Addiction, substance abuse, substance use disorder, alcohol use disorder, substance misuse, etc. are all terms used to more or less describe the same issue—dependence on a substance. This substance can be legal, as in the cases of alcohol or prescription drugs, or illegal, as with cocaine, heroin, etc. This dependence is something that the individual is unable to stop or cut down on despite attempts. This cycle of addiction generally starts off as a coping mechanism to deal with painful emotions, often stemming from traumatic events or difficult experiences, or as a form of self-medication to deal with mental health conditions.
Just as there are many terms that describe this dependence, so too there are a number of different types of therapy that are found to be most successful when it comes to addiction treatment and the recovery process. Often cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) and dialectical-behavioral therapy (DBT) are found in treatment for addiction. Both of these therapies can be very helpful in helping individuals who have an alcohol use disorder (AUD) or substance use disorder (SUD) to achieve long-term recovery.
However, as each person’s AUD or SUD is different from the next, so too are the specific needs of their treatment and recovery program. For some who face certain co-occurring mental health disorders, like trauma, eating disorders, grief issues, or other compulsive issues like gambling, experiential therapy can be an essential component of an effective treatment program that includes CBT or DBT.
WHAT IS EXPERIENTIAL THERAPY?
Experiential therapy, also known as adventure therapy, is a therapeutic treatment that looks a bit different from traditional treatment options or therapy approaches like CBT and DBT. In this type of ‘hands-on’ therapy, patients are often more engaged and actively participating in therapy than other types of ‘talk’ therapy.
Utilizing tools and activities for expression, those who take part in adventure therapy may engage in therapy that involves some or all of the following:
- Animal care and interaction
- Wilderness therapy
- Art therapy
- Music Therapy
- Guided imagery
- Action-based activities
- Outdoor activities
While clients in CBT or DBT may find themselves in a room talking to their therapists, those who engage in experiential therapy will find themselves taking part in activities in nontraditional treatment settings. From horseback riding and ropes courses to painting and acting in skits, experiential therapy uses active experiences to help clients through ‘experiencing’ situations that bring up certain difficult emotions and issues which may be connected to past trauma or issues.
Experiential therapy program dates back to the 20th-century psychiatrist, educator, and family therapist, Carl Whitaker. It is sometimes called symbolic-experiential therapy. And although it’s been adapted and refined over the years, the fundamental principles remain the same.
HOW DOES EXPERIENTIAL THERAPY WORK?
As mentioned there are certain individuals who are more suited for this type of therapy. Those with specific traumas may have a more difficult time opening up, dealing with challenging emotions, and talking in traditional therapies. For these individuals, experiential therapy can prove to be a valuable part of treatment.
One of the major premises of this therapy is that an individuals’ perception dictates much of their behavior. Experiential therapy enables people to re-experience situations from their past that may ‘trigger’ certain feelings or negative emotions that are difficult for them to deal with in their daily life.
For example, many of the activities will enable clients to experience feelings of success, disappointment, anxiety, fear, accountability, and more. These feelings can be closely connected to past incidents that are painful or very difficult to face head-on. By engaging in these activities which bring out uncomfortable emotions, the clients are able to address them with the guidance and insight of their trained therapist and begin to heal.
Uncomfortable and negative feelings, once too painful to uncover, come to the surface. Clients can then begin to explore them in a safe, supportive environment, work through them, and in time, release them. Anger, hurt, and shame are all common feelings that come up in experiential therapy. Once these issues come to the surface, new and healthier coping skills can be learned to replace the old, toxic ones.
In addition, many who are living with unresolved trauma and mental health disorders have low self-esteem. Engaging in activities associated with experiential therapy enables clients to experience success which helps to build one’s self-esteem, self-discipline, and feeling of accomplishment. All essential for life in sustainable recovery.
EXPERIENTIAL THERAPY AND ADDICTION TREATMENT
When it comes to addiction treatment and this type of therapy it has proven to be very helpful. This is particularly true for those with an AUD or SUD who also have co-occurring trauma-related disorders and other mental health conditions like PTSD, anxiety, and more. Used in conjunction with other therapies like CBT, experiential therapy can help breakthroughs occur where previously they were blocked.
One reason is that many who have an AUD or SUD also have co-occurring disorders that are trauma-related. Many people with trauma in their past self-medicate to help forget the trauma and associated negative emotions. And while this may work for a time, eventually dependency begins and addiction takes hold. Once addiction occurs, it can be very difficult to break the cycle on one’s own.
It is essential to seek treatment at an addiction treatment center that treats co-occurring disorders if you or someone you love is living with a substance use issue and a mental health disorder. Research shows that treating all issues at the same time is more effective than simply addressing the addiction or the trauma alone.
Each of the different options in experiential therapy are helpful for individuals with different issues and needs. For example, equine therapy or animal-assisted therapy often is helpful for those clients who struggle with forming connections with peers. Individuals learn how to form connections, trust, take care of another’s needs, and more.
Overall goals for many of the experiential therapy activities include improving self-reliance, reducing impulsivity, improving focus, developing or expanding problem-solving skills, and increasing motivation to become an active participant in their lives.
If you think that you or someone you love may benefit from experiential therapy as part of a comprehensive addiction treatment program, Futures Recovery Healthcare can help. Offering three residential treatment programs, Futures’ Rise program is an adventure-based, experiential treatment program that offers a unique, activity-focused approach to recovery.
Contact Futures confidentiality online or by phone to find out if you or your loved one is a good fit for Rise or one of our other treatment programs. At Futures, we understand first-hand how complex the disease of addiction is. Offering the highest level of medical and clinical care our team works with compassion to help each person who comes to us to begin their journey on the road of recovery with a strong start.
If you’re ready to take the first step or learn more contact Futures today at 866-804-2098.
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