Guide to Experiential Therapy in Addiction Treatment

What is Experiential Therapy?


For many people undergoing drug rehab treatment, there may be emotions and behaviors underlying the substance abuse or addiction that are difficult for the person to access. Some of these experiences may be buried in past memory or subconscious thought, evading analysis because they cannot be verbalized. Others may be hidden under a struggle to express those feelings due to embarrassment, shame, or fear.
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There are therapies that can enhance a treatment program through dealing with these challenging emotions and issues. Experiential therapy can help the draw out and process memories or issues that may contribute to the person’s substance abuse without the person’s awareness. Experiential therapy can be a beneficial addition to a treatment program for people who are having trouble expressing the feelings behind addictive behaviors.

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.

Oxford Treatment Center provides a program that’s structured to include a rich range of experiential therapies in which each patient will take part
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group having experiential therapyWhat is Psychodrama?

Psychodrama involves other kinds of role-playing to work through problems and explore responses to problems.

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.

patients at oxford treatment center taking part in play therapyWhat is Play Therapy?
Directed play can help people express feelings that they may not be able to verbalize.

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.

patient at oxford taking part in art therapy for addiction treatmentWhat is Art Therapy?
Art Therapy involves using artistic media to express feelings that are too difficult for words – as does music and dance therapy.





patient with gestalt therapist at oxford treatment centerWhat is Gestalt Therapy?
Gestalt therapy focuses on personal actions and environmental context, with role-playing exercises.



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.

art therapy in addiction treatment stats    music therapy used in addiction treatment    stats on patients who use both music and art therapy in addiction treatment

Success of Equine Therapy
stats on addicts in treatment using equine therapyEquine therapy has been shown to help youth in substance abuse programs remain in treatment longer. In one study, 56.9 percent of those in equine therapy programs completed treatment compared to only 14 percent of those in programs without equine therapy. They also remained in treatment longer, with an average of 141 days in treatment compared with only 70 days in treatment for those without equine therapy.time spent in treatment for addiction

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.

woman taking part in equine therapy for addiction treatment

What is Equine Therapy?

Equine assisted therapy involves working with horses to build confidence, reduce stress, and teach discipline.


Does insurance pay for experiential therapy?

Many insurance plans will cover experiential therapy provided by a licensed psychotherapist or as part of an accredited treatment program. However, some insurance plans hesitate to cover these types of nontraditional therapies, requiring clients to pay for these treatments out of pocket.

Demonstrating that the therapy is medically necessary, administered by a licensed professional, and therapeutically effective can make an insurance provider more likely to cover the cost. This is more easily achieved by working with the insurance company through specialists at the treatment center who understand how to bill insurance and demonstrate the therapeutic necessity for the treatment.

Who is qualified to treat using these methods?

Experiential therapies are best provided by people who are trained and licensed in psychological and physical treatment using the specific therapy indicated. All modes of experiential treatment require training in psychological therapy or physical therapy, and are governed by bodies that provide licenses to those who are qualified.

For some types of experiential therapy, a general license in psychiatry is enough. However, for other types, such as art and music therapy, equine therapy, or wilderness therapy, specialized certifications or training programs are available that involve psychology and other coursework in the specific therapeutic effects of the treatment.

Reputable treatment programs will readily show their accreditation and the licensure and certifications of their treatment staff members. Treatment should not be undertaken without verification that the treatment personnel are qualified to provide the therapy in question.

What are the main benefits?

The main benefit and purpose of experiential therapy is a chance for clients to learn more about their emotional and behavioral responses to certain situations, uncover deep-seated experiences that may be influencing drug-seeking behaviors, and begin to make personal changes to these patterns that can help in understanding and preventing substance abuse or addictive behavior. There are also other benefits that can arise from these types of therapy:

  • Being able to express and process feelings that are hidden or can’t be verbalized
  • Understanding communication issues in relationships
  • Providing a motivation for sticking with and completing treatment
  • Giving the person a sense of control, confidence, and self-sufficiency

Other benefits can arise depending on the specific type of activity. Because of the wide variety of therapy types, a large number of people with different interests or challenges may be able to find something they connect with in some type of experiential therapy.

Is it for everybody?

The many types of experiential therapy offer a wide range of possible benefits. For this reason, many individuals may be able to find some form of experiential therapy that supports their recovery process.

Nevertheless, no single treatment is going to work for every person, and some people may not benefit from any kind of experiential therapy. In addition, the client-focused philosophy behind experiential therapy means that it is most likely to benefit someone who is motivated to work with the therapy to get results. People who are not invested in their treatment or who refuse to completely participate in the therapy process are unlikely to see a benefit.

The greatest benefits from therapy arise when the program is designed to fit the individual’s specific needs and when the individual commits to and completes therapy. Working with treatment program specialists to customize the program for the individual is the first step to find the research-based treatments – both traditional and less conventional – that will be most likely to help that person in the long run.

What is the most popular form of therapy?

Different therapies appeal to different people. However, from a therapeutic standpoint, gestalt therapy is the most popular and most commonly used form of experiential therapy.

Gestalt therapy’s main focus is on creating a stronger sense of self-awareness in the client, enabling the person to access the feelings and behaviors experienced in a given moment of a situation. This can aid the person in understanding specific behaviors and emotional responses that arise as the result of particular stressful experiences, relationships, and other significant aspects of the person’s life.

Gestalt therapy can be used in many ways, including in family therapy or individual therapy, to help people take responsibility for their own feelings in the context of relationships with others, and in beginning to accept themselves and the drug or alcohol abuse issues that must be dealt with. This understanding enables people to make changes in how they respond to situations, being more confident and in control.

Are there physical limitations?

Certain types of experiential therapy may pose physical challenges to some people. For example, if a person is allergic to horses, equine therapy might not be a good choice for that individual. Strenuous wilderness or adventure therapy, or similar programs that require certain levels of physicality, may be harder for people with physical illness or similar limitations to participate in.

That said, where one type of therapy might not be accessible to a particular individual, other types might be. The person who can’t do equine therapy may instead be able to try dance or music therapy, for example.

It is helpful to make sure that the treatment team is aware of any physical limitations, so the most appropriate treatments can be selected for the person’s individual treatment plan.

What therapies should it be paired with?

While it is helpful in supporting a person’s ability to process hidden or unexpressed feelings that may hinder progress in treatment, experiential therapy does not provide all the elements of treatment necessary to help a person learn to manage substance abuse or addiction issues. For this reason, these types of therapies are best used in combination with research-based traditional substance abuse treatment.

For example, a person might be able to use gestalt therapy in combination with family therapy to build stronger communication among family members, or to overcome emotional blocks or struggles based on common situations the family faces. This would also be combined with medically assisted treatment for co-occurring mental health disorders, if any, and with 12-Step group sessions that provide peer support and motivation for maintaining recovery.

In determining how experiential therapy can and should be used, it is best to consult with a treatment professional or specialist who can recommend what therapies would complement each other for a higher likelihood of program completion and maintaining recovery in the long run.

Should therapy be continued after treatment?

If the therapist and the client together feel that more can be achieved through continued treatment, it is certainly possible to continue. On the other hand, sometimes these types of treatment are undertaken to achieve a specific purpose, and once that purpose is achieved, the specific type of therapy is no longer needed. Change is a process, and if the process is completed, there may be nothing to gain by continuing the treatment in some instances.

It is important to remember that experiential therapy is a type of psychological or physical health treatment, not just an enjoyable pastime. The therapy sessions are meant to involve important psychiatric work to help the client reach the goal of recovery from substance abuse and addiction. Looking at it as simply an enjoyable activity overlooks its ability to benefit the person’s long-term recovery.

However, if the person enjoys the activities involved in a type of experiential therapy, it could be a positive step for the person to continue that activity outside of a treatment modality. For example, if a person who has been involved in wilderness therapy discovers a love of hiking, it could be beneficial for that person to take up hiking as a hobby after treatment is complete.

It’s never too late to reach out for help. If you or someone you love is struggling with the devastating side effects of addiction and are unsure of where to turn, call us today at . Oxford Treatment Center, American Addiction Centers’ Mississippi rehab, is ready to help you get the treatment you need today.

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