Recovery from addiction is multi-faceted and often involves more than one type of treatment. Some people find great success with one treatment method, while others benefit from a combination of traditional and non-traditional therapies.

Most people are familiar with traditional treatments such as individual psychotherapy and group counseling; however, non-traditional methods such as experiential therapies are also highly effective. These treatments use tools and activities such as art, music, animals, meditation, physical activity, etc., to help clients identify and process difficult emotions and experiences.

While experiential therapies are often used in combination with other therapies, they have been proven to be beneficial for a range of mental health conditions, including addiction. This article provides information about what experiential therapies are, how they work, and what benefits they provide.

What Is Experiential Therapy?

Experiential therapy is a set of non-traditional techniques that helps people release stored emotions and better understand themselves and their relationships. These typically involve practices and activities such as music, arts, crafts, physical activity, guided imagery, acting, etc., to help a person safely process traumatic experiences or difficult emotions. The goal of the activity is that it serves as a focal point for the client to deal with emotions such as shame, anger, fear, etc.

This type of therapy can be especially useful for people with addiction and substance abuse problems as it provides a safe means for them to process painful feelings. Experiential therapies are also hands-on, which can be a refreshing change from talk therapy. The activities can be especially useful for people who prefer to communicate more kinesthetically rather than through conversation.

Experiential therapy sessions are usually guided by a qualified therapist who helps the client release emotions and explore the surrounding issues. Sessions usually take place outdoors or inside a studio and can be held on a one-on-one basis or as a group, depending on the needs of the client. When it comes to addiction, the aim of these sessions is to help people learn how to face their issues without relying on substances to cope.


Experiential therapy has its roots in humanistic psychology, which considers the whole person and an individual’s uniqueness. This type of therapy is also connected to client-centered therapy, developed by Carl Rogers, and Gestalt therapy, which was developed by Fritz Perls.

These three approaches share a belief that there is more to psychology than just talking through thoughts and feelings. Therefore, experiential therapy is based on the belief that emotions and therapy are dynamic and that they can require multiple methods to express and identify a person’s issues.

Experiential therapy became more widely known in the 1970s, and it is now a common and effective treatment that is offered by various mental health services.

When Experiential Therapy Is Used

Experiential therapy is frequently used to treat conditions like substance abuse, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), behavior disorders, eating disorders, anger management, grief and loss recovery, and behavioral addictions like gambling.

This type of therapy is also effective for individuals who wish to release stored emotions and those who desire to improve their relationships. Experiential therapy is delivered in a range of settings, including individual and group therapy, clinical and medical settings, recovery and treatment programs, and alongside traditional psychotherapy.

Types of Experiential Treatments

Experiential therapies can range in terms of the type of activity and the overall goals. Below are some of the most popular types of experiential treatments being used today.

Equine Psychotherapy

Equine therapy is a powerful type of treatment that has proven to be effective, especially with people recovering from substance abuse. The aim is for clients to build a working bond (known as a treatment alliance) with the horse by feeding, grooming, and walking them during a session.

The reported benefits of equine psychotherapy are that it frees the client from feeling pressured to speak. The calming nature of horses can trigger the release of emotions while also showing the client how their emotions affect others. Many people who partake in equine psychotherapy have been able to take the skills they learn from working with horses into their human relationships.

Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR)

EMDR is a type of treatment that uses visual stimulation to help a person re-program their thoughts and emotions about traumatic events. These sessions are guided by a qualified EMDR specialist and typically consist of eight phases. The goal of EMDR is to help clients redirect painful and traumatizing memories and create new associations. This type of therapy can be useful for helping people who may have turned to substance abuse due to their experiences of trauma.

Adventure Therapy

Adventure therapy is exactly as it sounds: it is a type of therapy that involves outdoor activities like rock climbing, hiking, white-water rafting, or camping. As well as providing benefits to a person’s health (especially if they are recovering from alcohol and drug abuse), adventure therapy is a great way to help clients develop personal responsibility, work in a group, and improve their communication and problem-solving skills.

Art and Music Therapy

Art and music therapy uses various activities to help clients express themselves through painting, drawing, sculpting, crafting, or making and listening to music. This type of therapy allows individuals to express emotions and painful experiences in a safe and creative way. It is incredibly useful for clients who may prefer to use their hands or other artistic means to express their emotions.

Drama Therapy (Psychodrama)

Drama therapy is another effective type of treatment that uses activities like dramatization, role-playing, mirroring, and dramatic self-presentation to explore issues and difficult feelings. Typically delivered in a group setting, clients may be asked to ‘act out’ certain movements or scenes that involve expressing thoughts and feelings.

Other Types of Experiential Therapies

  • Mindfulness/meditation
  • Animal therapy (e.g., therapy dogs)
  • Play therapy
  • Dance therapy
  • Stage performance
  • Creative writing/poetry
  • Gestalt (role-play and the empty chair)
  • Guided imagery (focusing on mental images to evoke specific feelings)

How It Works

While experiential therapy doesn’t consist of one specific method, one of the guiding principles is that perception influences behavior and emotions. Therefore, most experiential therapy sessions aim to help people safely process feelings such as anger, fear, and shame while converting them into more positive states of forgiveness, love, and calmness.

Another common theme of experiential therapy is that it is client-centered. Depending on the type of therapy, many of the activities are creative and holistic, but treatment should be guided around what works best for the individual. While equine therapy may work for one person, another may find music therapy to be a better fit.

Experiential therapy is also guided by a therapist, so clients are supported during the process. Your therapist will likely identify key aims while helping you focus on your awareness and perceptions of your experiences during the sessions. They will also guide you to a better understanding of the meaning of your emotions and how you can constructively express them.

Benefits of Experiential Therapies

Experiential therapy provides many benefits, especially for those who may want an alternative to talk therapy. Some of the key benefits include:

  • Provides an alternative to talk therapy
  • Helps clients process and express difficult emotions
  • Improves skill development and coping strategies
  • Enables people to feel a sense of purpose
  • Allows a therapist to guide a client in a natural environment
  • Boosts confidence and self-awareness
  • Removes the pressure of traditional counseling or group therapy sessions
  • Can sometimes provide immediate benefits
  • Suitable to different learning styles
  • Is effective for a wide range of mental health conditions

How Experiential Therapies Help Addiction

Experiential therapies are incredibly beneficial for addiction recovery, particularly when delivered alongside other traditional treatments. As part of a whole-person approach, experiential therapies can provide additional methods to help clients face traumatic experiences, process repressed emotions, and learn new ways of coping.

Experiential therapy also pairs well with other psychotherapy techniques such as motivational enhancement and cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) when focusing on self-destructive behaviors. These treatments can help clients identify negative thoughts and behaviors while learning how to change them into more positive ones. Other comprehensive programs that combine experiential treatment with medical detox, individual counseling, group therapy, trauma therapies, and medication can be highly effective ways to treat addiction and prevent relapses.

Research has shown that experiential therapies can help encourage cooperation in rehab and instill a more positive approach to substance abuse treatment. Experiential therapies can also help those who find it difficult to relate to other people. Therapies that use animals such as dogs and horses can be especially effective as it allows the client to learn how to create safe and meaningful connections that they can apply in their own lives.

Finding an Experiential Therapist

If you are looking for a private experiential therapist (outside of a rehab center), keep an eye out for someone who is licensed and credentialed. These individuals should have training and experience in addiction recovery as well as a specific experiential approach (e.g., art, psychodrama, etc.).

As well as checking their background and credentials, it’s also important for you to feel comfortable working with them, so you may want to take your time searching. If you are looking for a center rather than an individual therapist, stick with reputable, state-licensed, or certified treatment centers that are also staffed with licensed and professional mental health care workers.


If you or a loved one are struggling with substance abuse, you are not alone. Treatment and support are readily available. Contact the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) National Helpline at 1-800-662-4357 for information on support and treatment.

You can also find a list of treatment centers near you on our website to help get you on the path to recovery.

Key Sources

Hazelden Betty Ford Clinic. (2019). Experiential Therapy in Addiction Treatment.

Psychology Today. (n.d.). Experiential Therapy.

Medical Disclaimer

At, we are dedicated to helping people recover from problematic substance use and associated mental health disorders. If you or a loved one are struggling with addiction to drugs or alcohol, you are not alone. Information on treatment and support options is readily available through the National Helpline of the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) at 1-800-662-4357. To further assist you along the path to recovery, the treatment center locator on our website allows you to easily find rehabilitation programs and services in your local area.

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