What is Experiential Therapy?
For many people, addiction is a bit like an iceberg. Some portions of the addiction are peeking above the surface, and those symptoms might be easy to chip at and melt away. But underneath the surface lies a mass of memories, pain, trauma and broken promises. Therapy that only deals with the tip of the iceberg might leave you vulnerable to a relapse, as the rest of the addiction is still lurking below.
While some people might find it easy to describe their addiction past, and the hopes they have for the future, many people find it too hard to think about, remember or talk about those hidden hurts. After years of burying those thoughts, it can seem difficult, if not impossible, to drag them to the surface and expose them to the light. Some people find that experiential therapy helps make this process a bit easier.
Tapping Into the Body’s Memory Banks
The brain is a powerful recording instrument, capable of keeping track of the things you experience and the lessons you learn. But, there are times when the brain can be fooled into forgetting specific information. Memories are lost or buried, and lessons become harder to recall. Often, when this happens, the body seems to remember the things the brain has forgotten, and the body works hard to keep the brain from remembering the pain again. Therapists refer to this as “emotional avoidance” or “negative affect.” In essence, even though you may not have a direct memory of trauma, your body remembers and it tries to keep you away from being hurt once more. While this might seem helpful, on first glance, it can keep you trapped within a cycle of substance abuse. For example, a study published in the journal Addictive Behaviors found that people who entered substance abuse programs tended to have high levels of emotional avoidance. The researchers suggest that teaching these patients how to control bodily cues, and reduce the avoidance techniques they had been using, could help these patients feel more in control of their lives and the environment around them. Therapy can help them find new ways to cope.
A typical addiction recovery program would ask patients to verbalize what had happened to them in the past, but someone who is avoiding those talks on a subconscious level might not be able to participate in this therapy. Instead of talking, you might:
Feel an extreme urge to use substances
These sensations might sweep right over you, underneath the radar of your conscious mind, and the therapy might leave you feeling baffled instead of helped. It’s not the sort of therapy your body will let you participate in.
Experiential therapy allows you to have these discussions in a less combative way. It’s as though you’re attacking that iceberg from below, chipping away at a problem without facing it head on.
Types of Experiential Therapy
Since experiential therapy is more of a heading, instead of a description of a specific technique, there are many different formats therapists can use. Some common choices include:
How Experiential Therapy Works
The most important thing to remember about experiential therapy is that this is therapy. This isn’t a form of play, and it’s not a hobby. This is serious work that is supervised by a therapist and based on scientific principles. If you’re asked to perform these tasks as part of your recovery process, it’s important to take the request seriously and do your part to ensure that it works.
In a typical experiential therapy session, you’re asked to do something that has seemingly little or nothing to do with the addiction recovery process at all. As you’re completing this seemingly unrelated task, a therapist is right beside you the entire time, asking you questions about what you’re doing and how you’re feeling. Sometimes, you’ll feel more willing to open up because you don’t feel confronted. Other times, you’ll recover memories you thought you had lost, simply because your muscles, bones and the rest of your body are providing clues to the trauma your brain has been hiding.
A few examples might make the approach a bit easier to understand. In an article written in the journal The Arts in Psychotherapy, researchers outlined a music therapy program they used with substance-abusing teens. When the study began, the researchers felt that the students might use music to help distract them from the urge to use drugs, and they wanted to see if a structured music program could help them to keep their emotions under control so they wouldn’t want to use drugs. In each session, students were asked to analyze the lyrics of a song, create a parody of the song, sing along with the song or just listen to it carefully. The researchers found that patients overwhelmingly liked their sessions, with 83.4 percent reporting that they found the sessions enjoyable or extremely enjoyable. Some patients did experience anger, depression or sadness in the sessions, however. Researchers thought this was extremely positive, as the teens were able to explore these emotions using their music, instead of resorting to drugs. In other words, they learned to live in the moment, and feel those emotions fully, instead of resorting to drug use. It’s a powerful lesson.
Equine therapy sessions often revolve around basic horse handling. As an article published in the journal Society and Animals explains, people who participate in an equine-assisted therapy program are asked to do things like put a saddle on a horse, brush the horse or ride it from place to place. A handler is always nearby, making sure the interactions are safe for both the horse and the rider, but the therapy is essentially between the animal and the person. For therapists who use horses, the animals have special characteristics some addicts can relate to. Horses are wary creatures, always on alert and ready to run away when they’re scared. Horses sometimes behave inappropriately, eating when they shouldn’t, biting their friends or refusing to do what they’re told. Sometimes, watching a horse misbehave reminds people of the way they have treated their friends and family in the past.
Art therapy sessions run in much the same manner. You might be asked to make a sculpture of your parents, for example, and your therapist might stay by your side as you work. As the sculpture grows, your therapist might point out that the parents seem large and threatening, and you might be able to tap into pain you endured in their hands when you were small. You might make a painting of your home. Your therapist might point out that your use of green indicates nausea and distress, and you might be able to talk about those feelings as you continue to paint.
Benefits of Experiential Therapy
While the main benefit of these techniques revolves around openness and communication, there are other benefits to performing these sorts of activities. For example, in the study on equine therapy published in Society and Animals, researchers found that participants were:
More oriented in the present
Able to live in the moment, rather than focusing on the past
Able to face the future with less fear
Working with the horses seemed to allow these people to understand that the past is gone and the future is yet to come. By learning to fully experience the moment as it is happening right now, they were better able to move forward with less anxiety.
Working with art and music might also provide you with a way to fill up your spare time. There’s no question that addiction is time consuming. While your addiction is in progress, you must come up with money to buy drugs, find drugs to buy, prepare them for use and then wait for the effects to wear off. When you’re living a sober life, you’ll need something to do to fill up all of that time. Art, music, drama or another activity can provide you with a distraction, a creative outlet and a hobby.
*Is It Right for Me?
In the end, your therapist will help you to decide if this sort of therapy will help you overcome the issues you face. You won’t be required to ask for this sort of therapy on your own, and you can certainly refuse to participate if the idea of experiential therapy makes you uncomfortable. Your therapist might suggest experiential therapy if you:
Endured physical or sexual abuse in the past
Have a mental illness in addition to your addiction issue
Have difficulty expressing your thoughts without growing angry or upset
Feel uncomfortable talking about your past
Express joy about the idea of using art, animals or music in your therapy
Making It Happen
If your therapist suggests experiential therapy for you, it’s likely the techniques will be used in combination with other techniques. For example, you might be asked to participate in equine therapy sessions in the morning, and then attend cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) sessions in the afternoon. One therapy tends to build upon the other, giving you a full experience of the healing benefits of both approaches.
If you’re asked to participate in experiential therapy, it’s best to keep an open mind and think about the moment you’re living in right now. Focus on:
How you’re breathing
Where you’re feeling pain
What negative messages your brain might be sending up
What memories are bubbling to the surface
Take each emotion and thought as it comes, and share it with your therapist. Some of these ideas might be painful or uncomfortable, but your therapist won’t judge you or treat you harshly. You’re in a safe place, and you can explore those ideas without being judged for them.
If it helps, remember that the therapy has been proven to work. For example, a study in the journal Sexual Addiction and Compulsivity: The Journal of Treatment and Prevention found that people with a sex addiction who were given experiential therapy reported reductions in feelings of anxiety, and those reductions persisted even six months after therapy was over. The treatment really can help you to feel better and move forward.