Experiential Therapy Techniques For People In Addiction Recovery

Last Updated: October 7, 2021

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 treatment consists of a range of active experiences that help people in addiction recovery resolve some of the underlying issues that lead to substance abuse.

Experiential therapy is an emotion-focused approach that updates and integrates expression activities to achieve empathic attunement. The exercises foster empathic bonds and help addicts facilitate collaboration and achieve their addiction and behavioral disorders treatment goals.

The key feature of the expressional 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

Simply put, experiential therapy is a form of therapy that enables addicts and recovery patients to reenact and express sensitive memories from their past and present using expressive tools and activities.

Therapist and patient discussing something outdoors in the park.

It is a treatment type used to dig into a person’s past and the perception of their present. Professionals can only administer patients this form of drug addiction treatment due to its high requirements. Interestingly, expression addiction therapy is just one category.

There Are Many Other Categories Under This Therapy Technique, Some of Which Include:

What Is It Used For?

Expression treatment is fast gaining popularity as a form of treatment for addiction. However, that’s not all it can do.

Firstly, expression treatment is used to treat addiction and other impulsive behaviors. The addiction specialist uses this form of treatment to analyze problems or trauma and educate the patient on healthy coping mechanisms. The methodology used and results differ from person to person due to each individual’s unique life experiences.

By role-playing, the patient’s mind begins to bring up reactions and thoughts that influence their decisions, helping to bring awareness of any past or present trauma. The patient would be able to understand why they behave the way they do through their memories.

Positive reactions and thoughts related to addiction memories are welcomed, while negative reactions and thoughts are recognized and dealt with. Role-playing would disallow the patient from hiding and denying these uncomfortable addiction memories.

In Addition to Addiction Treatment, It Is Also Used to Treat the Following:

  • Trauma related to past or present events
  • Depression
  • Eating disorders
  • Behavioral anomalies
  • Grief
  • Issues related to family communication

Experiential Therapy for Addiction Treatment

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 or psychodynamic approach. This treatment technique 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 to no longer contribute to addictive behaviors.

Young girl hugging a horse outdoors.

This therapy technique takes recovering addicts to the outdoors or an art or music studio to work through their problems in a relaxed, casual setting. In this treatment technique, people struggling with substance abuse issues can work through difficult repressed emotions in a non-traditional environment. It is especially beneficial for addicts who are uncomfortable attending formal meetings in a counselor’s office.

The practical, hands-on environment encourages addicts to learn skills that are useful in dealing with daily life stressors. In addition, the activities tap difficult-to-recognize emotions and buried feelings. As a result, addicts can learn to handle them positively, manage their addiction in the long term, and deal with all stages of relapse if it occurs.

Different activities help recovering addicts explore past experiences and stressful emotions associated with them. Some expressional 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.

Following a series of sessions, recovering addicts can develop a strong sense of self and deal with past traumas healthily.

Experiential Family Therapy

Experiential family therapy is a treatment that helps families address sensitive conversations and solve these subconscious issues.

Sometimes, substance abuse problems can affect not only the patient but also their immediate family. Their compulsive behavior and behavioral disorders could drive others away and quickly ruin relationships with family and friends. Luckily, there are specific ways to solve this, one effective being this form of expression treatment.

They can participate in experiential family therapy with one or more immediate family members to fix relationship issues and move forward. Experiential family therapy may also allow family members to get closer and close previously unspoken gaps by addressing behavioral disorders.

Happy family and a psychologist talking.

Anyone in a family setting could need to dig into their past to explain drug addiction issues, and results can be hastened with the presence of family members that played a massive part in their growth and development.

Experiential Therapy: Addressing Subconscious Emotions

Experiential psychotherapy teaches recovering addicts in a rehab center to navigate difficult emotions, such as distress, fear, shame, or anger, without using drugs as self-medication. Mental stress or uncomfortable feelings are actively processed in a supervised setting, ultimately decreasing 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 this form of expression treatment is to encourage people to be motivators for change. The experiential therapy 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 treatment goals. In other words, experiential therapy 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)
  • Expression play treatment
  • Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR)
  • Gestalt
  • Guided imagery
  • Music
  • Process-expression Therapy (PE-EFT)
  • Psychodrama
  • Wilderness

Going through all recovery stages of the transtheoretical model of change, and finally reaching the maintenance stage is a lifelong commitment. Expression therapists are trained to guide recovering addicts through a wide range of customized therapeutic exercises tailored to address their specific needs.

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

Eye Movement Desensitization And Reprocessing

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

EMDR is effective in helping people in recovery develop coping strategies to stay clean.

Equine-Assisted Psychotherapy (EAP)

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

These expression treatment exercises help by teaching discipline, building confidence, and reducing stress. They also allow expression 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 in rehab are conducted in a group setting or as expression 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 healthily.

Three people playing musical instruments together.

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

Wilderness Therapy

These expression group activities put recovering addicts in a natural environment with fresh air that encourages self-reflection, risk-taking, and pushing of limits. This form of 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 encourage 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 treatment is a way to rewrite past memories and learn new ways to handle tense situations or complicated relationships.

Experiential Therapy Interventions Benefits

The underlying principle of experiential therapy interventions is identifying and processing 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 by turning to alcohol or drugs.

Experiential therapy techniques help people learn to cope with distressing feelings without becoming overwhelmed. It teaches individuals in recovery to deal with heavy emotions without using drugs or alcohol. The emotions are evoked in a safe, healthy environment, where the person can learn positive ways to work through them.

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 expression treatment 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 this treatment 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 expression treatment 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 and therapists, its use has been growing with reports of positive results. These experiential treatment interventions have demonstrated benefits and therapeutic value in managing substance abuse and related mental health disorders with time. What’s even better is that this form of therapy is now being integrated into so many insurance options.

Does My Insurance Cover Addiction Treatment? Read More About Your Health Insurance Options:

Many studies have proven the effectiveness of experiential psychotherapy. One of these studies explored the effectiveness of expressional sex addiction therapy. The scientists took down the patients’ medical information and behavior regarding sex before this experiment was conducted. Then, they tracked this information over six months in a medical center. After the experiment was completed, therapists reported a significant decrease in stress, anxiety, and shame. There was also a significant decrease in internal conflict regarding sexual intercourse.

Another study explored the effects of experiential psychotherapy on general distress. This study uncovered that this form of treatment effectively deals with the causes of distress like shame, fear, and anger. It does this by allowing for emotional processing and expression.

That said, the cost is no longer a problem with this form of treatment. All you would need to do is check for an insurance option that offers this. There are also outpatient services and outpatient clinics for those who don’t want to spend an eternity in the hospital. For outpatients, treatment is the same, but attendance during the day is required. After the session is completed, the outpatient can decide to stay overnight or leave for home.

Seeking For Experiential Activities

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

In addition, certain physically demanding activities, such as rock climbing or hiking, mimic real-world situations and the stress associated with them. It teaches the recovering addict to cope with stress and cravings in a positive, healthy way. Experiential group therapy activities help people struggling with alcohol or drug dependence 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). Expression activities help decrease mental tension and triggers, thereby treating coexisting mental conditions and reducing the chance of relapse.

Expressional activities are usually introduced into the addiction recovery program after a supervised medical detox has been undertaken to treat withdrawal symptoms. They are used in combination with other therapies to provide a well-rounded drug rehab program in these rehab centers and comprehensive care to people in recovery.

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

In addition, to ensure long-term recovery after rehab, one can stay in a sober living facility for some time. It can provide a smooth transition from rehab to real life, where one can avoid triggers and people who enable addiction.

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Page Sources

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  2. Greenberg, L., & Watson, J. (1998). Experiential therapy of depression: Differential effects of client-centered relationship conditions and process experiential interventions. Psychotherapy Research, 8(2), 210-224. https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/10503309812331332317
  3. Klontz, B. T., Garos, S., & Klontz, P. T. (2005). The effectiveness of brief multimodal experiential therapy in the treatment of sexual addiction. Sexual Addiction & Compulsivity, 12(4), 275-294. https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/10720160500362488
  4. Bivens, A., Leinart, D., Klontz, B., & Klontz, T. (2007). The effectiveness of equine-assisted experiential therapy: Results of an open clinical trial. Society & Animals, 15(3), 257-267. https://www.researchgate.net/publication/233676732_The_Effectiveness_of_Equine-Assisted_Experiential_Therapy_Results_of_an_Open_Clinical_Trial
  5. Aletraris, L., Paino, M., Edmond, M. B., Roman, P. M., & Bride, B. E. (2014). The use of art and music therapy in substance abuse treatment programs. Journal of addictions nursing, 25(4), 190. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4268880/

Published on: April 18th, 2018

Updated on: October 7th, 2021

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.