Growing up, I loved riding horses. I enjoyed attending a day camp once a month where I learned how to ride and care for horses. Riding horses felt therapeutic and living-giving. Recently, as a Mental Health Therapist, I’ve been intrigued by the psychological process of experiential therapies: Why are experiential therapies unique and in what setting areas they effective? What differentiates experiential therapy from talk therapy? How can experiential therapies support the work of ‘talk therapy’?
Experiential therapies use activities, such as riding horses or an experience in the wilderness as an intervention in the therapeutic process. Experiential therapy, according to the American Psychological Association, is defined as a broad range of therapies that fall under the existential-humanistic psychology. Existential-humanistic therapy holds a core belief that “true client change occurs through direct, active ‘experiencing’ of what the client is undergoing and feeling at any given point in therapy, both on the surface and at a deeper level.” Experiential therapies help the client access and express inner feelings from past and present lives, creating healthy perspectives that foster healthy living.
Sometimes, in the midst of difficult experiences, one may feel stuck in difficult emotions associated with the past or sense an emotional block regarding a past experience. Through re-experiencing and “releasing repressed negative emotions from the past, the client is better able to experience positive feelings such as love, forgiveness, and calm in the present, changing their perception of reality.” Perception often determines behavior. Accessing and re-creating emotional experiences can bring healing and freedom as perceptions of difficult experiences are processed and re-worked into a healthy sense of self. Through experiential therapies, an individual is invited to interact with emotions in a process that “allows for the development of insight and realization into the nature of their inner thoughts, feelings, and experiences.”
Experiential therapies are often combined with traditional “talk therapy.” Practically, many forms of experiential therapies exist. Below are several examples I thought sounded particularly interesting!
Drama Therapy: Drama therapy provides context for individuals to “tell their stories, set goals and solve problems, express feelings, or achieve catharsis.” Drama therapy reminds me of a child who creates a story with their toys to make sense of their experience or release emotion. The act of play and imagination can de-personalize a triggering personal story, allowing an experience to be processed with the felt safety of it being somewhat abstract, and therefore, safe.
Music and Art Therapy: Music therapy can help access emotions and felt experiences that are difficult to articulate in words. Check this out of further information on music therapy. Art therapy, similarly, provides expression and making sense of experiences through creative artistic processes, such as sculpting and painting.
Animal-assisted therapies: These therapies attribute healing to the comfort, safety and emotional bond formed between an individual and an animal. Advocates of animal-assisted therapies explain that animals can help “develop a better sense of self-worth and trust, stabilize their emotions, and improve their communication, self-regulation, and socialization skills.”
Adventure therapies: Adventure therapies involve participating in wilderness expeditions, sports, games requiring competition or activities requiring taking risks, learning to conqueror fears, working as a team and building problem solving skills. Adventure therapies include a diverse array of activities and adventures.
Healing is not a black and white process. It is fluid and dynamic. It ebbs and flows alongside the intricacies of the human experience. Experiential therapies embrace the creative and unique journey of healing. Aspects of experiential therapies, such as art therapies, can be brought into typical “talk therapy.” It is not uncommon for traditional “talk therapy” to incorporate aspects of experiential therapies, and it may be a helpful intervention worth considering and discussing with a mental health professional, as one navigates their personal healing journey.
Victoria Barrett is a Licensed Mental Health Counselor passionate about coming alongside you in your journey toward a life of greater healing, joy and abundance. Victoria uses various expressive and creative therapies to aid her clients in healing from trauma, adjustment disorders, attachment issues, anxiety, depression, and more.
Victoria also loves adventure in the great outdoors, in cooking, in traveling and in discovering good live music. Click here to learn more about working with Victoria.