Learning by Doing With Experiential Therapy
Learning by Doing With Experiential Therapy
by Kayla Gill on September 19, 2021
Experiential therapy lets you heal by doing. Taking part in activities during rehab encourages you to learn new skills, and it can be a lot of fun. But this therapeutic modality offers much deeper benefits. It’s also a way for clients to get to know themselves in different contexts, processing emotions they might not easily access during talk therapy.
When you think of therapy, you may picture a private or group conversation with a trained healthcare provider. That’s an important part of any inpatient rehab experience, but it’s not the only way to heal. Experiential therapy techniques can help you get out in the world, center yourself in your body, connect with your community, and tap into your innate creativity. In the safe and supported environment of rehab, clients can then process these experiences with a talk therapist.
For many people, this is a valuable way to work through emotional triggers. You’ll learn what does and doesn’t work for you, relating recent events to your personal history. Then you can set new goals for your next session of experiential therapy, gradually getting better at navigating new situations. There are many different types of experimental therapy, and depending on where you go to rehab, you may be able to choose from a wide variety of activities. It’s important to choose a type of therapy that will support your healing process.
If you want to try experiential therapy, look for a rehab center that offers specific programs you’re interested in. If you find physical exercise to be especially healing, you might want to go rock climbing or river rafting. If you enjoy connecting with nature, you may prefer hiking or equine therapy. And if you find meaning in the arts, you can even visit museums while you’re in treatment. There are countless options available.
However, it’s important to remember that rehab is not a vacation. Not every experience will be available to every client, or at every facility. You can rely on your clinical team to help you decide which ones are a good fit for you.
Research shows that exercise has a positive impact on addiction recovery1. It’s not only physically healthy; it’s also a way to remind yourself that you’re a capable person. By overcoming new challenges, you’ll create memories that remind you of your own strength. If you can literally scale a mountain, it may be easier to face the peaks and valleys of the recovery journey.
These experiential therapies aren’t just metaphors for your future success. In a practical way, they also give clients a break from talk therapy. By stepping into a new context, you’ll gain insights that just aren’t as accessible in talk therapy. Jerry Vaccaro, President of All Points North Lodge in Colorado, explains that these activities are intended “to help clients incorporate what they’ve just learned. If you think about it, if somebody who’s been through an intensive burst of treatment in a week goes skiing, that activity allows them to unplug and process what they’ve just been through and enjoy themselves.”
Many people approach recovery as a spiritual journey. And in the right context, experiential therapy can be a transcendent experience. Residents of White River Manor, in South Africa, are invited to go on safari. As Giles Fourie, Director and Co-owner, describes it, “safaris through the Kruger National Park are a once-in-a-lifetime experience for a lot of people. To experience wildlife in its natural habitat is so unique and so special. It’s liberating. It’s almost spiritual in nature.”
And if South Africa isn’t right for you, there are other places to find adventure. At The ‘Ohana, in Hawaii, clients visit “the famous volcano of the island. They will tour the rim of the volcano as well as visit lava tubes. They will be immersed into nature; connecting to the earth and the power which it holds. Clients will experience a therapeutic group session along their journey as they reflect on how things are constantly changing. Volcanoes beautifully illustrate the process of rebuilding and reshaping.”
Looking into a volcano can be a spiritual experience for anyone, whether or not they’re in recovery. Having these experiences surrounded by your cohort, and supported by staff members from your rehab program, is an extremely powerful experience. These adventures offer you a new perspective on your own life, as well as on the world around you.
Many people misuse substances in order to avoid dealing with negative emotions that they’re afraid to feel or express. The creative outlet of art therapy allows you to engage with those feelings without being subsumed by them. In this modality, clients “use art media, the creative process, and the resulting artwork to explore their feelings.” This engaging, cathartic experience offers clients new tools for self-expression.
After inpatient rehab, it’s important to find healthy, sustainable ways to fill your time. Ideally, you’ll replace past behaviors with new activities that you find meaningful. For many people, art is the answer. This practice is both versatile and accessible—art therapy may include visual art, music, writing, or psychodrama. Once you return home, you can continue any of these activities, either on your own or in community.
Art isn’t just for artists. There’s great value in the act of creation, whether or not you intend to share your work in public. Preliminary research has even found a correlation between creativity and self-esteem2. Art therapy is an opportunity to not only learn a new skill, but also to learn more about yourself.
Any activity, from adventure outings to ziplining, can be an opportunity for emotional growth. Dr. Ryan Drzewiecki, Director of Clinical Operations at All Points North Lodge, says, “the way you do one thing is the way you do everything—or at least, there’s something to learn from the way that you experience everything. So we periodically pause during activities and say, ‘What’s going on for you right now? What are you noticing?’ And we’re able to use that as a therapeutic opportunity to look at what’s happening.”
Experiential therapy engages different parts of the brain3, and can be extremely beneficial when combined with other modalities. You’ll also have the opportunity to apply your insight from talk therapy in a new environment, and often in group settings. This way, clients can practice not only making safe choices, but also building healthy relationships. Even if you go off-site, everything you do during rehab takes place within a protected, supported context. Think of experiential therapy like riding a bike with training wheels. You’ll be exposed to new stimuli, and you’ll probably be a little uncomfortable. There’s a lot to learn from that discomfort. And you can trust that your therapists and support staff will be there to keep you on track, even if you get triggered.
Not every therapeutic modality is right for every client, and it’s ideal to find activities that best suit your learning style4. According to one popular theory, there are four major learning styles: visual, aural, verbal, and kinesthetic. If you’re a verbal learner, for example, you may want to focus on talk therapy instead of learning martial arts.
However, you may be surprised to see which types of therapy suit you best. Rehab is a time to get to know yourself better than you have in the past and let go of negative preconceptions. As you reconnect with your most deeply held values, you just might get excited to try new things.
It’s important to note that experiential therapy isn’t right for everyone. For example, many people arrive at rehab with post-acute withdrawal symptoms. These clients may not be ready for strenuous activity, or even to go off-site with a group.
On the other hand, you may prefer a program without any group activities. Some clients, especially celebrities and high-level executives choose to attend private rehab facilities which treat only one client at a time. These facilities may offer adventure therapies, but that context won’t allow you to learn about group dynamics in quite the same way.
Experiential therapy is absolutely not a substitute for talk therapy. These excursions are valuable for many reasons, not least of all because you can return to talk therapy afterward and process your experience. This is true before, during, and after rehab. Joining a rock climbing gym is a great idea for some clients, but it should be combined with some sort of clinical care.
Finding the right kind of experiential treatment is a very personal process. Some people may benefit from stepping outside their comfort zones, trying exciting new activities they’ve never had access to before. Others may want to hone a skill, or return to a hobby they once loved. There’s no right or wrong way to choose an activity to focus on; there’s just the right way for you.
As you look into rehabs, be mindful of what type of treatment you find in various locations. Your preferences may also inform the geographical area of your program. If you live in Texas and want to go skiing during rehab, for example, it probably makes sense to travel to a new place.
It’s quite common for rehab facilities to only offer certain experiences to certain clients. You may be required to complete part of the program before you can participate in off-site outings. For example, Futures Recovery Healthcare offers a number of programs for people with different needs. Clients in their adventure therapy program, Rise, take part in a 10-day on-site stabilization program before joining other activities.
Rehab is an opportunity to make big changes. And in order to change the way you feel, you’ll almost certainly begin by changing what you do. Rather than just setting down old behaviors, it’s important to refill your time with activities that give your life purpose. Cultivating that sense of fulfillment makes recovery more sustainable. What you do in experiential therapy may or may not become your new favorite hobby: you might just discover that you hate surfing, and get excited to return home to the Midwest. Regardless, each of these experiences serve to teach you more about yourself.
To learn more about the many activities you can try during treatment, connect with a luxury rehab offering experiential therapy.
Reviewed by Lisa Misquith