The human psyche is a complex thing, but it cannot be argued that the things we experience play a major part in how our mind is shaped. Our experiences help inform our character, our thoughts, our beliefs, our ability to control our emotions, and our relationships with others, to name just a few aspects.
But when a person is experiencing great mental anguish, their experiences can also provide an important insight into how and why they feel that pain, and whether a certain psychoanalytical approach might help reduce negative symptoms and improve their mental well-being. When talk therapy fails, and conversation isn’t enough, it’s time to let actions speak.
This is where experiential therapy comes into play. Certain forms of therapy can be used to experience and re-experience the emotions we felt on a given day, help deal with traumatic events, and provide a healthy outlet for emotional pain. In other cases, experiential, hands-on therapy can help those who don’t feel comfortable tackling talk therapy sessions in a group setting or on an individual level.
For those who are more stoically inclined or reluctant to share, experience-based therapy can be another way to process emotions and thoughts, and help a professional get closer to the personal root of the issue.
What is Experiential Therapy?
An experiential therapy technique is any form of therapy that utilizes activities instead of conversation. In addition to activities, experiential therapies often utilize props and tools to give individuals an additional outlet for emotional trauma, or a means to explore their conscious and subconscious thoughts through their creativity, anger, or pain.
This type of therapy is supervised and guided by a professional therapist. While you might take up painting as a means to express yourself and translate your emotional pain into something tangible, this is not a form of therapy.
The professional component is needed – a therapist utilizes different activities to help individuals achieve similar mental health outcomes to other forms of talk therapy if these first-line treatment modalities fail.
Experiential-based therapy is usually also associated with trauma and is most often used in the treatment of trauma disorders like PTSD. The theory holds that a repressed memory might not be accessible through conventional recall, but will still linger in the subconscious, and can be accessed through roleplaying, through make-belief, or through creative endeavors such as songwriting and painting.
What Are Some Examples of Experiential Therapy?
The beauty of experiential therapies is that there will almost always be something for everyone. Experiential techniques can engage individuals in countless ways, through modalities such as:
- Animal-assisted therapy: this is a type of experiential therapy that utilizes caring for an animal or the presence of an animal to calm someone, and help them open up about their memories, experiences, thoughts, and feelings. In some cases, just having a cat in the room can help. In other cases, an individual may be invited to groom or pet the cat, or a different animal, as part of the treatment process. Some animals like horses are used to help foster positive one-on-one interactions, build empathy, and cultivate positive emotions.
- Art therapy: this is an experiential therapy technique that utilizes different mediums of visual art – from sculpting to pottery to painting or charcoal sketching – to provide individuals with a creative outlet during therapy sessions. Instead of using just words, individuals can begin to use visual metaphors, colors, motifs, and more to convey their emotions or associate certain forms of art with certain memories and experiences.
- Drama therapy: psychodrama or drama therapy utilizes roleplaying as a way to introduce or relive old memories from a different perspective, or in the context of an altogether different setting.
- And much more.
How Effective Is Experiential Therapy?
Revisiting the things that bring us nostalgia, but in the context of a professional therapeutic setting can elicit a greater cathartic feeling than other forms of therapy, but it may not always work well. Some mental health issues have a greater body of evidence associated with experiential therapy techniques than others.
Experiential therapy has been shown to be effective for:
- Helping couples work through relationship trauma and episodes of infidelity.
- Helping adults with attachment anxiety and other trauma-related disorders.
- Utilizing drama therapy helped significantly reduce PTSD symptoms in a study on trauma-focused experiential therapies.
- Eating disorders. A study focused on eating disorders showed better results in a group that was treated with talk therapy and experiential therapy, versus just talk therapy.
Which Type of Experiential Therapy is Best for Me?
Whereas modalities like cognitive behavioral therapy and dialectical behavior therapy emphasize dialogue and conversation, experiential therapies are explicitly about action. In this case, it helps to pick a type of action that you already enjoy or something you are interested in learning about, or may be adjacent to most of your interests.
Someone with a love for music will do better with music therapy than a narrative treatment. Someone who enjoys acting and roleplaying will enjoy drama therapy better than trying to discuss their favorite childhood tracks and songs, and what memories are associated with them.
It also helps to choose an activity or experiential therapy technique that matches closely with your interests as a child, or around the time of your trauma.
Call someone you know and ask them about your favorite childhood songs, for example. What music did you listen to the most around the time you began feeling sad? Which images or works of art evoke the greatest feelings of nostalgia or longing in your mind? What kind of pet did you have as a kid? What were your favorite movies or TV shows growing up?
Our experiential therapy programs at Amend Treatment can help individuals who might not respond well to talk therapy alone. Learn more by contacting us today!