Experiential Therapy Techniques For People In Addiction Recovery

Last Updated: July 6, 2020

Authored by Dr. Ahmed Zayed

Reviewed by Michael Espelin APRN

Experiential therapy activities were first used in the 1970s to encourage clients to identify subconscious thoughts through props, role-playing, and guided imagery. Experiential therapy consists of a range of active experiences that help people in addiction recovery resolve some of the underlying issues that lead to substance abuse.
Process-experiential therapy is an emotion-focused approach that updates and integrates experiential activities to achieve empathic attunement. The exercises foster empathic bonds and help addicts facilitate collaboration and achieve their addiction treatment goals.
The key feature of the experiential treatment is that it puts recovering addicts in a non-traditional setting, out of a therapist’s office. It is believed that an informal, comfortable environment, such as an outdoor activity place or art studio, encourages people with substance abuse problems to face past traumas and come to terms with buried emotions without turning to alcohol or drugs as an escape.

Experiential Therapy Overview

For many people undergoing addiction treatment, it is crucial to access underlying emotions and behaviors that trigger their substance abuse. Some of these behaviors are buried deep in the person’s subconscious and cannot be identified, analyzed, or processed with traditional office-based psychotherapy modalities. Experiential therapy enhances a drug rehab program by encouraging addicts to deal with these challenging emotions, which remain repressed. Memories or triggers that are emotionally difficult to deal with are drawn out in a healthy, active setting and processed so that they no longer contribute to addictive behaviors.

The practical, hands-on environment encourages addicts to learn skills that are useful in dealing with the stressors of daily life. The activities tap difficult-to-recognize emotions and buried feelings. Addicts can learn to handle them positively and manage their addiction in the long-term.

Young people having experiental therapy session

Experiential therapy takes an active, hands-on approach. The focus is on being physically active rather than sitting in an office talking. Different activities help recovering addicts explore past experiences and stressful emotions associated with them. Some experiential activities included in this type of treatment are rope courses, rock climbing, sculpting, music composing, going into the wilderness, artwork, dance, and other recreational pursuits.

Experiential Therapy: Addressing Subconscious Emotions

Experiential activities teach recovering addicts to navigate difficult emotions, such as distress, fear, shame, or anger, without using drugs as self-medication. Painful or uncomfortable feelings are actively processed in a supervised setting, ultimately leading to a decrease in cravings and drug-seeking behaviors. The new coping skills learned during these activities allow addicts to deal with triggering situations in real life.

How Do Experiential Therapy Activities Help To Recover From Drug Abuse?

The underlying concept behind experiential therapy is to encourage people to be motivators for change. The activities serve as catalysts to bring about awareness of difficult emotions and their contribution to unhealthy behaviors. These insights can help a person take the necessary action to achieve their addiction treatment goals. In other words, experiential activities help recognize issues buried beneath the surface and contribute to self-exploration and self-expression in positive ways.

Types Of Experiential Therapy

Some of the common experiential therapy techniques used in addiction treatment include:

  • Adventure
  • Art therapy
  • Canine
  • Creative writing or poetry
  • Dance
  • Equine-Assisted Psychotherapy (EAP)
  • Experiential Play Therapy
  • Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR)
  • Gestalt
  • Guided imagery
  • Music
  • Process-Experiential Therapy (PE-EFT)
  • Psychodrama
  • Role-playing
  • Stage performance
  • Wilderness

Therefore, this is not a single activity but a variety of activities that immerse an individual in action. Some experiential activities can be as follows:

Eye Movement Desensitization And Reprocessing

What is EMDR? With the help of this technique, the experiential therapist leads a recovering addict through specific eye exercises while a past traumatic event is replayed and visualized in mind. This exercise helps alleviate the distress associated with repressed feelings, which, if unaddressed, can trigger a relapse.

Equine-Assisted Psychotherapy (EAP)

Recovering addicts work with horses by grooming, feeding, harnessing, and walking them during a therapy session.

 Equine Assisted Psychotherapy Farm

These experiential therapy exercises help by teaching discipline, building confidence, and reducing stress. They also allow experiential therapists to observe the addict’s emotional state in an informal environment. The insights gained are used to identify and process negative emotions and past traumas that may have otherwise gone unrecognized.

Adventure Therapy

Adventure counseling activities such as rock climbing, hiking, whitewater rafting, biking, or camping encourage recovering addicts to develop responsibility and deal with situations that simulate real-life stressors.
These activities are conducted in a group setting or as experiential family therapy techniques and help people with substance abuse problems develop communication and problem-solving skills that they can use to beat addiction.

Music, Dance, And Experiential Art Therapy

Addicts express themselves through endeavors such as art or music during a session. The idea of music therapy is to work through negative emotions that are difficult to express in words. Experiential techniques are used to process underlying feelings in a healthy manner.

playing music together

Repressed feelings may manifest in an individual’s artwork and can be discussed in more detail.In this way, the creation of music or art therapy ideas for substance abuse helps addicts to learn healthy coping skills for behaviors that contribute to substance abuse.

Wilderness Therapy

These experiential group activities put recovering addicts in a natural environment with fresh air that encourages self-reflection, risk-taking, and pushing of limits. This experiential therapy helps build confidence in dealing with stressful situations.
Addicts learn to handle strong emotions and explore their coping mechanisms in an intensive setting that mimics real-life situations.

Psychodrama or Experiential Play Therapy

This is one of the most popular approaches that encourages self-awareness and a deeper understanding of behaviors in a given situation. People dealing with substance abuse are encouraged to role-play and relive past traumatic experiences. Experiential play therapy is a way to rewrite past memories and learn new ways to handle tense situations or complicated relationships.

Psychodrama play

The technique helps bring out unconscious feelings that could be holding an individual back in their recovery process. The role-play consists of analyzing problems and developing healthy responses to problematic situations.

Experiential Therapy Interventions Benefits

The underlying principle of experiential therapy interventions is to identify and process extreme emotions due to stressful events in the addict’s past. Unaddressed emotions such as grief, anger, depression, confusion, shame, and lack of self-esteem can be debilitating and hamper an addict’s recovery from substance abuse. When these emotions come to the forefront in real-world situations, addicts often cope with them by turning to alcohol or drugs.

Experiential therapy techniques encourage people in recovery to express hidden emotions that are difficult to verbalize. For example:

  • Addicts gain a better understanding of communication in relationships through role-playing.
  • Art and music therapies are the most popular activities to reveal emotions.
  • Horse-assisted therapy is beneficial in helping youth complete substance abuse programs and stay in treatment longer.

In essence, a recovering addict gains a sense of control, self-sufficiency, and confidence to fight addiction. Additional advantages of experiential therapy include increased exercise, being outdoors in the fresh air, creativity, and connecting with like-minded people. An individual may also discover a new interest that can be continued after the formal sessions have been completed.

Limitations Of Experiential Interventions

Critics of experiential activities point out the relatively small amount of research to support its efficacy. They also insist on the point that all activities may be suitable for an individual. For example, some activities may pose a physical challenge or be too strenuous for someone. Accessibility and cost may be additional considerations.
Although it is not used by many mainstream psychologists, its use has been growing in recent times with reports of positive results. With time, these techniques have demonstrated benefits and therapeutic value in managing substance abuse and related mental health disorders.

Seeking For Experiential Activities

The underlying principle of experiential therapy for addiction treatment is that a recovering addict is less guarded during the activity, and this allows experiential therapists to make a more accurate evaluation to aid recovery and healing.

Jumping Over Tree during Adventure therapy
In addition, certain physically demanding activities, such as rock climbing or hiking, mimic real-world situations and the stress associated with them. This teaches the recovering addict to cope with stress and cravings in a positive, healthy way. Experiential group therapy activities essentially help people struggling with alcohol or drug dependence to deal with stressors without drugs or alcohol.
Substance abuse frequently occurs in combination with other mental health disorders, such as anxiety, depression, eating disorders, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). Experiential activities help decrease mental tension and triggers, thereby treating coexisting mental conditions, and reducing the chance of relapse.

Experiential therapy integrates well with other addiction treatment approaches, such as motivational-enhancement therapy and CBT activities. It offers a multi-pronged approach to change self-destructive behaviors. By learning skills that can be applied to real-life situations, a recovering addict has the best chance to become and remain alcohol- or drug-free.


Page Sources

  1. What is EMDR?, https://www.emdr.com/what-is-emdr/
  2. Schultz PN, Remick-Barlow GA, Robbins L., Equine-assisted psychotherapy: a mental health promotion/intervention modality for children who have experienced intra-family violence, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/17444990
  3. Nevin J Harper, Luk Peeters, Cathryn Carpenter,Adventure Therapy, https://www.researchgate.net/publication/272038485_Adventure_Therapy

Published on: April 18th, 2018

Updated on: July 6th, 2020

About Author

Dr. Ahmed Zayed

Dr. Ahmed Zayed is a Bachelor of Medicine and Surgery. He is graduated from the University of Alexandria, Egypt. Dr. Ahmed Zayed has a passion for writing medical and health care articles and focuses on providing engaging and trustworthy information to readers.

Medically Reviewed by

Michael Espelin APRN

8 years of nursing experience in wide variety of behavioral and addition settings that include adult inpatient and outpatient mental health services with substance use disorders, and geriatric long-term care and hospice care.  He has a particular interest in psychopharmacology, nutritional psychiatry, and alternative treatment options involving particular vitamins, dietary supplements, and administering auricular acupuncture.

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  • Sarah Hillmert-Gallitz
    I would welcome more information on experiential therapy if you have some to offer. I am a therapist working with clients with co-occurring disorders.