The Power of Experiential Therapy

/The Power of Experiential Therapy

At the bottom of every person’s dependency, there is always pain. Discovering the pain and healing it is an essential step in ending dependency.

― Chris Prentiss, The Alcoholism and Addiction Cure

The world of mental disorder treatment has long stood on a foundation of uncertainty.

Some say that these disorders can be cured by taking a pill with the proper chemical combination. Others say the key is counseling, therapy, and a strong social network.

But like so many things, the truth most likely lies in a combination of the two.

Along with other types of counseling, experiential therapy has long been used to treat a variety of mental disorders, from bulimia and depression to substance use disorders and anxiety.

But defining just what experiential therapy is takes some work. And that’s why we’re here to help you figure it out.

What’s the Role of Therapy in Rehab Centers?

Successfully treating a mental disorder takes more than just medication. Simply put, you can’t cure everything with a pill. And this principle holds true for substance use disorders too.

That’s why the most effective treatment programs include so many different kinds of therapies in addition to basic medical detox. While clearing out the illicit substances from the body is an important step in the process, it’s really only the first one.

The rest of a well-rounded treatment plan should involve a variety of additional therapies that are aimed not at ridding your body of toxins, but rather at helping you cope with the desire to put them back in.

This is for many the biggest challenge of overcoming a substance use disorder. While the withdrawals can be incredibly painful, unbearable at times, the real test is whether or not an addict can abstain from using again once they actually leave the facility.

And in order to learn how to do so, sufferers of addiction need to be taught a variety of life skills and strategies such as:

  • Stress management
  • How to set goals
  • Dealing with cravings
  • Prioritizing healthy needs
  • Emotional intelligence
  • Effective communication

That is one of the main functions of counseling and therapy in addiction treatment: to give you tools you need to deal with your substance use disorder and carve out a new, healthier approach to life.

Where Does Experiential Therapy Come In?

Another purpose of therapy in rehab is to get at the root of what caused your addiction in the first place. Sure, many drug use disorder cases might trace back to, say, easy access to the substance. That risk factor certainly didn’t help prevent it.

But addiction doesn’t happen overnight. And most experts agree that a single instance of abuse cannot cause physical dependence.

Instead, addiction is a pattern of behaviors that reinforce drug-seeking behavior. And many believe that this pattern can be linked back to deeper problems involving emotion, trauma, and the psyche.

Experiential therapy, then, tries to get at these problems not by discussing them in a traditional “talk therapy” environment, but rather by exposing users to certain experiences in the hopes of bringing repressed emotions to the surface.

Ideally, by addressing these underlying problems and emotions, the patient will be better able to deal with their cravings which stem from these same problems.

A Closer Look at Experiential Therapy Techniques

The fundamental principle behind many experiential therapies is to uncover and address subconscious issues that may have been influencing an individual’s drug-seeking behaviors.

And while this is a common aim for many different types of therapy, the way experiential therapy activities differ is that they try to bring about these issues with active, sensory, and usually physical experiences.

These experiences could include:

  • Painting
  • Role-playing
  • Hiking
  • Working with animals
  • Dancing
  • Sculpting

The goal here is to break down emotional barriers and act in a more genuine manner by taking the focus off of the therapy itself.

Often, the patient and the experiential therapist will process the experience together either during or after the activity. It’s this discussion about the thoughts and emotions that rose to the surface during the activity that helps the patient become more aware of their feelings.

And once these emotions are on the table, the patient and the therapist can work together to connect them back to significant memories, events, or feelings that could have had an impact on their continued substance abuse.

The Problem with Talk Therapy

With traditional talk therapy, the patient is acutely aware of the fact that they’re being observed and, as such, may not be completely open.

In fact, one of the most significant barriers to therapeutic success in such settings is that many patients, if not most of them, will end up lying to their counselors.

It could be an attempt to mask embarrassment and shame or it could be a subconscious defense mechanism. But either way, any technique that’s able to get at the underlying cause of an issue without having to deal with determining what’s true or not can be incredibly valuable in counseling sessions.

Influencers in Experiential Therapy: Carl Whitaker and Virginia Satir

Carl Whitaker is one of experiential therapy’s most notable names and proponents. A physician and psychotherapist, Whitaker focused his practice on family therapy.

He was one of the main contributors to forwarding the idea of providing therapy to the family as a whole rather than just to a single client.

He’s credited with being the co-developer of a system of family oriented therapy known as symbolic-experiential treatment. This unusual treatment method usually stressed spontaneity, instinct, and emotional honesty.

Virginia Satir’s conception of experiential therapy was similar to Whitaker’s and she too was instrumental in the spreading of experiential family therapy techniques.

To help bring about buried emotions and get at the heart of familial tensions and problems, Satir utilized strategies like:

  • Psychodrama
  • Family sculpting
  • Guided fantasy
  • Role playing

Both Whitaker and Satir believed that emotional suppression was directly responsible for a wide variety of problems and, as such, uncovering and grappling with these buried emotions was the key to overcoming many mental blocks.

Types of Experiential Therapy

Experiential therapy isn’t necessarily a single specific set of guidelines or rules. In fact, it’s more of an umbrella term for a number of different strategies and techniques.

What unites each of these experiential therapy interventions together is the common goal of breaking the client free from emotional suppression through activities other than just talk therapy.

Participants in these activities are encouraged to feel their emotions as they come about naturally, not bring them on artificially so they can be discussed and analyzed.

There are a few different types of experiential therapy and most agree that they can be broken down into three separate categories: expressive therapy, adventure therapy, and animal assisted therapy.

Expressive Therapies

These therapies are some of the more recognizable ones in world of treating mental disorders. They tend to focus on bringing about artistic expression in the patient and ultimately discussing that expression and how it relates to their overall problems.

Rehab centers are using these types of therapies more and more often in treating substance use disorders. Not only can they help stir up feelings and memories that have been deeply repressed, they’re also hobbies that can help reduce stress, build a skill, and can be taken outside of treatment centers, giving patients another way to cope with the anxieties of sober life.

Some of these types of therapies might include dance therapy, music therapy, writing therapy, and other artistic therapies.

Adventure Therapies

This category of experiential therapy techniques is characterized by experiential education gained through participating in outdoor tasks. These could include hiking and trekking or trying to accomplish a specific goal like completing rope courses or participating in a cooperative group game outdoors.

It differs from other therapies in that there is, at the heart of it, always a risk (physical and/or psychological) associated with these activities, whether it’s real or only perceived. By incorporating risk into the equation, many patients deal with feelings that would not have otherwise come about in a more traditional approach like talk therapy.

Like other forms of experiential therapy, the aim here is to shake free underlying problems and emotions and bring them to the surface so they can be addressed, discussed, and ultimately coped with in a healthy manner.

Adventure therapies are also especially powerful when it comes to promoting healthy attitudes and qualities like:

  • Increased self-esteem
  • Pro-social connection
  • Problem solving
  • Physical health
  • Honesty
  • Compassion
  • Teamwork
  • Self-Reliance

Animal-Assisted Therapy

The use of a service animal isn’t only for the physically disabled. In fact, animal-assisted therapy (AAT) is increasingly becoming one of the most effective methods for treating a range of behavioral and mental disorders as well.

This range of therapies can include a variety of levels of interaction with animals. It could be as simple as using basic observation of animals to bring about emotional issues or as involved as having a service pet that helps you cope with a severe emotional attack when no one else is around.

One of the most common types of AAT is equine/riding therapy which uses patient interaction with horses to assist with reducing aggression, emotional balance, and self-control.

Animal-Assisted Therapy

The use of a service animal isn’t only for the physically disabled. In fact, animal-assisted therapy (AAT) is increasingly becoming one of the most effective methods for treating a range of behavioral and mental disorders as well.

This range of therapies can include a variety of levels of interaction with animals. It could be as simple as using basic observation of animals to bring about emotional issues or as involved as having a service pet that helps you cope with a severe emotional attack when no one else is around.

One of the most common types of AAT is equine/riding therapy which uses patient interaction with horses to assist with reducing aggression, emotional balance, and self-control.

usually one client will be the focus of the treatment.

These representations can be performed on a stage (or “stage-like” area) along with props and set pieces. It’s overseen by a licensed psychodramatist that can help frame and direct the events so as to maintain a healthy progression through the activity.

The Family Sculpting Technique is a form of psychodrama that involves a single client directing the rest of the participants. It is usually a much more symbolic representation of the nature of the group structure.Psychodrama & the Family Sculpting Technique

Championed by Virginia Satir, the psychodramatic process is an interactive group therapy whereby the participants act out events from an individual’s past together.

A form of role-playing, the actors will engage in spontaneous dramatization and dramatic self-presentation to delve deeper into their emotional and psychological states. They’ll don different roles in the re-creation and

One family member, for example, may be directed to stand over the others to symbolize their domination in the group. Seeing these structures represented visually can lead to a rush of powerful feelings and emotions that the client and the psychotherapist can then discuss.

These techniques can be especially useful for combating emotional abuse as the abuse is represented physically rather than just emotionally or mentally.

Experiential Therapy: A New Form of Healing

A substance use disorder can be incredibly difficult to recover from. Physically, the process of withdrawal can be quite uncomfortable. But beyond that, maintaining the mental fortitude to fight off cravings and stay sober can be far more challenging.

But with experiential therapy, you can get at the true root of your problems that perpetuated the addiction in the first place. And once you do that, you can finally move on and get back to loving life now that you’re sober.

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By | 2017-10-09T18:53:32+00:00 October 9th, 2017|

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