Experiential Therapy for Treating Addiction:
New Experiences to Inspire Change

Experiential therapy involves active, hands-on activities that help people in recovery express difficult emotions, look at old problems in new ways, and develop greater self-awareness and self-confidence. Experiential therapies are effective for treating addiction when they’re used along with traditional therapies like cognitive-behavioral therapy. Here, we look at how experiential therapies work and offer an overview of commonly used experiential therapies in addiction treatment.

Experiential Therapy: Experiences and Addiction Treatment

According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, a holistic approach to treatment offers the best chances of successful recovery.1This approach involves both traditional and complementary therapies that promote whole-person healing.

Traditional therapies include cognitive-behavioral therapy, acceptance and commitment therapy and dialectical behavior therapy, which help you change negative thought and behavior patterns and cope better with negative emotions.

Complementary therapies include experiential therapies like art or music therapy, adventure therapy and horticultural therapy. These hands-on therapies are led by trained, licensed therapists who help individuals look at old issues in new ways; synthesize lessons learned and apply them to their lives; and develop greater self-awareness through observing how they respond while engaging in certain activities. Many experiential therapies use principles from cognitive-behavioral therapy and other traditional therapies to help create meaningful change.

Experiential therapies are fun and engaging, and they help improve retention in treatment.

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Using Experience to Guide Treatment: Kolb's Four-Stage Learning Cycle

David Kolb, the famous educational theorist, identified a four-stage cycle of learning that occurs with experiential therapy. Kolb writes that learning “is the process whereby knowledge is created through the transformation of experience,” and his learning cycle embodies this theory:

Stage one: Concrete experience (do it.)
Learners engage in a new experience.

Stage two: Reflective observation (talk about it.)
Learners actively observe and reflect before, during and after the experience.

Stage three: Abstract conceptualization (synthesize it.) The reflection of the experience sparks a new idea or the reworking of an old idea or belief.

Stage four: Active experimentation (apply it.) Learners apply their new or reworked idea in their lives and let it shape their perceptions of themselves and the world around them in positive ways.

According to Kolb, experiential therapy only works when all four stages are involved. An experience alone won’t create change unless it’s observed, conceptualized and applied. When it is, the experience becomes a catalyst for developing new concepts and skills that promote successful recovery.

Types of Experiential Therapy

High-quality treatment programs offer a variety of experiential therapies that provide opportunities for holistic healing. These are some of the most common experiential therapies used in addiction treatment programs.

Adventure Therapy

Adventure therapy takes place outdoors and involves a variety of activities like climbing, kayaking, hiking and zip-lining. The outdoor setting inspires hope and wellbeing and promotes personal growth and self-confidence. The activities stimulate emotional, cognitive and behavioral responses that connect to other areas of participants’ lives. Adventure therapy has been shown to:

  • Improve decision-making skills
  • Promote better communication and cooperation skills
  • Help individuals develop trust
  • Teach coping skills like tolerating stress and being okay with being uncomfortable
  • Increase engagement in treatment

Aquatic Therapy

Aquatic therapies involve soothing water activities that promote feelings of calm and wellbeing. Aquatic therapy reduces stress and anxiety and improves mood and sleep. Common aquatic therapies used in addiction treatment include:

  • Ai Chi, which involves strengthening and relaxation exercises for greater physical, mental and spiritual energy
  • Ai Chi Ne, which involves working in pairs to restore physical and emotional balance
  • Watsu, a one-on-one therapy involving flowing moves, floating, rocking and massage to promotes a highly relaxed state and spiritual healing

Art Therapy

During art therapy, participants create, view and talk about art. Through creative self-expression, they work through complex emotions and experiences and increase self-awareness. Other benefits of art therapy, according to an article published in the American Journal of Health, include: 2

  • Reduced denial
  • Healing of emotional wounds
  • Increased engagement in treatment and recovery
  • Reduced stress and feelings of shame
  • Healthier thought and behavior patterns

Biofeedback Therapy

Biofeedback therapy is a powerful experiential therapy for reducing stress and increasing feelings of wellbeing on the spot. During biofeedback therapy, sensors attached to the participant record physiological functions like heart rate, respiration, blood pressure and body temperature. These are displayed on a monitor in real time. The client is taught a variety of relaxation techniquessuch as deep breathing, visualization, meditation and progressive relaxation. As the client practices these techniques, the monitor shows how they impact the body’s functions. Biofeedback helps individuals:

  • Read their body’s stress response
  • Reduce anxiety and stress on the spot
  • Develop psychological confidence
  • Reduce cravings

Drumming Therapy

Drum therapy promotes a sense of connection and belonging with others and improves emotional functioning, according to a study published in the American Journal of Public Health. 3 During drumming therapy, participants choose a drum and enjoy call-and-response activities and create improvisational music that promotes a state of “flow.” Meditation and visualization are often incorporated into the session. Drumming therapy helps participants:

  • Make meaningful connections with others
  • Work through emotional trauma
  • Connect to a higher power
  • Develop self-confidence and leadership skills
  • Release negative emotions
  • Reduce feelings of self-centeredness and isolation

Equine Therapy

Equine therapy involves working with horses, which can respond to the feelings of humans. Horses can sense anger, nervousness, happiness and sadness and provide a mirror through which participants can examine their feelings. During equine therapy, participants take responsibility for the care of a horse, including grooming, feeding, leading and riding the animal. Equine therapy helps people with a history of trauma or PTSD reduce negative symptoms and increase self-esteem and self-confidence.

According to Michigan State University, equine therapy has physical, emotional and psycho-social benefits, including:

  • Helping participants develop emotional coping skills
  • Restoring the brain’s assessment and compensation pathways
  • Increased self-confidence
  • Greater self-awareness of negative emotions like fear, anxiety and mistrust

Horticultural Therapy

Participants in horticultural therapy engage in a variety of activities that take place in a garden setting. Through planting, nurturing and attending to green living things, participants view gardening as a metaphor for their own personal growth and wellbeing. Numerous studies reveal the benefits of horticultural therapy, which include:

  • Increased self-awareness
  • Better emotional control
  • Better planning and decision-making skills
  • Reduced stress
  • Improved self-control, self-esteem and self-confidence

Mindfulness Meditation

Mindfulness meditation is a practice that involves sitting quietly and focusing on the breath, allowing thoughts to move through the brain without reaction or judgment. Regular meditation improves self-awareness and mindfulness, and it promotes making better choices. According to the journalSubstance Abuse. mindfulness meditation is highly effective for helping to treat addiction. Its benefits include:4

  • Helping practitioners respond better to external events
  • Promoting feelings of inner calm and peace
  • Pain relief
  • Better decision-making skills
  • Better emotional regulation
  • Less anxiety, stress and fear

Music Therapy

Music therapy involves making, listening to, moving to and analyzing music. According to a study published in the Journal of Addictions Nursing, music therapy reduces feelings of anxiety, depression and anger, and it’s associated with a stronger motivation to change.Music therapy also helps participants:

  • Improve communication skills
  • Work through complex emotions and issues
  • Find common ground with others
  • Create meaningful personal change

Yoga

Yoga is a mindfulness experiential therapy that combines controlled breathing and movement. Led by a certified yoga instructor, yoga often incorporatesinspirational teachings and meditation techniques to help participants improve their self- and body-awareness .and dwell in the present moment without concerns of the past or future. Yoga is widely used in addiction treatment programs and helps people:

  • Improve mindfulness
  • Reduce cravings
  • Reduce stress and improve the body’s stress response
  • Reduce symptoms of PTSD
  • Reduce depression and anxiety
  • Heal emotional wounds, especially for trauma survivors

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Experiential Therapy Promotes Successful Recovery from Addiction

A treatment program that includes a range of experiential therapies along with traditional programming offers better outcomes. Experiential therapy enhances whole-person healing and increases feelings of wellbeing. Through a variety of experiential therapies, people in treatment increase their self-awareness and make important connections between their thoughts, emotions and behaviors for better social and emotional functioning.

Experiential therapy has proven benefits, and it’s an integral part of any high-quality treatment program. Experiential therapies provide a safe place to explore complicated emotions and experiences, and they help individuals develop healthier patterns of thinking and behaving. Experiential therapy promotes active participation and mindfulness in treatment and beyond.