What is Experiential Therapy?

For some recovering addicts, the idea of sitting passively in a therapist's office and discussing their feelings is tantamount to torture. Experiential therapy, originally developed in the 1970s, endeavors to conquer this challenge by offering therapy clients a chance to directly address the challenges they face rather than just talking about them. Experiential therapy is not a single type of therapy, but rather a group of approaches, making it extremely important to choose a skilled and experienced therapist who knows what he or she is doing.

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What is Experiential Therapy?

What is Experiential Therapy?

Experiential therapy, as the name implies, works to help a client experience his or her emotions and challenges rather than just passively talking about them. Experiential therapy also allows the therapist to observe the client in his or her "natural" environment. For instance, a client who has difficulty in social situations might act out a typical conversation. Observing the client as he or she does so enables the therapist to better identify - and treat - potential challenges that might not otherwise come out within the walls of therapy.

Unlike some other forms of therapy, experiential therapy is not formulaic. Thus one therapist's approach to experiential therapy might look very different from another's approach. Ultimately, it's up to the therapist to decide what sorts of experiences might best benefit a client, but common themes include:

  • Doing something the client enjoys, such as sports or horseback riding, while engaged in traditional talk therapy.
  • Acting out a conflict the client frequently experiences. This can be a conflict with a specific person, or a more generalized conflict, such as the conflict between pleasing others and living one's own life.
  • Taking on the role of another person, or having the therapist take on the role of someone in the client's life.
  • Re-living the emotions associated with a previous event. For instance, a client who struggles with performance anxiety might be asked to recall a challenging performance then share her emotions about it.

In most cases, experiential therapy blends elements of other, more traditional approaches to therapy, so it's not uncommon to hear that a therapist practices experiential therapy and, say, cognitive-behavioral therapy or dialectical behavioral therapy.

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Is Experiential Therapy Effective?

Is Experiential Therapy Effective?

Research into the effectiveness of experiential therapy is mixed, and testing experiential therapy is inherently challenging. Because there's no one way to practice experiential therapy, therapists vary greatly in terms of approach and effectiveness. Consequently, it's hard to devise well-controlled studies to test this approach to mental health treatment.

In general, research suggests that, when experiences are used properly and occur within the context of research-backed approaches to therapy - such as interpersonal therapy or cognitive-behavioral therapy - it can be highly effective. Some research suggests that experiential therapy is a better option for children, people with intellectual disabilities, and those who feel uncomfortable discussing their feelings in more direct ways.

Is Experiential Therapy Effective?

A good experiential therapist carefully evaluates the client and gets to know her before exploring experiential approaches. Some experiences can be painful or even damaging without proper preparation, so one of the key predictors of success is your therapist's ability to read your emotions, predict what might help, and implement clear strategies for success.

Experiential therapy can take anywhere from a few weekly sessions to many months or years. For this reason, it's important to get a clear picture about how long therapy will take when you begin therapy. Otherwise you could be signing up for much more - or significantly less - than you expected.

How Long is Experiential Therapy?

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How to Choose an Experiential Therapist

How to Choose an Experiential Therapist

It's important to note also that, regardless of the therapeutic approach you select, the single biggest predictor of therapy's success is a strong and trusting relationship between you and your therapist. Thus it's important to do your homework and ask plenty of questions. If you're in rehab and a therapist is assigned to you, don't be afraid to speak up if therapy is not working. If you're tasked with choosing your own therapist, consider asking the following questions to ensure you get the best possible therapist for your needs:

  • How long have you practiced experiential therapy?
  • Are you a licensed therapist? Can I see your license?
  • Have you ever been disciplined by a professional board?
  • Am I a good candidate for experiential therapy?
  • Do you use any other approaches to therapy?
  • How do you decide which experiences are appropriate to have at what times?
  • What happens if an experience is upsetting or traumatic for me?
  • If therapy doesn't work, what will we do?
  • How will I know I am making progress?
  • How will we determine if you and I are a good fit to work together?

Our experiences color every aspect of our lives, so it makes good sense that experiential therapy might change the way we feel about those experiences and themselves. If you're hoping for more than just discussing your emotions or sharing your memories, experiential therapy might help you get it.

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What is Experiential Therapy