Experiential therapy is an approach to psychotherapy that includes the use of recreational activities, various expressive modalities, and other physical and emotional activities. By using hands-on activities or role play, children, teens and adults can learn to identify and focus on what they’re feeling. The goal is to improve overall well-being and functioning and overcome negative emotions.
What Is Experiential Therapy?
Experiential therapy involves activities like role playing, props, music, or art to process negative emotions. By participating in these activities, individuals are able to access emotions that may otherwise be hidden or not easily communicated. When we evoke, re-experience, and reflect on negative emotions, we can work to identify where they came from and move past them toward more positive emotions.6
It can be used in individual, family, couple, and group therapy settings, as well as in outpatient clinics, behavioral health facilities, and inpatient medical facilities.
16 Types of Experiential Therapy
Experiential therapy is versatile as it includes a variety of techniques or types, including play therapy and narrative therapy. Regardless of type, it generally involves a structured, hands-on approach with individual clients, allowing them to become more aware of themselves, their emotions, and their overall experience through more than one sense.
16 types of therapy that use experiential therapy include:
- Art therapy
- Music therapy
- Equine therapy
- Adventure therapy
- Play therapy
- Narrative therapy
- Role play
- Acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT)
- Dance therapy
- Eye movement desensitization and reprocessing therapy (EMDR)
- Trauma-informed yoga therapy
- Gestalt therapy
Is Experiential Therapy Effective?
There are a variety of studies that demonstrate the effectiveness of experiential therapy. In one study for depression, experiential therapy (narrative therapy) was found effective in reducing feelings of hopelessness and negative thoughts and improving low mood.1
Here are five additional examples of experiential therapy’s effectiveness:
- In a study examining guilt, experiential therapy improved the subjects’ ability to forgive themselves and offer themselves more compassion2
- A study aimed at looking at the role of experiential therapy for relationship issues showed that this approach helped give couples and families more positive outcomes with issues such as infidelity and trauma3
- In a study aimed at couples with attachment insecurity, experiential therapy helped couples have more awareness of their experience and emotions, resulting in overall greater marital satisfaction4
- In a study on eating disorders, experiential therapy combined with cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) had better outcomes than CBT alone3
- In a study on post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), psychodrama and trauma-focused experiential therapies helped to reduce PTSD symptoms by 25% over the first 2-3 weeks5
What Can Experiential Therapy Help With?
Experiential therapy can help with a variety of things, including anger management, shame, phobias, and relationship issues.
The following can be treated with experiential therapy:
- Trauma and PTSD
- Anger management
- Grief and loss
- Chronic pain
- Shame and guilt
- Obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD)
- Attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)/attention deficit disorder (ADD)
- Relationship and family issues
- Anxiety, depression, bipolar disorder, and other mood disorders
- Personality disorders
- Eating disorders7
Examples of Experiential Therapy
Given that experiential therapy involves a diverse set of techniques and activities used by a therapist, it’s important to consider that all techniques may not help all individuals. However, there are a number of techniques that are effective for certain issues.
Here are five examples of experiential therapy:
1. Art Therapy
Art therapy can help those who have little control over a situation. The act of creating art can essentially give control to these individuals, allowing them to create an environment that can help them express what they’re feeling. Art therapy can be helpful for those with chronic pain, stress, anxiety, and depression.8
2. Music Therapy
Music therapy can help empower individuals to communicate more effectively and express challenging emotions. Listening and creating music can be relaxing and help people work through feelings, channelling them into beats, rhythms, or lyrics.9 Music therapy can assist people with mood disorders, anger issues, trauma, or eating disorders.
3. Play Therapy
Play therapy is used primarily with children to help them feel safe to express themselves by engaging in an activity that feels positive. Adults can also benefit from this approach. It can be particularly helpful for those with shame, guilt issues, trauma, or relationship issues. Play allows them to release the emotions that hold power over them.10
4. Adventure Therapy
Adventure therapy is another approach that helps individuals use hands-on approaches to solve the problems in front of them. Activities such as biking or rock-climbing are examples of specific ways people can engage in adventure therapy. It helps individuals manage problems and stress in real-time.11
Psychorama is an approach that helps individuals reclaim emotions from past experiences through role-playing. It encourages them to reimagine and eventually recover from negative past experiences, learning better ways to deal with difficult emotions. This is especially helpful for those with PTSD, addiction, and phobias.12
How Much Does Experiential Therapy Cost?
Experiential therapy costs may be covered or partially covered by health insurance if you receive treatment from someone who is “in-network.” There’s usually a copay for mental health services, which can range from $0-$40, with co-insurance options that run higher, $40+. If health insurance does not cover therapy, and a patient needs to pay out-of-pocket, sessions can typically range from $60-$200 per hour.
If you don’t have insurance coverage and have limited income, you may be able to find therapists who offer sliding scale fees to help keep experiential therapy affordable.
How to Find the Right Therapist
The best way to find a therapist is by searching an online therapist directory and reviewing the in-network providers with your insurance. Look through profiles online and narrow down a few to contact for an initial conversation; many offer a free phone consultation. Experiential therapists may have additional training or specialties, so asking about their experience with this treatment modality is encouraged.
What you’re struggling with may be unique to you, but you’re not alone. If you are dealing with issues like trauma, mood disorders, or chronic pain, talking to a therapist who specializes in experiential therapy can make a positive difference in how you feel.