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What Is Experiential Therapy?

Tricia Christensen
By
Updated May 17, 2024
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Experiential therapy is hard to define since it can incorporate a number of therapy methods that aim to recreate experience in a setting that allows the unconscious mind to more fully emerge, so that integration between conscious and unconscious begins to occur. There are many ways in which this type of therapy can be practiced, and even societies of therapists devoted to this kind of work. The principal idea in any of the therapies employed is that simply “talking” may not be sufficient to resolve issues. Talking paired with experiencing something else at the same time could be more effective.

A number of antecedents to experiential therapy exist. These include Gestalt therapy, which often posited that therapy combined with action would be more successful. Gestalt therapy often draws attention to the actions of people (the tapping of a foot, the shrug of the shoulders) in traditional therapy sessions as a way of looking at the whole expression of the person, which is not limited to verbal language. Other precursors to experiential therapy include the work in the early 20th century of Jacob Levy Moreno, who developed psychodrama, a method for enacting problems instead of just discussing them. Along the way, many other counselors and doctors have added additional methods to the therapy, and therapists may employ one or many of these methods as part of practice.

It’s sometimes the case the experiential therapy is defined as action with therapy, or therapeutic action, but the actions don’t have to be huge. They could involve drawing while discussing something, hypnosis, therapy methods like eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR), or acting out feelings in a “drama” of sorts. In contrast, some experiential therapists may have a much more active approach. People might undergo “therapy” while navigating a ropes course, riding a horse, or creating a sculpture.

People who work on challenging issues often say they know what they ought to do, but somewhere deep in their heart or in their unconscious they can’t truly know it. The theory behind this type of therapy is that experience can translate to a deeper level of knowing. This has some merit when people think of the number of conversations they have that they quickly forget. However if something is revealed while an action is taking place, it may stay in the mind.

Lots of therapists practice experiential therapy, and many types of clinics and facilities use it too. Mental health hospitals offer different therapies throughout the day that are experiential like art therapy. Treatment facilities for addiction and for things such as eating disorders may base their programs on experiential methods.

WiseGeek is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Tricia Christensen
By Tricia Christensen , Writer
With a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and years of experience as a WiseGeek contributor, Tricia Christensen is based in Northern California and brings a wealth of knowledge and passion to her writing. Her wide-ranging interests include reading, writing, medicine, art, film, history, politics, ethics, and religion, all of which she incorporates into her informative articles. Tricia is currently working on her first novel.

Discussion Comments

By BioNerd — On Feb 07, 2011

@JavaGhoul

It is difficult to dig up painful details of the past, but it is a necessary catharsis for learning to benefit from past issues and mistakes. The result is long-term contentment.

By JavaGhoul — On Feb 05, 2011

The memory of seemingly minor events and small details from distant times and places may be consciously forgotten, but normally stays set in stone in the unconscious, and can be recalled by delving into associative memory and experiential therapy. Some people prefer not to remember certain things, however.

By Qohe1et — On Feb 03, 2011

Activities like art and music are able to flesh out the unconscious in ways that other things can't. Dreams also operate on the basis of the unconscious mind. It is there that things which one might otherwise not be aware of manifest themselves in plain view. Learning to appreciate and enjoy beauty in art can be a helpful step towards dealing with the demons of the past.

By GigaGold — On Feb 01, 2011

Causing the unconscious mind to interact with the conscious mind can be an effective way of "plumbing" the unconscious for any repressed neurosis or hurts. When an issue gets repressed to the unconscious it can have long-term negative effects and go unnoticed. Having a healthy mind depends upon the unconscious state of one's personhood. Learning to face and deal with distant fears of the past is essential to having a genuinely happy life.

Tricia Christensen

Tricia Christensen

Writer

With a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and years of experience as a WiseGeek contributor, Tricia...
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