What Is Experiential Therapy?

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What Is Experiential Therapy?

When we think of therapy, talk therapy generally comes to mind. Experiential therapy on the other hand, like the name suggests, is a form of therapy that involves immersing yourself in a certain experience. 

This form of therapy uses tools like role-playing, psychodrama, music, poetry, arts and crafts, props, animal interactions, and outdoor excursions.

“Experiential therapy is distinguished by its emphasis on action. Action is important because when a person is bodily engaged, they have access to psychological elements they wouldn’t have access to otherwise. Action can also be a precursor to change—by acting in a new way, a person can think in new ways,” says Sabrina Romanoff, PsyD, a professor and clinical psychologist in New York City.

Types of Experiential Therapy

There are several types of experiential therapy. Romanoff outlines some of the types below:

  • Drama therapy: Also known as psychodrama, drama therapy is the most common form of experiential therapy. It involves re-enacting or re-creating conflictual situations in a safe setting, to help you release any negative or suppressed emotions associated with that situation.
  • Music therapy: Music therapy uses music to create positive changes in behavior.
  • Art therapy: Art therapy uses creative artistic processes and tools to help you work through conflicts and become more aware of yourself. Tools in art therapy include painting, sculpting, and drawing.
  • Play therapy: This form of therapy, which is usually used with children, capitalizes on therapeutic play to work through psychological difficulties that children may not be able to express through words.
  • Outdoor therapy: Outdoor therapy includes wilderness therapy and adventure therapy. It combines wilderness excursions, adventure activities, and therapy sessions. 
  • Animal-assisted therapy: Interacting with animals and caring for them can be therapeutic. Animal-assisted therapy sessions can include animals like dogs or horses. 

Techniques

The techniques used can vary depending on the type of experiential therapy.

“Psychodrama is perhaps the approach that people most associate with experiential therapy. It involves re-creating crucial situations from past and present relationships with the goal of working on specified therapeutic outcomes in the form of a drama,” says Romanoff. She describes this therapy technique below.

Psychodrama

In psychodrama, the person develops a situation that occurred in their life into a play. The situation may be one that occurred many years ago. The psychodrama brings it into the here and now, where it can be actively dealt with. 

Psychodrama gives the person the opportunity to play a role and re-enact the situation in a safe space. It creates a space between fantasy and reality, which allows the person to develop new ways of responding to the situation. With each re-enactment, the person moves toward a more adaptive way of responding to the situation. 

This method also allows the person to pause in the middle of a situation, in order to process what just occurred. Participants are typically provided with clear boundaries between fantasy and reality. For instance, an area or a rug may be used to mark the “stage.” 

What Experiential Therapy Can Help With

These are some of the mental health conditions experiential therapy can help treat:

Benefits of Experiential Therapy

These are some of the benefits of experiential therapy:

  • Situational resolution: Experiential therapy can help you explore or re-create traumatic or conflictual situations from the past and understand your response to them. In addition, it can help you release any negative emotions you were harboring and promote healing. 
  • Emotional processing: An intensity of emotion emerges in this type of therapy that is unique and allows for more in-depth emotional processing, says Romanoff.
  • Reduced avoidance: You may tend to avoid thoughts, people, places, or conversations related to difficult situations you’ve experienced. Confronting them can help you deal with them and reduce avoidance.
  • Altered perspectives: Psychodrama allows you to experience a situation from the point of view of others involved. It can help you see their perspective and understand their motivations. Over time, it can lead to acceptance, forgiveness, and love.
  • Creative expression: Creative forms of experiential therapy, such as music therapy, art therapy, and drama therapy, can help you express yourself creatively.

Effectiveness

“This form of therapy, while not for everyone, has been found to be quite effective,” says Romanoff.

Romanoff lists some factors that contribute to its effectiveness:

  • The articulation of needs and negative perceptions as a pivotal step in change.
  • The stages of advanced emotional processing people experience, which can include assertive anger, self-soothing, hurt, and grief.
  • The idea that “emotion changes emotion,” where the emotion elicited in this type of therapy changes how one feels about an event or conflict in their life.  

Things to Consider

This form of therapy may not be appropriate for people who are cognitively impaired, physically unable to participate in the therapy, or experiencing symptoms of psychosis, says Romanoff.

Experiential therapy can involve a great deal of intensity. Before you undertake it, it is recommended that you watch videos of typical sessions so you can form accurate expectations of what this therapy involves and make informed decisions about your participation, says Romanoff.

How to Get Started

If you have a preference for a certain type of experiential therapy, such as art therapy or animal-assisted therapy for instance, look for a licensed therapist who has training and experience in that form of therapy. 

Since experiential therapy can be immersive and intense, it is important to work with someone you can trust and develop a strong therapeutic rapport with. In addition to verifying the therapist’s credentials, you should ensure that you feel safe and comfortable working with them.

A Word From Verywell

Experiential therapy is an immersive, hands-on form of therapy that uses expressive tools and modalities. It can help you explore difficult situations, process your emotions, and see things from a different perspective. It can also promote creative expression.

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  1. Berdondini L, Elliott R, Shearer J. Collaboration in experiential therapy. J Clin Psychol. 2012;68(2):159-167. doi:10.1002/jclp.21830