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Updated on December 22, 2022
6 min read

What is Experiential Therapy? Is it Effective in Addiction Treatment?

What is Experiential Therapy?

Experiential therapy is an approach to psychotherapy. It involves activities like role-playing, props, music, or art to process negative emotions. Participating in these activities allows people to access emotions that may otherwise be hidden or miscommunicated. 

By using hands-on activities or role-play, people can learn to identify and focus on their feelings. The aim is to improve well-being and functioning to overcome negative emotions. When we reflect on negative emotions, we can learn where they came from and move toward more positive emotions.

Experiential therapy can be used in individual, couple, family, and group settings. It’s commonly found at: 

  • Outpatient clinics
  • Behavioral health facilities
  • Inpatient medical facilities

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Types of Experiential Therapy

There are various types of experiential therapy.

Drama therapy

Drama therapy is also known as psychodrama. This is the most common type of experiential therapy. It involves re-creating or re-enacting conflictual situations in a safe and calm setting. 

Drama therapy helps people release any negative or suppressed emotions linked with that situation.

Music therapy

Music therapy uses music to foster positive changes in behavior.

Art therapy

Art therapy involves creative artistic processes and tools to help people work through conflicts and become more aware of themselves. Techniques in art therapy include painting, sculpting, and drawing.4

Play therapy

Play therapy is typically used with children. It involves therapeutic play to work through psychological issues children may not be able to express with words.

Outdoor therapy

Outdoor therapy includes adventure and wilderness therapy. It includes wilderness excursions, adventure activities, and therapy sessions.

Animal-assisted therapy

Animal-assisted therapy includes being around animals like dogs or horses to improve emotional well-being and connection.

Experiential Therapy Uses

Experiential therapy can be used to treat a wide range of life challenges and psychiatric disorders, including:

Experiential therapy is also regularly used as one part of substance abuse treatment. It’s usually combined with different styles of traditional talk therapy. However, certain forms can also be practiced alone.

Many types of experiential therapy can be practiced on all age groups, including children, teens, and adults. Some focus on one age group, such as play therapy for children.


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What to Expect from Experiential Therapy

Experiential therapy isn’t just one form of therapy. People may use various types of ‘hands-on’ experiences combined with talk therapy.

The practice is usually client-centered. This means people’s preferences for specific therapies are honored whenever possible.

Some therapists specialize in one type of treatment. Others may use more than one form.

A therapist will focus on the person’s awareness of what they’re experiencing through experiential therapy. They’ll help them explore the meaning of their emotions.

Conversations with the therapist may occur while the person is performing the activity. Or, it may happen in a counseling session afterward.

Drama therapy

During drama therapy, the person creates and performs a short play based on a past life event that causes distress. 

Re-enacting this situation in a safe place helps the person process and let go of negative feelings triggered by the event. It also helps them develop ways of responding to similar situations in the future.

Music therapy

In music therapy, people may be asked to recall songs from their childhood and explore the memories linked to them. Or, they may write and perform a song that explores a conflict in their life.

Equine-assisted therapy

During equine-assisted therapy, people may guide horses through a short obstacle course. This helps them gain the horse’s trust and manage their emotional reactions to caring for such a large, powerful animal.

Is Experiential Therapy Effective in Addiction Treatment?

Experiential therapy isn’t for everyone. However, it’s been found to be quite effective.

People who participate in expressive therapy are less likely to deny their negative situation. They’re more likely to cooperate in their treatment plan. Likewise, they tend to develop deeper insight and positively approach their treatment.1

Some factors that contribute to the effectiveness of experiential therapy include:

  • The articulation of needs and negative perceptions is an essential step in change
  • The steps of advanced emotional processing people experience, which may include anger, hurt, grief, and self-soothing
  • The notion that “emotion changes emotion,” where the feelings involved in experiential therapy change how one feels about their life circumstances

Certain types of experiential therapy make it easier for people to relate to others and progress quickly during treatment.

For example, people taking adventure therapy can learn to trust, develop problem-solving skills, and better express themselves. These skills are essential to long-term recovery.


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Pros and Cons of Experiential Therapy

There are pros and cons to experiential therapy:


Here are the pros of experiential therapy:

Situational Resolution

Experiential therapy can help people explore or re-create traumatic or difficult situations from the past. It can help people understand their responses to situations. It can also help people release any negative emotions they’re holding on to and promote healing.

Emotional Processing

Intense emotions often arise in this experiential therapy. This allows for more in-depth emotional processing.

Reduced Avoidance

Many people avoid thoughts, people, places, or conversations linked to challenging situations they’ve experienced. Confronting them can help people deal with them and reduce avoidance.

Altered Perspectives

Drama therapy helps people experience a situation from the point of view of others. It can help people see other perspectives and understand their motives. In time, it can lead to acceptance, love, and forgiveness.

Creative Expression

Some forms of experiential therapy can help people express themselves creatively. For example, music, art, and drama therapy.


Here are the cons of experiential therapy:


Experiential therapy can be expensive. As it’s an alternative, holistic approach to treatment, many insurance providers don’t cover it.

Not a Well-Studied Treatment 

This means there’s a lack of research or evidence to back up its efficiency. However, this is changing slowly.

Who Can Benefit from Experiential Therapy?

Experiential therapy can be helpful combined with other treatments for substance use disorders. It’s particularly useful for people who find it difficult to interact with others in traditional talk therapy approaches.

If you’ve experienced the following, experiential therapy may not be the best treatment for you:

  • Mental illness in addition to your addiction (dual diagnosis)
  • Issues with getting angry during communication 
  • Traditional therapy methods haven’t worked
  • Discomfort talking about memories or past traumas

Experiential may be a good fit if you enjoy art, music, animals, or adventure. It may also suit people who don’t have diagnosable disorders but struggle with painful feelings from the past.

Speak with your therapist to determine if experiential therapy is the right treatment for you. 


  • Experiential therapy involves role-playing, props, music, or art to process negative emotions.
  • Some types of experiential therapy include drama, art, music, or animal-assisted therapy.
  • People who participate in expressive therapy are less likely to deny their negative situation and are more likely to follow their treatment plan.
  • Experiential therapy can treat various life challenges and psychiatric disorders, including addiction.
Updated on December 22, 2022
6 sources cited
Updated on December 22, 2022
All Alcoholrehabhelp content is medically reviewed or fact checked to ensure as much factual accuracy as possible.

We have strict sourcing guidelines and only link to reputable media sites, academic research institutions and, whenever possible, medically peer reviewed studies.
  1. The Use of the Creative Therapies with Chemical Dependency Issues, Stephanie L. Brooke, 2009
  2. Berdondini, Lucia, et al. “Collaboration in experiential therapy.” Journal of clinical psychology, 2012.
  3. Taylor, Nathan C, et al. “Experiential family therapy interventions delivered via telemental health: A qualitative implementation study.” Journal of marital and family therapy, 2021.
  4. Binson, Bussakorn, and Rachel Lev-Wiesel. “Promoting Personal Growth through Experiential Learning: The Case of Expressive Arts Therapy for Lecturers in Thailand.” Frontiers in Psychology, 2018.
  5. Thompson, Sanna J, et al. “Keeping families engaged: the effects of home-based family therapy enhanced with experiential activities.” Social work research, 2009.
  6. Bailey, Molly E. “Science catching up: Experiential family therapy and neuroscience.” Journal of marital and family therapy, 2022.
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All content created by Alcohol Rehab Help is sourced from current scientific research and fact-checked by an addiction counseling expert. However, the information provided by Alcohol Rehab Help is not a substitute for professional treatment advice.
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