Experiential Therapy for addiction: How does it work?

Working experientially can help bring unspoken, difficult-to-formulate or hidden experiences to light in addiction recovery. More here on Experiential Therapy for addiction. What is it? How does it work?

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What is Experiential Therapy?

The therapeutic approach known as “Experiential Therapy” was developed in the 1970s. Its purpose is to encourage patients to identify and address hidden or subconscious issues through:

  • role playing
  • guided imagery
  • the use of props

…and a range of other active experiences.

How can people in addiction recovery benefit from Experiential Therapy? Can this type of addiction therapy help recovering addicts access and resolve some of the root causes that lead to the behavior in the first place?

Learn more about what Experiential Therapy sessions look like and how it works here. Be sure to check out the section at the end for your questions! In fact, if you leave us a comment or question…we’ll be sure to respond to you personally and promptly.

What does Experiential Therapy actually do?

Just because a person doesn’t recall a memory doesn’t mean that the brain and body don’t remember it. So, Experiential Therapy first helps us access subconscious material. It also taps into unconscious material. What’s the difference between the two? Think of subconscious as being right beneath the surface and unconscious being buried deeply within the psyche.

In fact, Experiential Therapy can access deeply buried memories that occurred preverbally (before a child was able to talk). For example, a 36 year old man may not remember the fear and terror he felt at being left in his crib at 8 months old. But accessing that feeling in the moment of an experiential task can help make sense of his need to always be in a relationship and the desire to stay numbed out with alcohol and drugs.

Experiential Therapy in addiction recovery: How does it work?

What in the world do the following things have to do with recovering from addiction?

  • Jumping off a 40 foot high pole
  • Designating horses to represent people in your life
  • Balancing an entire group of people across a tight rope

A lot! Welcome to the world of Experiential Therapy, where the participant drops into their body and into the right side of their brain.

It’s often said that the smartest and most intelligent people have the hardest times with recovery. This is because you can’t think yourself out of addiction. True recovery requires connecting with the intuitive and creative part of the self.

The left side of the brain: Generally speaking, folks who struggle with addiction spend a lot of time in their head analyzing, obsessing, thinking and worrying. Most of this occurs in the left side of the brain (the linear, analytical side). If thinking and analyzing could resolve the issue of addiction then most likely it would not be an epidemic because alcoholics/addicts are typically masters.

The right side of the brain: While thinking and analyzing are a critical part of being human, they are most effective when coupled with also using the right side of the brain where creativity, intuition and spirituality live.

Q: So, how does Experiential Therapy work to help treat addiction?

A: Experiential Therapies are very active techniques which help get clients out of their heads and into their bodies. These therapies use “metaphors”, which require the use of the right side of the brain which begins breaking the hamster wheel pattern in the left side.

When working with Experiential Therapy, clients often find themselves accessing subconscious material that they can much more easily project onto a situation, task, or symbol than they can own in their own life when talking about it in traditional talk therapy. That’s not to say that talk therapy doesn’t have a place with Experiential Therapy; it is hugely helpful to process what becomes dislodged through the experiential process and make plans for action moving forward. Often, a great deal of work still has to be done to set and hold boundaries with family members…for example.

What does an Experiential Therapy session look like?

“What or who do these three horses represent in your life.” I asked Amy, a client in residential treatment.

The woman who typically was hesitant to answer any questions without searching for the perfect response, quickly pointed to the largest horse saying, “That’s my mom and sister.” The largest horse was nipping at the spotted horse. “And who or what is this one?” I asked about the spotted horse.

Again, she quickly responded with “Oh, that’s my husband.” The spotted horse then began nudging away the smallest horse. Before I could even ask about the smallest horse, she said, “and that horse represents my recovery.”

The session took off like none other had with Amy. In a nutshell, we were able to quickly unpack how her mother and sister were too involved in her life and constantly criticizing her husband; how her husband was unsupportive of her recovery and threatened by the time she spent at meetings and with the sponsor; and, how ultimately her codependence left her in the midst of trying manage the “nipping and nudging.”

By moving and separating the horses and creating space around herself, Amy utilized her personal power to set boundaries and make important decisions. Decisions like:

1. The horse that represented mom and sister could stay in the same pasture, but they needed to be at the far end of field.

2. The horse that represented husband could be close by her, but she must have her hand on the horse that represented recovery at all times and she must set a hard boundary with the husband horse to ensure he didn’t break that bond.

This session was a major break through for Amy. In past sessions, she had appeared to tell her story as if on autopilot. She knew her story and had analyzed it and obsessed about it for years trying to figure out why she was a chronic relapser. By using an experiential approach she tapped into her subconscious and could quickly project thoughts onto horses without the shame and guilt that can come up from identifying traits and habits of the three people she most loved in her life.

Experiential Therapy for addiction questions

The field of Experiential Therapy is a complex realm, but offers a myriad of ways to get to the underlying wounding that exist in clients who struggle with addiction.

If you have anything you’d like to ask or add, please post in the comments section at the end. We welcome your feedback and try to provide personal and prompt answers to all legitimate inquiries. In case we don’t know the answer to a question we will gladly refer you to professionals who can help.

About the author
Tamara Roth, Ph.D, is Clinical Director of women’s programming at JourneyPure's Tennessee treatment center JourneyPure At The River, and an accomplished author of “High Bottom – Letting Go of Vodka and Chardonnay” and "New Bottom – Turning the Other Cheek." Dr. Roth is a licensed professional counselor with two master's degrees from Vanderbilt University and a PhD in metaphysics from The American Institute of Holistic Theology. She is a trained neurofeedback provider, EMDR therapist, and has extensive training in dreamwork.
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