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.
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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.