What Is Experiential Therapy?

Experiential therapy utilizes different activities to immerse teens in a calming experience, and better reach them through talk therapy methods. Where talk therapy focuses on the power of conversation to help achieve introspection, experiential therapy focuses on the power of actions. Experiential therapy includes different forms of art therapy, drama therapy, and animal-assisted therapies.

Teens might do well with experiential therapy for a few different reasons. In some cases, therapists might find that experiential therapy has a better shot of reaching a teen who might not seem receptive to discussing their thoughts or feelings in normal talk therapy sessions, or even within a group. 

In other cases, however, experiential therapy can serve as an alternative with a better chance of success due to the nature of a teen’s mental health issue. Experiential therapy can be more effective in the treatment of trauma or avoidance-based symptoms. 

What is Experiential Therapy?

The origins of experiential therapy as a formal framework for psychotherapy can be traced back to the 1940s. 

Since then, progress has been made in identifying different therapeutic activities and approaches that help people open up to a psychotherapeutic inquiry. In other words, finding and establishing helpful activities to facilitate the productive discussion of personal thoughts, anxieties, and past experiences, or act as a bridge for those conversations. 

Core Principles for Experiential Therapy

There are multiple core principles for experiential therapy. These include: 

  • Trust: The foundation of trust between client and therapist. 
  • Immersion: The immersion in an experience. 
  • Introspection: Using that experience to reflect. 
  • Client-driven: Therapists help guide clients, but don’t interfere in their experience, or try to interpret their experience for them. 
  • Problem-solving: Experiential therapy invariably leads to challenges or questions. It’s a therapist’s goal to help clients work through these problems themselves – and embrace the power to define and choose an answer. 
  • Awareness and Unconscious Processing: Experiential therapy delves deeper into the differences between thoughts and ideas we are aware of, and things that lurk beneath the surface. Part of experiential therapy involves helping a client choose to become aware of their unconscious thoughts and acknowledge them in a productive way. 

Types of Experiential Therapy

Experiential therapy exists in different forms. Some of these therapies may be more effective for individual teens than others. Clients and therapists work together to determine which kind of experiential therapy might work best for them. 

Some clinics and therapists utilize their own type of experiential therapy, but most experiential therapies can be broken down into the following categories: 

  • Art Therapy – Art therapy utilizes visual arts, primarily, as a therapeutic activity for teens. In these sessions, teens might be asked to work on something with a specific visual medium, such as oil paints, acrylic, crayons, watercolor, or charcoal. Art therapy can also include sculpting or arts-and-crafts activities, such as scrapbooking and origami. Sometimes, art is an outlet for frustration but doesn’t specifically relate to the therapeutic topic. Other times, it can be a vehicle for what a teen wants to say but can’t verbalize. 
  • Music Therapy – While music is certainly a form of art, most therapists separate art therapy from music therapy. The goal is the same – to harness the calming and positive nature of music, even aggressive or angry music, to act as an immersive activity to talk about mental health, and as a healthy outlet. 
  • Drama Therapy – Again, drama and acting can be art forms, but this type of experiential therapy is even further removed from the other two forms. During drama therapy, teens might be asked to write their own script, act out an existing script, or set the stage for a play. Drama therapy usually encompasses roleplaying and utilizes the benefit of exploring a character from the outside as a means to ask and answer difficult questions. 
  • Play Therapy – This form of experiential therapy is most often used with children, rather than teens or adults. Play therapy utilizes toys and games to help younger children work through difficult experiences or thoughts while talking with a therapist. 
  • Adventure-Based Therapy – Adventure-based experiential therapies may include hikes, sports or group activities, and team-building activities in residential clinics or facilities. These experiential therapies can strengthen the camaraderie between teen clients and serve as a positive outlet for stress in treatment. 
  • Animal-Assisted Therapy – Animal-assisted therapies usually utilize the soothing nature of taking care or being with an animal to help teens stay calm during therapy. Sometimes, taking care of an animal can help teens improve their sense of empathy and their communicative skills, as well as teach them about boundaries – both boundaries for other people, and boundaries for themselves. 

In contrast to talk therapy, experiential therapies are less known. Sometimes, parents and teens have questions about why certain experiential therapies work while others don’t, or why a therapist might have better luck addressing someone during a play or dramatic work than through a one-on-one conversation. 

Experiential therapies are a cornerstone of the treatment process here at Visions Treatment Centers. Alongside talk therapy programs and medication management, our various experiential therapies help teens with mental health issues and co-occurring disorders find better environments in which to explore their past, and face present challenges. Learn more about our treatment modalities and teen mental health programs at Visions. 


Whether through drama therapy or adventure-based activities, such as hikes, experiential therapies offer a powerful alternative path toward self-reflection and growth in a teen’s mental health journey. When part of a comprehensive and long-term treatment plan, experiential therapies also help teens discover positive coping mechanisms for the future, and help them find ways to tolerate different day-to-day stressors through art, music, or collaborative play. 

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