Experiential therapy: More than just fun and games

Experiential therapy has grown in popularity over the years and research suggests a variety of positive benefits, particularly in relation to those experiencing substance use and mental health disorders. However, experiential therapy doesn’t lend itself to measurable qualities as easily as other treatment options. For that reason, many still see these modalities as flashy, unscientific, and ineffective. Rosecrance is doing its part to showcase the benefits of experiential therapies and remind people that it’s so much more than just fun and games.

“Everything we do we do with a purpose behind it,” says Abigail Nelson, Rosecrance Recreation Therapist. “The biggest misconception about experiential therapies is that we are just coming to the conservatory or the gym for our clients to engage in fun activities. Part of it is fun, but the more important part is to use these activities intentionally instead of as filler, and connect the dots to healing.”

Experiential therapy isn’t a specific type of psychotherapy but rather a multisensory, strengths- and brain-based approach to treatment. With its integrative style, experiential therapy includes a wide variety of interventions and therapeutic techniques that rely on the common thread of ‘experience’ or ‘action’ as the agent of change. The modality can be particularly effective for those who do not benefit from traditional talk therapy approaches.

“The biggest misconception about experiential therapies is that we are just coming to the conservatory or the gym for our clients to engage in fun activities.”
—Abigail Nelson, Rosecrance Recreation Therapist

“Experiential therapies are out of the box activities, interests and hobbies, where you get out of your comfort zone and learn to express yourself in different ways other than just talking about something,” explains Jada Miller, Rosecrance Art Therapist. “It’s a way for our clients to settle themselves, ground themselves, and find calm in the chaos … they build on positive emotions and work through negative emotions in a safe, healthy way.”

According to Institute for the Advancement of Behavioral Healthcare (IABH), experiential therapies can improve sleep, levels of stress, and relationships with the self and others, as well as trigger the release of dopamine and endorphins, which can bring about feelings of positivity and happiness. Additionally, experiential therapies can help change the brain through neuroplasticity, interrupt old patterns, and rewire neuro firings through repeated practice.

“Research shows time and time again that experiential therapies can improve peace of mind; increase feelings of confidence, self-esteem, and motivation; and reduce anxiety,” says Carla Roth, Rosecrance Recreation Therapist. “The whole idea is to give clients an element of control back so that they can self soothe, feel better, and have a higher quality of life.”

The experiential therapies program at Rosecrance is multi-faceted, offering a range of activities from art, horticulture, fitness, yoga, meditation and mindfulness, horse-back riding, drumming, labyrinth and sensory room activities, healthy living lectures, team building exercises, and more. Every modality Rosecrance implements with clients is evidence-based and proven to be effective among populations experiencing substance use and mental health disorders. Experiential therapy is no different. Rosecrance collects data on its effectiveness by conducting post symptom and mood-tracking surveys, and wellness-based measurements.

Client testimonies support the benefits of experiential therapy, too. Following an art therapy session, one client explained, “When I first went to this class, I was a bit confused and scared because I’m not good with art. It amazed me how it actually worked. By the time we were done, I felt happy, confident, and calm. It was definitely a great experience.” Another wrote in a post-evaluation, “It really helped me with my anxiety and I will be taking the coping skills I learned and using it in my recovery outside of Rosecrance.

The staff at Rosecrance witness these client transformations take place each and every day and they see experiential therapy play a huge role. “I hear the word ‘relief’ a lot in responses,” says Matt Larson, Rosecrance Recreation Specialist. “Whatever it was they were feeling—aggression, agitation, tension, doubt, fear, sadness, or frustration—it’s gone … The sessions allow for a physical and mental release, a break from their ‘thought tornado,’ and an opportunity to cope using their senses.”

Nelson adds, “There are lots of dimensions of wellness, and experiential therapies can really touch on all of those. It can be an emotional outlet, physical outlet, spiritual outlet, environmental outlet, and community outlet. There are so many ways to work on wellness with experiential therapies; it’s so much more than just playing games.”