When people bring up therapy, they’re usually talking about talk therapy or psychotherapy – these are treatment methods that involve discussing certain actions, thoughts, and emotions with a trained professional, and relying on healthy argumentation and dialogue to develop a better understanding of one’s own thoughts and emotions, as well as the effects of a mental health issue. But, experiential therapy is something different altogether.
While still a therapeutic treatment for mental health problems, experiential therapy combines dialogue with action, using immersive experiences to help patients overcome unhealthy coping mechanisms, shed their anxieties and worries, and get to the emotional core of their condition or problem.
What is Experiential Therapy?
Experiential therapy is like talk therapy, but adds action to the treatment process, involving patients in immersive therapeutic environments to help them become more introspective, and achieve a greater therapeutic effect.
The thesis of experiential therapy relies on the idea that actions help reinforce our thoughts and emotions just as much, or even more than words. Rather than confronting negative thinking in dialogue, experiential therapy aims to bring out and expose unhealthy behaviors and thought patterns through roleplaying, psychodrama, music, and other forms of art and public or personal self-expression.
The difference is more than semantic – there is a clinical and philosophical core to experiential therapy that sets it apart from other types of talk therapy, and allows it to become an important tool in the repertoire of different therapists and mental health clinics. That core is characterized by the idea that some people are better at introspection than others.
Talk therapy forms like cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) and dialectical behavior therapy (DBT) are so successful because they help patients identify and argue against thoughts and feelings that originate with or are perpetuated by their mental health problems.
In doing so, they can embrace a healthier thought process that allows them to dull the blow of a depressive or anxious episode, or work against symptoms of their diagnosis. In tandem with medication, family support, and lifestyle changes, therapy helps patients take back control over the way they feel and improves their overall quality of life.
But patients who struggle to look inward and might not have the innate introspective abilities needed to apply lessons in therapy may struggle to progress with traditional forms of talk therapy, such as CBT and DBT.
Infusing Active Experiences with the Therapeutic Process
Experiential therapy takes this conclusion and incorporates active experiences into the therapeutic process to unlock a person’s introspective capabilities and help them translate lessons from therapy into their day-to-day thinking.
It’s not just about introspection. Experiential therapy also taps into the human mind’s innate abilities to translate, recontextualize, and re-experience trauma and joy through wordless actions.
While some of us are able to work through our thoughts and emotions purely through language, whether in our mind, in dialogue, or on paper through journaling, words alone aren’t always enough to explore our emotions, or we might lack the words needed to truly express ourselves. Experiential therapy helps tap into something more primordial, something more accessible than language.
Different Types of Experiential Therapy
Experiential therapy does not come with strict guidelines as to categorization and type. But most forms can generally be categorized into one of the following types:
Art therapy refers to an experiential setting where patients are encouraged to use different artistic processes to work through inner conflicts, such as painting, sketching, drawing, or sculpting.
Outdoor therapy utilizes wilderness excursions, hikes, and adventurous activities with therapy sessions, helping patients break through emotional barriers in the therapeutically conducive environments of nature.
Animal-assisted therapy helps patients open up and engage in therapeutic conversation through the care of animals, often dogs and horses.
Play-based therapy is a form often used in the treatment of younger children, who might experience difficulties talking about negative thoughts or trauma, but often re-enact or re-experience it through play.
Music-based therapy is similar to other forms of art-based therapy, using composition and musical arrangements in place of physical mediums.
Psychodrama or drama therapy involves immersive acting and roleplaying to re-experience and release suppressed or negative emotions associated with a past event or recurring anxious thought, thereby helping patients work through their issues in a safe and healthy environment.
When is Experiential Therapy Used for Teens?
Experiential therapy may be applied to teens who do not respond well to traditional talk therapy. Experiential therapy may help in the treatment of multiple different conditions, including:
- Mood disorders (like depression and bipolar disorder)
- Anxiety disorders
- Behavioral disorders
- Personality disorders
- Anger management problems
- Substance use
- Trauma disorders
- And more
Experiential therapy will be more helpful for teens who struggle to express themselves in other forms of therapy, but “open up” through their art, their creative endeavors, their acting, or other forms of self-expression.
Experiential Therapy as Part of a Larger Treatment Plan
As with any other form of therapy, experiential therapy will usually be offered as part of a larger treatment plan involving multiple modalities, including medication. It may take time, and multiple sessions, for the effects of the treatment process to become noticeable.
For relatives and friends alike, patience and understanding become important. Therapeutic treatments can help patients identify signs of illness and cope with them more effectively, but they aren’t a “cure”. There will be good days and bad days. Sometimes, returning to therapy – or continuing therapy even after the bad episodes have stopped – is an important key to keeping up against negative or unwanted thoughts and behaviors.
What Parents Should Know
Experiential therapy can be intense. Patients are encouraged to express themselves, which can result in painful or uncomfortable forms of self-expression and displays of emotionality.
Your teens might not want to talk openly about what they went through in early sessions, and it may take time for them to explore their emotions. You and your teen can prepare yourselves by looking at footage of sample experiential therapy sessions online, or through other online resources.