Therapy can be a lifesaving and life-altering choice for individuals and families struggling with mental and emotional health issues.
Unfortunately, 40% to 60% of families end therapeutic treatment prematurely (Thompson et al., 2009).
If clients are not engaged in the treatment process, how can it be effective?
Additionally, traditional talk therapy is often not enough to reach deep-seated problems or promote holistic wellness.
The famous psychotherapist Carl Rogers (1961, p. 67) said,
“Experience is for me, the highest authority.”
His quote illustrates the power of experience and how it might provide an avenue to a deeper level of engagement, truth, and wellbeing in therapy.
In this article, we will focus on experiential therapy forms and how they can help clients achieve their personal goals.
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Experiential therapy is a type of therapy that uses expressive activities and tools to help clients re-experience emotional situations from their past or from past/present relationships (Greenberg et al., 1998).
Recreating authentic experiences allows feelings, beliefs, and attitudes beneath the conscious mind to come into awareness. Experiential therapy is not one type of intervention, but a variety of different interventions focusing on experiences, emotional processes, interactions with others, creativity, and reflections of events. (Greenberg et al., 1989).
Experiential therapy refers to a therapy that brings clients into the experience instead of simply talking about the experience. Clients can process from the inside out and embody things they need to work through rather than discussing them from an outside, analytical perspective (Greenberg et al., 1998).
For this reason, experiential therapies can be very useful when talk therapy is not helpful.
There are a variety of different therapeutic approaches that can be considered experiential therapy, including Gestalt therapy and dynamic therapy. Rooted in a humanistic paradigm from Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs and the client-centered approach of Carl Rogers, experiential therapy helps clients develop insight and realize inner thoughts, feelings, and experiences to find wholeness and healing (Greenberg et al., 1998).
The theory behind it suggests that humans are “potentials of experiencing” (Greenberg et al., 1998, p. 95) and that this experience can lead to change.
As such, there are different examples of experiential therapy. These include, but are not limited to, adventure/nature therapy, equine/animal therapy, expressive therapy, psychodrama, and body-centered therapies.
1. Adventure or nature therapy
Science has demonstrated numerous mental health benefits of experiencing nature, including decreases in anxiety, stress, and depression and an increase in happiness (Meredith et al., 2020).
Nature therapy is also known as ecotherapy and is based on the concept of using nature to help heal. In these types of therapies, the client is formally guided by trained leaders such as wilderness guides and park rangers to experience and appreciate aspects of nature and our physical connection to it.
2. Equine or animal therapy
Clients often find it easier to make a personal connection with a nonjudgmental animal. Equine therapy involves both riding horses and feeding and grooming them. It provides physical movement and connection that can help with many ailments such as anxiety, depression, and trauma (Schertz & Berman, 2019).
Other animals such as cats and dogs are often used in animal therapy to help clients gain empathy and independence, increase impulse control, and improve stress tolerance.
3. Expressive therapy
Expressive arts therapy includes things like drawing, painting, crafting, and pottery. Creating artwork allows clients to release emotions in the moment without judgment because art is subjective. There is no right or wrong.
In this way, it is a great way to reduce shame, increase empowerment and self-awareness, reduce stress, and resolve emotional conflict (Mahrer, 2001).
Psychodrama therapy includes role-play in individual, family, or group sessions. In drama therapy, props are often used to develop characters. Clients can become the leading role in their own narrative, watch themself engage in a mirror, reverse roles, or play back specific life experiences.
It allows them to gain a different perspective, learn communication, and improve social skills (Mahrer, 2001).
Body movement is particularly helpful for accessing trauma and difficult feelings stored in the body. Somatic work provides the space for deep healing that may lie in the subconscious.
Experiential Therapy: A Model
Experiential therapy is based on two core components.
The first is an emphasis on the therapeutic relationship, which helps facilitate change for the client. The second is that clients have an experience that allows them to examine inner world views, feelings, perceptions, values, and beliefs (Greenberg et al., 1998).
The distinction between the relational conditions and working conditions of experiential therapy make it a unique bottom-up approach to healing. Experiential therapy emphasizes the role of emotion in personal development and general functioning (Greenberg et al., 1998).
When clients realize these emotions and integrate them with cognitive systems, they can become more satisfied with their environment and more accepting of themselves.
There are some key concepts of experiential therapy that set it apart from traditional talk therapy.
Experiential therapy works with the mind (cognition), body (somatic), and emotions. These three things interact in complex ways. Experiential therapy emphasizes the bottom-up approach to focus on physical sensations, raw data from the body, and the emotional responses to these (Elliot et al., 2013). This differs from the logical understanding of “facts” that traditional talk therapy addresses.
Neurobiology is a foundational concept of experiential therapy. Experiential therapists understand and use neurobiological processes to facilitate deep levels of change (Elliot et al., 2013).
They operate from an understanding of how the automatic emotional and physical responses work and how to rewire these automatic responses.
Bridging the gap
Experiential therapy is particularly effective at resolving dissonance between what one thinks rationally and what is felt on a deeper level (Elliot et al., 2013). For example, if someone knows rationally that it is necessary and healthy to set boundaries, but feels that it is wrong or unsafe on an emotional level, their thoughts and beliefs will not match their behaviors.
Using a strong therapeutic alliance, practitioners help clients bridge the gap between the mind and the body using some form of experiential technique.
4 Common Experiential Interventions
Experiential therapy includes a range of therapeutic interventions that help clients connect with inner experiences and the present moment and embody emotional experiences.
Some of the most well known are humanistic experiential therapy, experiential family therapy, experiential dynamic therapy, and experiential play therapy.
1. Humanistic experiential therapy
Humanistic therapies are based on the foundational belief that people are good and emphasize helping clients reach their full potential (Elliot & Greenberg, 2007).
Using experiential techniques, humanistic experiential therapy is focused on the whole person rather than specific “problems.” Humanistic experiential therapy uses a holistic approach to focus on free will, human potential, and self-discovery.
2. Experiential family therapy
Experiential family therapy uses active, multisensory techniques such as role-play and drawing to increase a family’s ability to express affect. Increasing affect and uncovering information can stimulate change and growth within the family system (Bischof, 2016).
It is a form of family therapy that uses active, multisensory techniques such as role-play, interactive drawing, and outdoor experiences.
They are built on aspects of Freudian psychoanalytic theory by working with unconscious forces but emphasize the importance of experiencing rather than avoiding emotions during sessions.
Experiential dynamic therapy attempts to help clients achieve change rapidly through use of the therapeutic relationship.
4. Experiential play therapy
Play therapy is experiential in nature and designed for younger clients, typically under the age of 12. The goal of experiential play therapy is to help children gain empowerment over negative emotions by reframing distressful experiences (Norton & Norton, 2006).
Various forms of play, from dress-up to the use of toys, help children move through five basic stages. These stages include the exploratory stage, testing for protection stage, dependency stage, therapeutic growth stage/integration of self, and the termination stage (Norton & Norton, 2006).
How to Perform Experiential Therapy
Experiential therapy can be used to treat a wide range of psychiatric disorders and challenges. Experiential methods have been used to treat trauma, eating disorders, addictive behaviors, anger, grief, and loss (Mahrer, 2001).
It can also be a helpful form of therapy for individuals who deal with painful and distressful experiences from the past or desire to improve current and future relationships.
As mentioned previously, the first step in any form of experiential therapy is to develop a strong therapeutic alliance (Elliot et al., 2013). This makes it particularly important to find a professional who has additional training in specific forms of experiential therapy.
Once a strong alliance is formed, clients are taught to reflect on experiences, confront situations or troubling memories, and resolve internal conflict through a variety of techniques.
Experiential therapy can be offered in individual, group, clinical, and medical settings (both in and outpatient). It is commonly performed in conjunction with traditional talk therapy (Richard et al., 2022).
Experiential techniques will focus on some subjective experience, such as sensations, perceptions, and affective states, which helps pull the client into the “here and now.” Through this, clients can begin the process of self-reflection and internal awareness.
3 Techniques for Your Sessions
There are a vast number of experiential techniques that can be implemented into therapy sessions.
1. Music therapy
Music therapy has demonstrated emotional, physical, and neurological benefits for a variety of conditions.
Compositional music therapy is a method where the client composes music (lyrics and instruments) with the assistance of a therapist. It improves creativity, confidence, and self-esteem, and assists with the grief process.
Improvisation music therapy is spontaneous song creating. It enables a client to make choices and can be an empowering way to process trauma and emotions.
Receptive music therapy involves a therapist playing music for the client to respond to. The client can express thoughts through words or respond in another expressive way.
In recreative music therapy, the client recreates music played by a therapist. It is helpful for developing motor skills, developmental issues and dementia and helps children with movement disorders.
Art can be an easily accessible way to implement expressive techniques into session. Clients can draw or paint with the freedom to express subconscious emotions. It is thought that creating art is a foundational way of expressing our deepest thoughts, feelings, and emotions when words are not enough (Mahrer, 2001).
Creating art, whether through drawing or other forms of creative expression, allows clients to explore the internal parts of themselves. A qualified art therapist can help the client interpret the what and how of the creative process to develop understanding and healing.
Mindful practices help clients come into the present moment and develop a sense of “what is” without judgment or expectation (Ludwig & Kabat-Zinn, 2008). The internal awareness created through mindfulness is an avenue to radical acceptance and healing.
There are many experiential activities that can be used in group and individual sessions.
1. Empty chair
This is a common technique used in Gestalt therapies. An empty chair is placed in front of the client, and they are prompted to engage in dialogue pretending that a specific individual is sitting there. This allows the client to process unresolved conflict with another individual (living or dead) that may be causing distressful emotions.
2. Group or family role-play
In group or family role-play, members will take on specific roles and act out different scenes that express emotions and family dynamics. This can be done with a premade role-play script, or members can improvise after being assigned a character role to play.
A therapist will provide feedback after the scenario is complete, and members can process what it felt like and what was learned from the experience.
3. Blindfold expressive art
In this activity, clients are blindfolded, given a large piece of paper and some form of utensil (pencils, pens, crayons), and asked to draw freely in response to music or background sounds.
After the activity, the blindfold is removed, and clients can view their art. Clients can debrief with the therapist to discuss how creating without the sense of sight felt.
4. Expressive dance
Expressive dance can be done in group or individual settings. Clients will dance or move freely (often with eyes closed) in response to music. They can interpret the experience through talk and debriefing after the activity is complete.
5 Questions to Ask Your Clients
Because experiential therapy is focused on the present, the therapist or counselor should provide ideas and ask questions that invite the client into the “now.”
These questions might include things such as:
What is happening inside right now?
What are you experiencing in your body?
How do you feel when I make the statement … ?
After an experiential activity such as drawing, dancing, or empty chair, the therapist might ask the client:
What was that experience like for you?
Can you reflect on what physical or emotional sensations that brought about for you?
Resources From PositivePsychology.com
PositivePsychology.com offers a wide range of resources that can be both directly and indirectly applied to work in experiential therapy.
This interoceptive exposure worksheet focuses on helping clients with anxiety, but it can apply to a wide range of emotional difficulties. It has clients use physiological sensations, such as the breath, to identify feelings in the body. This is a foundational component of experiential therapies, which use the bottom-up approach to bring consciousness to thoughts, feelings, and behaviors.
The five senses worksheet helps clients learn the foundational techniques of mindfulness, which can be applied to any situation. This is a wonderful experiential activity to start therapy sessions with.
While experiential therapies don’t necessarily focus on issues with self-consciousness, it can be a hindrance to the self-reflection and self-awareness required for healing. The Self-Consciousness Scale is a useful assessment to gauge where a client is as they begin treatment in experiential therapy.
Assessing clients’ self-consciousness before and after particular experiential treatment methods may be a good way to determine the most effective techniques for particular clients.
There is growing evidence that experiential therapies are effective forms of treatment for anxiety, depression, family conflict, trauma, and self-confidence (Bischoff, 2016; Richard, et al., 2022). More research is needed on specific methods of experiential therapy, as it is still considered a nontraditional approach to treating mental health issues.
What are the limitations of experiential therapy?
Cost and availability can be a limitation of experiential therapy. It is an alternative treatment that may not be covered by insurance. It is also not as well studied as traditional forms of therapy, like Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy.
Is CBT an experiential therapy?
Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy (CBT) is more cognitive and structured than experiential therapy. CBT is a top-down approach, while experiential therapy is a bottom-up approach.
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Richard, C., Captari, L., Chen, Z., De Kock, J., & Houghtaling, A. (2022). Effectiveness of an intensive experiential group therapy program in promoting mental health and well-being among mass shooting survivors: A practice-based pilot study. Professional Psychology: Research and Practice, 53(2), 181–191.
Rogers, C. (1961). On becoming a person. Harper One Publishing.
Schertz, K., & Berman, M. (2019). Understanding nature and its cognitive benefits. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 28(5), 496–502.
Thompson, S., Bender, K., Windsor, L., & Flynn, P. (2009). Keeping families engaged: The effects of home-based family therapy enhanced with experiential activities. Social Work Research, 33(2), 121–126.
About the author
Dr. Melissa Madeson, Ph.D., believes in a holistic approach to mental health and wellness and uses a person-centered approach when working with clients.
Currently in full-time private practice, she uses her experience with performance psychology, teaching, and designing collegiate wellness courses and yoga therapy to address a range of specific client needs.