Are Experiential Therapy Techniques Helpful?

Yes, experiential therapy techniques may be helpful when used in addition to proven, evidence-based techniques. Read on to learn more about potential benefits, uses, and types of experiential therapy.

What Is Experiential Therapy?

The term experiential therapy refers to a number of different types of therapeutic interventions that get clients involved in certain actions, the creative process, and forms of cooperation or expression. These techniques are generally considered to be adjunctive techniques to already established psychotherapeutic techniques.

In most cases, they should not be the primary mode of intervention, but should supplement psychotherapy techniques. These techniques can help individuals become more open, learn how to relate, develop a better understanding of oneself and others, and release a number of negative feelings.

The patients in these interventions get involved in doing something, and, at least in theory, get to experience many of the actual issues that affect them in the moment and then can reflect on them. When used properly, the experiential therapy technique allows for the therapist to actually observe the patient in a practical situation outside the therapy session.

Most often, this involves interaction with a person, animal, or group. In this manner, experiential therapies also help the therapist to develop a plan of action to assist the individual with whatever issues are going on.

Because there are a number of different experiential therapy techniques, including psychodrama, animal-assisted therapy, and adventure therapy, these techniques offer quite a bit of variability for the therapists who use them. Therapists may be able to tailor the intervention to the specific client.

Benefits of Experiential Therapies

While there is limited research on the effectiveness of experiential therapy and opinions vary, certain types of experiential therapy may allow individuals to develop an enhanced sense of:

  • Self-control.
  • Self-esteem.
  • Accomplishment.

Many experiential therapies may also help:

  • Reduce impulsivity.
  • Improve focus and attention.
  • Develop problem-solving skills.
  • Manage stress and anger.
  • Develop a willingness to try unfamiliar things.
  • Increase flexibility.

For instance, individuals in certain types of adventure therapies (where teams work together on specific challenges) can learn to accomplish things they thought they were incapable of accomplishing, and, at the same time, learn more about their own expectations, fears, and beliefs.

Other types of experiential therapy (where individuals work in groups toward a specific goal) may help develop and foster practical skills, such as:

  • How to take direction from others.
  • How to work toward a group goal.
  • Improved interpersonal skills.
  • Leadership.
  • Cooperation (or the realization that one can often work better with others, as opposed to being isolated or dependent on themselves).

Experiential therapies also have mood-enhancing benefits that can be very helpful for individuals with issues with major depressive disorder and anxiety disorders (e.g., phobias, panic attacks, agoraphobia, etc.).

Additionally, they can reduce an individual’s desire to engage in potentially harmful or self-destructive behaviors. Often, individuals in experiential therapies develop a better image of themselves mentally, emotionally, and even physically (a more positive body image).

Woman resting her forehead on the nose of a horse. Her hands are placed on the side of the horse's face and both the woman's and the horse's eyes are closed.Animal-Assisted Therapies

Experiential therapies that use animals, such as equine-assisted therapy or animal-assisted therapy, are excellent sources of growth for individuals who have extreme issues relating to people. Individuals learn how to:

  • Read intentions.
  • Develop a working bond that is free from negative evaluation.
  • Benefit from an animal’s unconditional affection for a caregiver.
  • Attend to the needs of others.

These types of experiential techniques may be useful for individuals with issues relating to other people and often jumpstart the process of socializing individuals back into contact with other human beings. Working with animals also helps individuals learn to empathize and be compassionate for both animals and people. At the same time, many of these techniques also help individuals to develop a sense of independent achievement.

Movement Therapies

Experiential therapies also involve quite a bit of physical movement that can increase fitness, coordination, and manual dexterity. The physical movement utilized in many experiential therapies may:

  • Encourage a healthier expression of both positive and negative emotions.
  • Helps a person work through personal conflicts by either recreating them or just through the act of the movement itself.

In a way, it is similar to the therapeutic benefits of exercise. Many experiential therapies offer benefits just by getting the individual to be active in some form of physical, mental, and emotional movement.

Expressive Therapies

patient painting during experiential art therapyExpressive experiential therapies include art therapy, psychodrama, and music therapy. Participation in types of experiential therapies may:

  • Reduce issues with denying one’s problems.
  • Increase motivation in treatment.
  • Develop a more positive approach to more conventional therapeutic interventions.

Experiential therapies also allow for stronger development of the therapeutic alliance (the working bond between the patient and therapist), which is an essential part of a successful treatment outcome.

Traditional vs. Experiential Therapy

Experiential therapies are not the only therapeutic techniques that offer any of the above benefits, but they offer a viable alternative for certain individuals in therapy to benefit from self-expression, reflection, and working with others toward a goal.

One of the potential drawbacks to the use of experiential therapy techniques is that individuals may fail to draw a connection between the experiences of the intervention and their own personal issues.

This is where the component of evidence-based therapy comes in. Therapists can help patients make the connection between their experiences in the intervention and the problems that brought them into the therapy in the first place.

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