Experiential Therapy for Addiction Treatment

Using Experiential Therapy to Treat Substance Use Disorders

The new wave of psychotherapy is in the emerging field of experiential therapy. This theory is that people’s emotions and perceptions are derived from their past experiences, feelings, and thoughts. Experiential treatment aims to provide an environment where people can reconnect with themselves by integrating these different aspects of their personalities.

Experiential Therapy takes place in a safe space that allows for creativity and encourages self-expression. The elements of experiential treatment are guided imagery, art therapy, sand tray work or modeling clay work (modeling), sensory (touch) awareness exercises, such as massage or petting animals, dream interpretations, and more.

The goal is to influence the individual client’s thoughts, emotions, and behavior. The therapist teaches the client to understand what is going on internally. This allows clients to develop skills for dealing with life situations more effectively.

Experiential Therapy

How Does It Work?

ET is used to reprogram clients’ minds and allow them to see things in a new way. There are three levels.

1. Emotional

Clients learn to open up and express their emotions. The negative charge associated with painful emotions is released, and clients can feel without feeling bad about it.

2. Cognitive

Clients learn to think about their thoughts so that they become more transparent and better understood. This develops self-awareness and a better understanding of situations from an outside perspective.

3. Behavioral

Clients learn new ways of dealing with situations or trying new experiences that they may have previously found difficult or impossible. The whole process helps them cope with life, society, and relationships.

How Are They Used?

The three stages of this therapy are used in different ways. For example, cognitive and behavioral therapy treat clients with specific problems. It’s also helpful for neurotic behaviors or things like anxiety or phobias. The client learns that these behaviors are irrational in certain situations, and they can determine how they will react to the stimulus without being controlled by it.

Emotional therapy is used by individuals who have trouble coping with their emotions. This is often when people feel depressed and can’t reason with their discomfort. The therapist guides clients using techniques, such as meditation, to help them deal with the negative emotions that arise from those situations.

Advantages of Experiential Therapy

Experiential treatment has many advantages over traditional psychotherapy.

It Is Easy to Understand and for the Client to Be Involved

It doesn’t use complicated concepts that the therapist has to explain. Clients experience everything, and the therapist guides them through their own emotions and experiences. This makes it easier for clients to understand how they are being affected by situations, which helps them change their behavior in the future.

It allows for a Closer Relationship Between the Therapist and the Client

Clients can experience what is going on inside themselves without needing explanations from the therapist or interpretations of their physical expressions. They can see this all right before them, so it’s much easier to take in new information. They feel connected to their therapist because they are guiding them on this journey.

It Is Better for a Person Who Has Difficulty Communicating

Visual art therapy involves effective communication between the therapist and client. There are also visual objects in the environment involved in the therapeutic process. Therapists can choose specific objects that clients want or need. Therapists can use them to create a safe space or engage in sensory exercises. This offers more opportunities for clients to express themselves, experience self-expression, and connect with the process of therapy itself.

It Is More Effective at Treating Anxiety Disorders

Experiential treatment is better equipped to address anxiety issues than other forms of therapy. It focuses on the thought processes that are associated with anxiety as well as the individual’s reaction to certain situations. This allows clients to work through their issues instead of simply analyzing them from an outside perspective.

What to Expect From Experiential Therapy

Often, clients have trouble figuring out what they should do in therapy. Many people try to get a specific outcome or try to figure out why something that happened in their past caused them distress. The experiential treatment removes this way of thinking and instead encourages clients to focus on the present moment and their feelings about that moment. This is especially true for emotional therapy.

Clients will be encouraged to relax, think about things, and try new things. Some people can find this difficult, but others may find it enjoyable. They will learn new ways of dealing with situations to break away from the cycles causing negative emotions and behavior patterns in the first place.

How Can I Find Experiential Therapists?

You can find therapists that offer experiential treatment by searching online. If there are no therapists in your area, it is recommended that you consider checking out a different type of therapy, such as cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT). This can treat many of the same disorders as ET but is more widely available and significantly cheaper.

When you are selecting an experiential therapist, there are a few factors that you should look for.


Look at their education and professional background and what they’ve been doing for the last few years. Without work history or credentials, this person may not have much experience and struggle to get results.


Be aware that sometimes experiential therapists are not easy to find. That being said, see if any therapists you select are local or if they are willing to travel to you or conduct sessions on meeting apps like Zoom.


Think about how many sessions you want to go to and what exactly you want to focus on during those sessions. Ensure that the therapist has experience using ET because it’s different from traditional psychotherapy. Remember that you still need to be involved in the process, or it will fail. If this is important to you, make sure that your therapist knows how to engage clients throughout the therapy so that everyone can benefit from their work together.


Expect to be working on specific therapy goals, communication skills, relaxation techniques, and a complete understanding of your condition. Of course, this is all going to get you results quickly. Don’t expect therapists to use the same techniques that you used yourself. They will have different ways of finding progress in the therapy process and may work with aspects of the disorder that you wouldn’t even consider. You’ll need to be open to these techniques, or it will waste your time.

Types of Experiential Therapy

There are a number of different types of ET that your counselor might employ. Different therapists will employ different methods depending on your inclinations and what they have found to be effective in the past.

Dance and Movement Therapy

It is important to know that not all forms of ET involve visual art. Some therapists get their clients up and moving around – this can be great for emotional work because it reduces the number of thoughts in people’s minds and allows them to focus more on their own bodies. The therapist and client will work together to create an emotional connection between song, exercise, movement, or some other physical activity. This can then be used to experience each moment more fully or improve self-esteem.

Drama Therapy

Drama therapy has been around for a long time and has various approaches. Some therapists focused on acting out the emotions that their clients had experienced while others worked on building up the client’s physical strength to access everything that was going on inside the brain. Some work with a combination of these approaches or even focus solely on drama therapy as a way to express how they feel.

Narrative Therapy

This type of therapy involves telling a story to clients as they work through their issues. The therapist will work to help clients express themselves and learn how to use their own stories to improve their overall mental health. This technique helps boost self-confidence, change behaviors and break bad habits, learn new skills, and develop new solutions that can be used in the future.

Humanistic Therapy

This type of ET focuses on attending to the client’s inner world to generate change authentically. This type of therapy includes extensive attention to the client’s emotions and experiences, helps to heal wounds, and supports clients in frustration tolerance. This therapy is often seen in people older than 30 and has been endorsed by families who have experienced a poor outcomes from traditional psychotherapy.

When to Use Experiential Therapy

The best way to decide if you want to use ET is to look at other approaches that you have tried and how they’ve worked for you. ET works with some people but doesn’t work for others. ET may be the best option if you’re looking for something that allows you to feel like an active participant in your own healing. This can also be used as a supplement to traditional psychotherapy if specific issues haven’t been dealt with well in the past. Finally, ET may be a good idea for people who suspect that they have autism spectrum disorder.

Experiential Therapy in Substance Use Disorder

Experiential treatment has been integrated into the treatment process of several individuals struggling with substance use disorder. ET has been commonly used to treat post-traumatic stress disorder and anxiety disorders. However, it has yet to fulfill its potential in treating substance use disorder. This is particularly true since research suggests that most people with a substance use disorder have experienced trauma in their lives and have anxiety disorders or mood disorders.

How Experiential Therapy Is Used

The initial step for an individual to be able to select the appropriate type of therapy involves determining the purpose of therapy. This is done by deciding which components are most important to therapy and determining what kind of personal growth is desired. This can then be followed by a series of questions that will help bring about awareness about how one’s life has been perceived and experienced. A therapist can then work with clients to gather more information about their perceptions and experiences and focus on the role of past and current life events.

Experiential treatment is a very popular approach that has been used for many years. Those interested in using this type of therapy should consult with their therapist about how to best get what they’re looking for. The therapist can help clients break down their problems into goal-oriented categories and then help them find a way out of their issues. This approach will let you open up to those demons on the inside and uncover any other issues that you may have been repressing your entire life.

Sponsored Treatment Center:

Reviewed By:

Dr. John Elgin Wilkaitis

Dr. John Elgin Wilkaitis completed medical school at The University of Mississippi Medical Center and residency in general psychiatry in 2003. He completed a fellowship in Child and Adolescent Psychiatry at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital in 2005. Following this, he served as Chief Medical Officer for 10 years of Brentwood Behavioral Healthcare a private health system including a 105-bed hospital, residential treatment, and intensive outpatient services.

About Us

Addiction Experts is a group of addiction and behavioral health specialists dedicated to providing helpful, and free, addiction treatment guides. Millions of people have utilized our resources and suggestions for substance use disorders, mental health treatment, and process addiction treatment. Don’t hesitate to reach out to us with any questions you may have! 

Recent Posts:

Get Started on the Road to Recovery