Experience the Change:

Experiential Therapy for Treating Addiction

The benefits of experiential therapy and the many forms of this healing therapy.

Experience the Change: Experiential Therapy for Treating Addiction

The benefits of experiential therapy and the many forms of this healing therapy. 

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Addiction is a highly complex disease of the brain, characterized by drug or alcohol abuse even when it may cause negative consequences. A holistic treatment program that involves a combination of traditional “talk” therapy and experiential therapy offers the best outcomes of treatment, according to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA.)(1)
Addiction almost always has underlying causes. The most common of these include chronic stress, a history of trauma and mental illnesses like anxiety and depression. Successful recovery from addiction requires working through these underlying issues and changing dysfunctional thought and behavior patterns.

SAMHSA stresses that there is no single pathway to recovery that works for every individual. A high-quality treatment program will use a variety of therapies, classes and interventions to address all physical, mental and spiritual needs and problems.

What is Experiential Therapy?

Experiential therapy is an important component of treatment. Experiential therapies involve hands-on activities that help people look at old problems in new ways and address a variety of issues from different angles.

Some experiential therapies include art therapy, horticultural therapy and adventure therapy, which promote whole-person healing and support personal growth and empowerment. These therapies help by working through obstacles in a variety of settings and applying the lessons learned to “real” life.

Experiential therapies draw on principles of cognitive-behavioral therapy and other traditional therapies. Research shows that experiential therapy helps individuals:

  • Develop greater self-awareness
  • Express complex emotions and synthesize difficult experiences
  • Access buried emotions and experiences in a safe and supportive environment
  • Recognize emotional responses to events and cope with negative emotions
  • Initiate meaningful life changes

Staying in treatment for an adequate period of time is essential for successful recovery, and experiential therapies offer opportunities to have fun while learning more about yourself.

Kolb's Four-Stage Experiential Learning Cycle

According to educational theorist David Kolb, “Learning is the process whereby knowledge is created through the transformation of experience.” His theory is that hands-on experiences are an important motivation for developing new skills and concepts. Kolb developed a four-stage learning cycle that any experiential therapy should employ:(2)

  • Stage one involves engaging in a new experience in a concrete, hands-on way
  • Stage two involves actively observing the experience as it unfolds and reflecting on it afterwards
  • Stage three involves conceptualizing the experience into a new idea or concept or re-working an old concept based on the experience
  • Stage four involves applying the new or re-worked idea into your life, allowing it to create a more positive perception of the world around you

Experiential therapies are led by trained therapists who move participants through these stages by facilitating activities, leading discussions and helping participants transfer the lessons to their lives. The therapist helps you become more aware of your thoughts, emotions and behaviors and develop healthier ways of thinking and behaving.

Common Experiential Therapies Used in Addiction Treatment

A variety of experiential therapies are used in high quality treatment programs to address a range of issues. Some of the most common experiential therapies include:

During art therapy, a variety of activities are used to help participants work through difficult emotions and make sense of complex experiences through creative self-expression. Activities used in art therapy include:

  • Visually representing an experience through drawing or painting
  • Creating an art journal and writing down reflections
  • Reducing stress through art-making
  • Expressing emotions with color, line and shape
  • Looking at and discussing art in a group setting

 

According to an article published in the American Journal of Health, the benefits of art therapy include:(3)

  • Emotional healing
  • Healthier thought and behavior patterns
  • Decreased denial and reduced ambivalence toward recovery
  • Increased motivation to stay in treatment and recover
  • Increased self-awareness
  • Reduced stress
  • Reduced shame

 

Music therapy helps address a range of physical, emotional and social needs. During music therapy, participants engage in activities like listening to and discussing music; writing songs or moving to music as a form of self-expression; creating music with instruments or the voice; and analyzing song lyrics.

Music therapy reduces feelings of depression, anxiety, anger and stress. A study published in the Journal of Addictions Nursing found that music therapy improves motivation to change and increases engagement in treatment.(4) It also helps participants:

  • Improve their emotional state
  • Express and work through difficult emotions
  • Relax and reduce stress
  • Open communication pathways
  • Improve creative thinking
  • Engage in personal change

Horticultural therapy takes place in the garden, where participants learn to plant, nurture, and grow living things. The horticultural therapist helps participants view gardening as a metaphor for taking care of their own essential needs for a higher sense of wellbeing and greater personal growth. Diane Relf, a horticultural professor at Virginia Tech, says horticultural therapy improves self-confidence, self-esteem, and self-control.(5) A large body of research into horticultural therapy shows that it’s also beneficial for:

  • Improving self-awareness
  • Improving mood
  • Better decision-making and planning skills
  • Self-expression and creativity
  • Reducing negative emotions
  • Relieving stress

Equine therapy involves working with horses, including grooming, feeding, leading and riding them. Horses are pack animals, and they sense and respond to the emotions of other animals, including humans. During equine therapy, the horses serve as a sort of mirror. Participants can evaluate their own emotions and state of mind and get real-time feedback from the horse. The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs cites equine therapy as effective for treating post-traumatic stress disorder, which often co-occurs with addiction.(6) Other benefits of equine therapy include:

  • Improved physical and mental strength, balance and coordination
  • Development of coping skills that transfer to other areas of life
  • Restoring the brain’s compensation and assessment pathways
  • Increased self-confidence
  • Increased awareness of emotional states

Biofeedback therapy is an effective experiential therapy for reducing stress, which is a major relapse trigger. During biofeedback, sensors are attached to the body, and functions like blood pressure, heart rate, body temperature, muscle tension and skin moisture are displayed on a monitor in real time. Participants learn how to reduce their stress through strategies like deep breathing, progressive relaxation and meditation. As they practice these exercises, they watch their body’s stress response diminish on the monitor.

Biofeedback helps people:

  • Learn to recognize their body’s stress cues
  • Reduce stress and anxiety on the spot
  • Develop psychological confidence
  • Reduce cravings

 

Adventure therapy takes place in nature and typically involves activities like climbing, hiking, camping, boating and hiking. Other activities, like ropes courses and zip lines, are also commonly used in adventure therapy.

Adventure therapy focuses on individual treatment goals. A trained adventure therapist monitors participants and ensures each is gaining positive momentum toward specific recovery goals. A study published in the journal Substance Abuse Treatment found that adventure therapy helps participants:(7)

  • Reduce the risk of relapse
  • Reduce cravings for alcohol
  • Reduce negative thoughts
  • Reduce stress and the stress response
  • Better concentration
  • A more positive outlook on life
  • Better control over impulses

Yoga is an experiential therapy that combines movement with controlled breathing and meditation. A certified yoga instructor leads participants through a variety of physical poses that increase physical and mental strength, flexibility, endurance and balance. Sometimes, the instructor will incorporate spiritual teachings into the session.

Yoga roots participants in the present moment, where they’re able to better evaluate their thoughts, emotions and bodily sensations. Yoga is used in many treatment programs to help people in recovery achieve:

  • A higher level of mindfulness
  • Greater self-awareness and body-awareness
  • Reduced stress
  • Reduced symptoms of PTSD
  • Reduced cravings
  • Improved stress response

Mindfulness meditation involves sitting quietly and focusing on your breath. As thoughts and physical sensations occur, you regard them neutrally, without judgment, then turn your focus back to your breathing. With regular practice, meditation changes the structures of the brain, increasing the volume of the areas associated with self-concept, emotional regulation and decision-making and decreasing the volume of the areas associated with fear, anxiety and the stress response.

Regular meditation changes the way your body responds to stress, and it reduces the urge to use drugs or alcohol during stressful times. According to an article in the journal Substance Abuse, meditation also:(8)

  • Reduces blood pressure
  • Relieves pain
  • Reduces feelings of depression and anxiety
  • Promotes feelings of calm and inner peace
  • Helps you respond better to negative external events
  • Increases self-awareness and mindfulness

Experiential Therapy Promotes Successful Recovery

A high-quality addiction treatment program will offer a variety of experiential therapies to help increase engagement in treatment and boost motivation to recover. Experiential therapies round out your treatment plan and help you make meaningful connections in your life. They help solidify the skills and strategies you’re learning in “talk” therapy, and they increase feelings of wellbeing. As part of a holistic treatment program, experiential therapy goes a long way toward promoting greater self-awareness and helping you develop the skills and strategies needed to enjoy successful recovery for a lifetime.