The Basics of Experiential Therapy

Experiential therapy is a therapeutic practice and technique that uses actions and movements in therapy sessions, instead of the traditional model of talk therapy. It uses expressive tools and activities to reenact and reexperience emotional situations, events, or circumstances as part of the client’s healing process. Experiential therapy may involve:

  • Role-playing or acting
  • Props
  • Arts and crafts
  • Music
  • Guided imagery
  • Animal care
  • Outdoor activities
Generic Treatment Name Experiential Therapy
Other Names Expressive Therapy
Conditions Commonly Treated Trauma, Eating Disorders, Anger Management, Addiction Recovery, Grief and Loss Recovery, Behavior Disorders, Other Physical and Behavioral Addictions, Compulsive Behavior
Availability/How to Receive It From a licensed, qualified therapist
Examples of Experiential Therapy Art therapy, Music therapy, Animal-assisted therapy, Play therapy, Poetry therapy, Adventure therapy
Goals of Experiential Therapy Gain access to emotional processing, inner thoughts, creativity, and interactions. Individuals can learn to reflect on their experiences more comfortably and free themselves to make their own decisions.
How Experiential Therapy Works Centers around the philosophy that someone’s perception of something determines their behavior. An individual can achieve positive feelings of love, forgiveness, and calmness in the present by reexperiencing and releasing repressed emotions from the past.
Important Notes The type of experiential therapy should reflect the client’s interests and what they are naturally drawn to.
Experiential Therapists Clinicians and therapists often completed additional training in a specific experiential approach, such as music or art.

Experiential Therapy Background

The origins of experiential therapy are believed to go back to the 1970s, and many of the ideas behind it can be attributed to a range of psychiatrists, psychologists, family therapists, and researchers, the most prominent of which is Eugene Gendlin. While he had no formal degree in psychology, Gendlin worked closely with Carl Rogers and wrote extensively in the field of psychology and psychotherapy. Gendlin is the author of several books on the subject, including Focusing-Oriented Psychotherapy: A Manual of the Experiential Method.

All of these professionals in the field used what might have been considered unconventional means during therapy sessions with patients, often integrating elements like humor and play.

How Experiential Therapy Works

Regardless of the condition that experiential therapy is attempting to treat, a fundamental pillar within the field is that the client’s perception determines his or her behavior. The idea is that through the reexperience and release of repressed negative emotions from the past, the individual can better experience positive feelings in the present, such as love, calmness, and forgiveness.

During addiction recovery, experiential therapy can be used in conjunction with other forms of addiction recovery resources, including 12-Step programs. In one study that examined the use of art and music therapy in substance abuse treatment programs, it found that 36.8% of programs use art therapy and 14.7% use music therapy, with 11.7% utilizing both art and music.

In experiential therapy sessions, because individuals are focused on the task or activity at hand, they’re more likely to behave in an unguarded and genuine way, which can assist them in their healing process.

How Experiential Therapy Is Used

As mentioned above, experiential therapy is used to treat a number of conditions and is sometimes used in conjunction with other programs or resources. These conditions include:

  • Trauma
  • Eating disorders
  • Anger management
  • Addiction recovery
  • Grief and loss recovery
  • Behavioral disorders
  • Compulsive behavior
  • Other physical and behavioral addictions

How Experiential Therapy Is Administered

How experiential therapy is administered depends on the type of experiential therapy in which the client is participating. Some examples are included below.

  • Drama therapy involves acting out certain situations to help individuals achieve therapeutic goals.
  • Music therapy addresses the physical, emotional, cognitive, and social needs of individuals by allowing them to create, listen, move, or sing to music.
  • Art therapy focuses on creative artistic processes, such as painting or sculpting, to reduce negative experiences and develop an awareness of self.
  • Animal-assisted therapy typically uses horses (equine therapy) or dogs in therapeutic interventions. This therapy can be especially useful for individuals in substance abuse treatment, as many can have difficulty relating to people.

Cost and Other Considerations of Experiential Therapy

The cost of experiential therapy can vary depending on the type of experiential therapy used, the individual’s financial situation, and health insurance coverage. Charitable organizations are available to help fund the cost of certain therapies as well.

Experiential therapy can be effective for many people, and it’s often used in substance abuse treatment to help individuals overcome their addiction. It can sometimes be used in conjunction with other kinds of treatment, such as 12-Step programs.

Sometimes experiential therapy can also be useful for people who have not responded well to talk therapy.

How to Get Help & Additional Resources

To learn more about experiential therapy, consult one of our many additional resources for more information, or find rehab programs in your area.


How does experiential therapy benefit individuals in substance abuse treatment?

Patients with any of the named mental health disorders, including substance abuse, may benefit from experiential therapy. In the realm of addiction, people may rationalize their substance abuse or dependency and may think that information alone is enough to mount their defense.

In reality, achieving sobriety is much more complex than just reading about how to recover. If this were true, studying the topic would be enough to gain sobriety. Addiction has accompanying issues to work through related to self-esteem, emotional feelings, and triggers.

With which other types of therapy is experiential therapy used?

Many times, experiential therapy is used with traditional forms of therapy, including cognitive behavioral therapy. Sometimes, multiple experiential therapy types are combined, including art with music, music with poetry, or art with poetry.

What are other benefits of experiential therapy?

Under the guidance of an experiential therapist, clients have the opportunity to:

  • Experience success
  • Identify obstacles
  • Improve self-esteem
  • Take greater responsibility for their actions

Is experiential therapy effective?

Some research has shown that many of these expressive therapies can help with reducing issues related to substance abuse. In addition, using dogs in substance abuse treatment groups can help increase the bond between the therapist and client, both in a group and in individual therapy as well.

This guide is for informational purposes only. Its purpose is to educate the public on how this treatment is used. The purpose of this guide is not to recommend a specific treatment or give medical advice. Always consult with your doctor first, as well as other medical and addiction professionals, before trying a new treatment.