Experiential Therapy for Drug Rehab Treatment and Alcoholism

Experimental Therapy for addiction treatment

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Experiential therapy activities were first used in the 1970s to encourage clients to identify subconscious thoughts through props, role playing, and guided imagery. This form of 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 which updates and integrates experiential therapy to achieve empathic attunement. The exercises foster empathic bonds and help addicts facilitate collaboration and achieve their addiction treatment goals.

The key feature of 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.

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Table of Contents:

General Overview of Experiential Therapy

For many people undergoing addiction treatment, it is important 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.

woman riding a horse as a therapyExperiential therapy takes recovering addicts to the outdoors or to an art or music studio to work through their problems in a relaxed, casual setting. In this form of therapy, people struggling with substance abuse issues are able to work through difficult repressed emotions in a non-traditional setting. This is especially beneficial for addicts who are uncomfortable attending formal therapy in a counselor’s office. The practical, hands-on environment encourages addicts to learn skills which 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 in a positive way and manage their addiction in the long-term.

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 the stressful emotions associated with them. Some of the activities included in this type of treatment are rope courses, rock climbing, sculpting, music therapy, adventure activities, wilderness therapy, artwork, music, dance, and other recreational pursuits. Following a series of sessions, recovering addicts are able to develop a strong sense of self and deal with past traumas in a healthy manner.

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 a self-medication. Painful or uncomfortable emotions 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 activities help people in recovery from drug abuse? The underlying concept behind this form of 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

Addiction recovery is a lifelong commitment. Experiential therapists are trained to guide recovering addicts through a wide range of customized therapeutic exercises that are tailored to address their specific needs. Therefore, this is not any single activity, but a range of activities that immerse an individual in action. Some of the common techniques used in experiential addiction treatment include:

Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EDMR)

The therapist leads a recovering addict through specific eye exercises while a past traumatic event is replayed and visualized in the mind. This exercise helps alleviate distress associated with repressed feelings, which if unaddressed, can trigger substance abuse. This 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 therapy session. These therapeutic exercises help by teaching discipline, building confidence, and reducing stress. They also allow the therapist 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 which may have otherwise gone unrecognized.

Art, Music, or Dance Therapy

Addicts express themselves through endeavors such as art or music during a session. The idea 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. 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 helps addicts learn healthy coping skills for behaviors that contribute to substance abuse.

Adventure Therapy

Outdoor 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 and help people with substance abuse problems develop communication and problem-solving skills that they can use to beat addiction.

Wilderness Therapy

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

Techniques Used in Experiential Interventions

The underlying principle of experiential 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 techniques help people learn to cope with distressing feelings without becoming overwhelmed. The therapy 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.

Critics of experiential activities point out the relatively small amount of research to support its efficacy. 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.

The techniques encourage people in recovery to express hidden emotions that are difficult to verbalize. Addicts gain a better understanding of communication in relationships. Art and music therapies are the most popular activities. Horse-assisted treatments have shown benefit 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 discover a new interest which can be continued after the formal sessions have been completed. However, not 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.

Experiential Activities for Alcoholics and Drug Addicts

The underlying principle of experiential therapy for addiction treatment is that a recovering addict is less guarded during the activity and this allows the therapist 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. This teaches the recovering addict to cope with stress and cravings in a positive, healthy way. These 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.

These 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 a number of other therapies to provide a well-rounded drug rehab program and comprehensive care to people in recovery.

Experiential therapy integrates well with traditional addiction therapies, such as motivational enhancement therapy (MET) and cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT). It offers a multi-pronged approach to change self-destructive behaviors. By learning skills which can be applied to real-life situations, a recovering addict has the best chance to become and remain alcohol- or drug-free.

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View 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


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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.