abuse or neglect of children, adults, and elders to the authorities, including Child Protection and law enforcement, based on information provided by the client or collateral sources.
* If the therapist has reason to suspect the client is seriously in danger of harming him/herself or has threated to harm another person.