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The Use of Experiential Therapy in Addiction Treatment: Top 5 Benefits

A Push in the Right Direction

Sometimes, we just need a little push in the most unlikely direction. This push can help us both reveal and conquer our deep-rooted emotional issues.

Like climbing a 40’cedar tree, perhaps.

Keoni Enlow remembers the day he encountered Tim*, a heroin addict who entered treatment with a good spirit but was a little beat up by life. He saw a look of darkness in the young man’s eyes. Tim was angry with God and his situation. And he certainly didn’t want to be surrounded by other addicts starting up at a cedar tree.

But Enlow, an adventure facilitator at JourneyPure at the River, knew that the challenge he was leading that day – called the Leap of Faith – was just what Tim needed to help him face some inner demons. He ignored excuse after excuse and pushed for him to strap on the harness and begin the challenging climb.

“He fought it the whole way,” said Enlow. “He told me, ‘I will never trust God again.’ I told him, ‘Let go of what you want to let go of. Make your peace. Leave it up there. Just don’t come back down here with it.”

Begrudgingly, Tim began to climb, carrying all that life had thrown at him. Slowly, he made it to the top where he rang the celebratory bell. He jumped off the platform with full faith that the members of his group would be there to catch him. He took the Leap of Faith. When he made it to the ground, Tim dropped to his knees and cried.

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What is Experiential Therapy?

Adventure therapy is just one form of experiential therapy, a therapeutic technique utilized in addiction treatment that, as opposed to traditional talk therapy, engages participants in some type of activity. Developed in the 1970s, experiential therapies have become an extremely effective way to uncover deep-rooted, underlying emotions or trauma in individuals with substance abuse issues. Some common forms of experiential therapy used in addiction treatment are:

How Experiences Help Treat Addiction

Many people who face addiction arrive to a treatment facility numb, not knowing how to feel and live life, Enlow says. His goal in involving patients in adventure therapy – including low ropes, high ropes, kayaking and mindfulness exercises like meditation – is to,

“Give them hope – whatever that looks like for them.” – Keoni Enlow

Activities like these provide an atmosphere for team-building and give patients a mental and physical challenge. It’s also a way for them to be present in the moment – to focus on the task at hand instead of consuming themselves with the life challenges that brought them to treatment. Enlow said Tim was forever changed by that day and he was proud to be a witness.

What is clear is this: climbing a cedar tree can trigger emotional response.

Top 5 Benefits of Experience-Based Therapy

1. Experience helps people develop a better sense of self.

The overall goal of experiential therapy is to bring awareness to emotions that have been buried for some time. And that means both the good and bad emotions. By numbing pain with drugs or alcohol, people who become addicted have also lost sight of the simple joys in life. An essential part of treatment is helping individuals rediscover who they are when they are free from addiction. Experiential therapies can play a major role. Art and music therapy, for example allow participants to express themselves through creativity, not only tapping into hidden feelings but possibly hidden talents.

2. New experiences improve self-esteem.

Tim learned that conquering a 40’ cedar tree climb is a mental and physical challenge. For others, it might be camping, kayaking down a scenic river, or tackling a ropes course that brings them out of their comfort zone. Experiential therapies activities are designed to build self-esteem and a sense of self-worth, a critical piece in the road to recovery. Changing old habits, disconnecting with circles that encourage the addiction patterns and facing new life challenges without the crutch of drugs or alcohol – these all require strength and self-confidence.

3. Clients must be in the Here-And-Now.

When people facing addiction arrive to treatment, they are carrying a lot of baggage. They may have family issues, a criminal history, or sadly, a near-death experience with an overdose. Adventure Facilitator Keoni Enlow said he loves getting his patients involved in adventure therapy because it forces them to focus solely on the task at hand. He wants them to be in the moment, getting the most out of every challenge.

In an article published by CRC Health, author Michael Hurst writes,

“Change, emotional growth, and personal empowerment are all among the benefits of participating in an effective experiential therapy program. Because experiential therapy patients are often focused on the task or activity at hand — rather than on the therapeutic aspect of the experience — they are more likely to behave in a more unguarded and genuine manner.”

4. Experience facilitates better Client/Therapist relationships.

According to addiction.com, a significant advantage of experiential therapy is that the therapist is able to observe their clients in real-world settings, where they are more likely to “show their true colors” as opposed to a traditional therapy session. The article reads, “They tend to be less guarded, and their emotions, behaviors, and reactions more authentic, during an activity, which helps facilitate the therapy process.”

5. Experience helps people build trust and healthy relationships.

Whether it’s a group adventure activity or a day caring for horses during an equine assisted therapy session, many in recovery are learning to trust others again. Dualdiagnosis.org explains how an equine therapy session can help the patient learns to translate interactions with horses, to their relationships with humans. The article states,

“An equine therapy client will soon learn that yelling, snapping fingers, threats, stamping feet, and other such behaviors will not work with a horse, just as they often do not work with other humans. Because equine therapy is so far outside of the box for many people, they are gently forced to confront longstanding assumptions of communication and relationships, and shift into new, more compassionate approaches.”

Experiential Therapy Questions

We hope to have covered some of the main benefits of implementing experience-based therapies into addiction treatment. However, if you have any questions regarding experiential therapy and its usefulness in addiction treatment, please leave your comments in the designated section at the end of the page. We do our best to respond personally and promptly to all legitimate inquiries.

Reference Sources: NCBI: Emotional processing in experiential therapy: Why “the only way out is through.”
NIDA: The Living In Balance Counseling Approach
NCBI: Substance use disorder treatment retention and completion: a prospective study of horse-assisted therapy (HAT) for young adults

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About Journey Pure

JourneyPure'smission is to help those struggling with addiction to get healthy and stay healthy. We offer individualized, comprehensive treatment plans that are evidence-based and coupled with dual-diagnosis mental health services. Aspects of nutrition, fitness and mental wellness are incorporated into each program and are monitored daily following treatment with a digital continuing care plan accessed through our innovative JourneyPure Coaching™ app.

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