Experiential Therapy

What Is Experiential Therapy?

Experiential therapy is a therapeutic technique that uses expressive tools and activities, such as role-playing or acting, props, arts and crafts, music, animal care, guided imagery, or various forms of recreation to re-enact and re-experience emotional situations from past and recent relationships. The client focuses on the activities and, through the experience, begins to identify emotions associated with success, disappointment, responsibility, and self-esteem. Under the guidance of a trained experiential therapist, the client can begin to release and explore negative feelings of anger, hurt, or shame as they relate to past experiences that may have been blocked or still linger.

When It's Used

Experiential therapy is often used in the treatment of trauma, eating disorders, behavior disorders, anger management, grief and loss recovery, substance abuse, and various types of physical and behavioral addictions and compulsive behavior such as gambling. It is also recommended for those who wish to be free of painful, unhappy, or otherwise bad feelings from past experiences, to change the nature of their current and future relationships, and to live up to their full potential. Experiential therapy is offered in individual, clinical, and medical settings, including various recovery, treatment, and rehabilitation programs, in conjunction with different styles of traditional talk therapy.

What to Expect

Since experiential therapy is not necessarily one specific form of treatment, you may find yourself focusing on different types of “hands-on” interventions and experiences in addition to talk therapy. By participating in these interventions with guidance from a therapist, you can gain deeper access to your own emotional processing, creativity, inner thoughts, and interactions with others. At the same time, you learn to reflect on your experiences to more comfortably make your own choices and decisions as you move through life and free yourself to become  you. Your therapist will focus on your awareness and perceptions of what you are experiencing through these interventions, and help you explore the meaning of your emotions. Conversations with your therapist may take place while you are performing the activity or in a private counseling session.

How It Works

A fundamental premise of experiential therapy is that one’s perception determines one’s behavior. By re-experiencing and releasing repressed negative emotions from the past, the client is better able to experience positive feelings such as love, forgiveness, and calm in the present, changing their perception of reality. In practice, experiential therapy can take a variety of forms, and is client-centered—in that the client’s preferences for certain interventions should be honored. For instance, one client may be more attracted to animal-assisted therapy, while another is more interested in sculpture or drama as a form of expression.

What to Look for in an Experiential Therapist

For private counseling, look for a licensed and experienced clinician with additional training and experience in a specific experiential approach, such as art therapy or psychodrama. In addition to checking credentials, you should feel safe and comfortable working with the therapist you choose. In clinical or medical settings, stick with reputable, state-licensed or certified treatment centers staffed with licensed, professional, mental health care workers.

Sources

Greenberg LS, Safran J, Rice L. Experiential Therapy: Its relation to cognitive therapy. Comprehensive Handbook of Cognitive Therapy. 169-187.

Mahrer AR. Experiential Psychotherapy. Current Psychotherapies. Handbook of Innovative Therapies. 2001.