Guide to Experiential Therapy
Overview of Experiential Therapy
In situations that are emotionally hard to deal with, like those that may lead to substance abuse or addiction, it can be hard for people to talk about feelings and behaviors. This may be because the person is uncomfortable with those feelings in some way, or even because it is difficult to recognize where the feelings or behaviors arise or to put those internal processes into words. The person may also have buried many feelings deeply or lost connection with them because of the substance abuse or addiction.
Experiential therapy helps to tap into these feelings, bringing up memories or issues that, when processed, can give the person a better chance at managing the addiction over the long-term.
What Is Experiential Therapy?
To be precise, experiential therapy is not a single type of therapy, but instead a category of therapy types. What these therapy types have in common is that they are designed to immerse an individual in activities or actions that help in recognizing the emotions or responses that arise from certain situations in the person’s life.
Some of the activities are designed to recreate situations that might cause the emotions or behaviors to arise, while others are creative or immersive activities that are undertaken while the person is actively discussing, thinking about, or otherwise processing elements of daily life.
As an example, in one type of experiential therapy – gestalt therapy – the individual may be told to speak to an empty chair as if a significant loved one is sitting there. The individual then has a chance to sit in the empty chair, demonstrating how the loved one would respond. By engaging in the dynamic of the relationship as if the loved one were really there, the person can observe and begin to understand the underlying emotions and behaviors in that relationship, and how those feelings and behaviors might contribute to the individual’s substance abuse or mental health disorder.
A contrasting type of experiential therapy is art therapy. The person in this type of therapy may be encouraged to talk about a life situation while drawing or painting a picture. In the process of accessing the creative mind, the person’s responses and feelings regarding the situation may manifest in the artwork, which can then be discussed or worked through in more depth to help manage the emotions and the ways they contribute to the addictive behaviors.
Criticisms of Experiential Therapy
Partly because it is less conventional and seems to have a smaller body of research behind it, experiential therapy has received various types of criticism.
Firstly, because experiential theory has a shorter history of research behind it, this type of treatment is not yet commonly used in the mainstream medical and psychological fields. Because of this, it is not considered to be a trusted, research-based form of treatment.
However, research into experiential therapy types has been accelerating in recent years, and positive results have been seen in certain communities with use of these methods. For this reason it is premature to dismiss their ability to help manage substance abuse and mental health disorders.
Another problem with these types of therapies is that they can be very expensive. Because they are not considered mainstream, insurance companies sometimes won’t cover them. As a result, many people who could benefit from this type of treatment would have to pay for it out of pocket.
As time goes on these, these therapies are beginning to demonstrate research-backed benefits that show they can provide therapeutic value and may therefore qualify for medical necessity requirements of health plans. Treatment centers can often work with insurance companies and other organizations to help cover the cost of these treatments, so they should not be dismissed out of hand simply due to cost.
History and Background
The ideas behind experiential therapy began developing in the early 20th century with the concept that people are the motivators of change in their own lives, and that the therapy is the catalyst that can bring awareness of the historic or current issues that contribute to a person’s mental health disorders or addictions. Using the therapy, the person can then take the action needed to initiate the desired changes.
For issues that have been buried beneath the conscious level, this concept requires that there be ways for the person to recognize the issues. Experiential therapies developed to meet this need as therapists found ways to contribute to and provide a confirming presence for this awakening.
As the 20th century continued, various different methods of self-expression and self-exploration began to be used for this purpose. For example, art therapy began to be used in the 1940s as a way for patients to explore their feelings or to provide an outlet for feelings during physical or psychological treatments. Over time, this developed into the current associative model of use.
On the other hand, adventure therapy is a relatively more recent development in the experiential category that has recently seen a surge in research regarding outcomes.
Facts and Statistics
In a study of treatment programs offering alternative therapy types, 36.8 percent of treatment programs use art therapy, while 14.7 percent use music therapy. Both can be found in 11.7 percent of programs. The study indicates that art and music therapy, in combination with 12-Step programs, results in more positive outcomes than 12-Step programs alone.
Finding an Experiential Therapy Program
It is possible to search for an experiential therapy program based on an individual’s specific interests. Certain organizations, online and through state health departments, have listings of specific groups that are licensed and qualified to provide these services.
However, because these therapies are most beneficial in combination with traditional treatment and therapy programs, it can be more helpful to get involved with experiential treatment through a professional treatment center, making it possible to include the experiential program as part of the continuum of care provided by a well-rounded treatment program.
More and more often, treatment centers are incorporating experiential therapy into their programs. When seeking out a treatment facility, it is prudent to ask about the range of therapies and treatments that are provided and/or supported through the program.
- Does insurance pay for experiential therapy?
- Who is qualified to treat using these methods?
- What are the main benefits?
- Is it for everybody?
- What is the most popular form of therapy?
- Are there physical limitations?
- What therapies should it be paired with?
- Should therapy be continued after treatment?