Experiential therapy is a category of therapeutic techniques in which expressive tools and activities—such as role-playing or acting, props, arts and crafts, music, animal care, guided imagery, or various forms of recreation—are used to allow clients to re-enact and re-experience emotional situations from their past or their relationships. The objective of experiential therapy is to focus on the activities and, through these experiences, better identify emotions associated with success, disappointment, responsibility, and self-esteem. Under the guidance of a trained experiential therapist, the client can explore and cope with feelings of anger, hurt, or shame, related to their past experiences, that may have been ignored or pushed away previously.
Examples of experiential therapy include animal-assisted therapy, play therapy, art therapy, music therapy, drama therapy, and wilderness therapy. Because experiential therapy is a broad term, some methods are better researched than others; in general, studies on experiential therapy tend to be small and efficacy is mixed overall. That said, research suggests that some types of experiential therapy can provide at least some mental health benefits and may help people function better in everyday life. Music therapy has been linked to reduced stress and better sleep, for example, while some small studies suggest that art therapy can help individuals with personality disorders, eating disorders, or PTSD better cope with their symptoms. Some types of experiential therapy, such as equine-assisted therapy, currently have inconclusive evidence in their favor, though research is ongoing. Thus, it can be helpful for potential clients to look into the specific approach they’re interested in to see if its benefits have been well-established.
Experiential therapy may be used to treat a wide range of psychiatric disorders and life challenges, including trauma, eating disorders, behavior disorders, anger management, grief, and loss; it is also regularly used as one component of substance abuse treatment. It may also be recommended for individuals who don’t have diagnosable disorders but who struggle with painful, unhappy, or otherwise bad feelings from past experiences or who simply desire to change the nature of their current and future relationships.
Experiential therapy may be offered in individual, clinical, and medical settings, including various recovery, treatment, and rehabilitation programs. It is usually performed in conjunction with different styles of traditional talk therapy, though certain types may also be practiced in isolation. Many types of experiential therapy can be practiced on children, teens, and adults; some, such as play therapy, tend to focus predominantly on one age group.
Since experiential therapy is not just one form of treatment, a client may find him- or herself focusing on different types of “hands-on” interventions and experiences in addition to talk therapy. The practice tends to be client-centered, in that the client’s preferences for certain interventions should be solicited and honored whenever possible. Some therapists specialize in one form of experiential therapy, while others incorporate more than one type (for example, a combination of art therapy and drama therapy) into their practice.
In practice, experiential therapy can take a variety of forms. Some commonly used techniques include psychodrama, in which the client creates and performs a brief play based on a past life event that caused or continues to cause distress. Re-enacting this situation in a safe space, sometimes more than once, is thought to allow the client to process and let go of negative emotions triggered by the event, as well as develop more adaptive ways of responding to similar situations in the future.
During music therapy, clients may be asked to recall songs from their childhood and verbally explore the memories associated with them, or perhaps write and perform a song that explores a current conflict in their life. In equine-assisted therapy, it is common for clients to guide horses through a brief obstacle course, in order to gain the animal's trust and manage their own emotional reactions related to caring for such a large, powerful animal.
The therapist will focus on the client’s awareness and perceptions of what they are experiencing through these interventions, and help them explore the meaning of their emotions. Such conversations with the therapist may take place while the client is performing the activity or in a counseling session afterward.
A fundamental premise of experiential therapy is that one’s perception determines one’s behavior. By harnessing various types of creative expression to re-experience and release negative emotions, the client may experience positive feelings such as love, forgiveness, and calm in the present.
By participating in experiential interventions with guidance from a therapist, the client is thought to gain deeper access to their own emotional processing, creativity, inner thoughts, and motivations that drive their interactions with others. At the same time, they will learn to reflect on their experiences to more comfortably make their own choices and decisions. Many forms of experiential therapy also call on the client to directly confront a situation or memory that is troubling to them; in this way, experiential therapy can help clients resolve internal conflicts that have long been ignored.
For private counseling, interested clients should look for a licensed and experienced clinician with additional training and experience in experiential therapy; if they are particularly interested in a specific experiential approach, such as art therapy or psychodrama, they can seek a therapist who has pursued training or certifications in this area. In addition to checking credentials, clients should feel safe and comfortable working with the therapist they choose. In clinical or medical settings, it’s important to stick with reputable, state-licensed or certified treatment centers staffed with licensed, professional, mental healthcare workers.