What Are the Different Types of Experiential Therapy?

As it is an ever-expanding field, it's difficult to list all the different types of experiential therapy. A few of the major kinds include hypnosis, eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR), and psychodrama. Gestalt, art and play therapy, and Jungian sand tray work are frequently used, too. These therapeutic methods all posit that a deeper aspect of “knowing” may be reached when people understand their conflicts through action or experience.

While psychodrama is often considered one of the first experiential therapy types, Freud’s use of hypnotism predates it. When Freud employed this in practice, he sought to help his clients experience their conflicts on a much deeper level. With some patients, the hypnotic state produced abreaction, the living through of previous traumatic experiences. Freud posited that the client could then process distress better because his point of view in the re-experiencing was not the same as it had been when the trauma first occurred.

A similar concept to Freud’s hypnosis and abreaction is EMDR. While a person is being directed to move their eyes to follow a metronome or a therapist’s fingers, he simultaneously re-experiences difficult ordeals or thoughts associated with them. It’s thought that the simultaneous eye movement and the recollection of these incidents help the client reprocess distressing experiences. This form of experiential therapy is often used to treat post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

Psychodrama dates to the early 20th century and is principally a group experiential therapy. One member of the group plays a role that is somehow connected to her life, while other group members fill supporting roles. This is unscripted and allows individuals to act out their experiences or to correct other people “acting out their life,” with words and actions during the impromptu performance.

Gestalt therapy, which is one of the best-known experiential therapy types, leans heavily on psychodrama principles, but can be applied in individual settings. Part of this therapy draws attention to the client’ s incongruous words and nonverbal language. Other aspects ask the client to directly act out issues of conflict. One well-known exercise in Gestalt is “empty chair,” in which clients switch between being themselves and being others, like parents. A conversation between the client and another person the client “acts out,” is thus experientially possible.

Art and play therapies may be appropriate to children or adults. Play therapies are especially helpful to kids who may have difficulty spending an hour talking with a therapist. Instead, conflict can be understood in context of behavior and in a few questions a therapist might ask during a session. Art therapies involve an experience of the unconscious through artistic expression.

Jungian sand tray work is a variant of art and play therapies. Both adults and kids can reshape the sand and add figures to it to create a scene. Talking about it may or may not be necessary, but the scene is interpreted through the motifs chosen. For the client, this is another way of interacting with the unconscious mind.

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