Experiential Therapy, the word Experiential means relating to experience. In this case experience has to be personal as this form of therapy is derived from the school of Psychotherapy.

Psychotherapy is used in the treatment of mental and emotional disorders. This form of therapy follows a talking model, relating to the use of therapists and counsellors to address signs and symptoms of underlying problems rather than a medical model which would relate to the prescription of medicines.

And is specifically related to the client’s internal experiences which are either current or historic.

Even though talking takes place Experiential Therapy is an Action Oriented Therapy and most forms of therapy are taken out the office and into real life settings.

Experiential Therapy is an Action Oriented Therapy

Experiential Therapy is an Action Oriented Therapy

Experiential Therapy can be delivered in many ways. 

Some examples include Guided Meditation or Visualisation Techniques, Art Therapy, Equine Therapy, Outdoor Pursuits, Music Therapy.

Because they are Action Orientated – the act of taking part in something may be more memorable than sitting motionless in a therapy office.

These therapies allow the trained therapist to guide their clients into an expressive or activity led session. In these sessions’ clients through re-enactment or recreation of events can be encouraged to share current or historical experiences.

However, conversations can evolve organically i.e. without any encouragement from the therapist. It depends on the setting. Outdoor pursuits for example will allow for this.

Once experiences have been shared through different formats or expressions the impact these experiences have had on the emotional condition can be considered.

In many cases the experiences that will be replayed or remembered have affected almost every area of life, for the individual who experienced them. From trust issues in relationships, fear of intimacy, using alcohol or drugs to suppress feelings of inadequacy or missed opportunities.

This non-exhaustive list related to human emotions and reactions to life events borne of past trauma or current harm will and can be considered in Experiential Therapy.

The goal is to seek and release any unresolved emotions such as anger, frustration, guilt, shame or hurt.

Dr A Mahrer (2002) Becoming The Person You Can Become 

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Alvin. R. Mahrer PHD

1927–2014 

“Experiential Psychotherapy does not aim at reducing or resolving problems. It’s directions of change include the washing away of bad feelings of pain, hurt, suffering; the ending of scenes of bad feelings; no longer does the person behave in ways that construct and use the situational context to undergo painful experiencing accompanied with bad feelings.”

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Dr Mahrer invented Experiential Therapy in 1983 and he was instrumental in bringing the term ‘Becoming The Person You Can Become’ into popular discourse in the world of psychotherapy.

Dr Mahrer ultimately wanted the participants of this therapy to become a ‘whole new person’ or ‘an optimal version of you.’

His work was not aimed at curing or offering solutions to problems but instead at guiding the participant to become aware of what lies deep within them, understand potential, find out new ways to experience and learn how to become a ‘whole new person.’  Mahrer (1998)

Mahrer’s intention was for each therapy session to achieve two goals.

Goal 1 was to become a qualitatively new person.

Goal 2 was to become free from scenes of bad feeling. Mahrer (1996)

Mahrer used 4 parts to conduct his Experiential Therapy.

Part 1 was taking the person to a situation that occurred and helping them feel the highest emotion attached to this situation. He called that emotion the gateway to finding your higher self. This was known as the ‘critical moment.’

Part 2 is all about exploring the many facets of this higher potential.

Part 3 is centred around play or experimenting on how it would actually feel if the person had realised their deeper potential.

Part 4 involves practising living like this new person. The essence of this step is to become a new person shedding the skin of the old one. So, the participant is less inclined to return to their old self.

These steps can be repeated to continue working on aspects of self, erasing the old memory banks, and creating new ones.

Experiential Therapy – Listening to your inner voice

Human beings are masters at avoiding or suppressing feelings.

This technique is unhelpful and can cause emotional disruption. The example of a pressure cooker is helpful when visualising a person who suppresses how they really feel.

Inside they are bubbling away and sooner or later, if the valve is not released, they will explode.

Now consider the term Passive – Aggressive and the effect from living this way. Continuously accepting the unacceptable the mildly mannered individual eventually explodes with rage.

Afterwards due to shame and guilt, they retreat and begin to act passively again.

Both these descriptions show some of the ways people react when they deny how they really feel. The feelings may be current or borne of past situations that go on to fuel these negative emotions or perceptions of events.

However, some may not act angrily towards others they may act angrily towards themselves.

Here is a list of the ways humans can react if current or historic emotions go untreated.

List of Human Reactions to untreated events

  • Angrily to others (usually towards the people closest to them)
  • Angrily to themselves (negative self-talk and self-harm)
  • Overeating
  • Gambling
  • The over user of Alcohol and Drugs
  • Avoidance
  • Walking away from relationships, jobs etc
  • Low mood
  • Anxiety
  • Stress
  • Autoimmune disorders
  • Develop mental health problems
  • Develop physical health problems

This list is not exhaustive and is used to show how unchecked emotions can affect those who have unresolved traumas. NB trauma may be a deep shock which has been highly unsettling and may cause Psychological damage.

So how do you listen to your inner voice?

Children are taught many ways to suppress feelings and emotions. Don’t cry. Calm down. Don’t exaggerate. Are just some of the ways they may be spoken to.

Parents are inadvertently trying to ‘normalise’ their children’s reactions to events. Reactions which are deemed appropriate by the world around them.

As so many emotions are taught to be suppressed the inner voice is lost or confused.

Experiential Therapy will support clients to listen to their inner voice and ultimately to become the best version of themselves.

Experiential Therapy – What to do with feelings and emotions

Feelings are connected to an emotional state or reaction to events and emotions are attached to strong feelings that are connected to specific situations. Emotions can be intuitive i.e. they come from knowledge or rationalising of events.

In Experiential Therapy once the event has been re-enacted or reconstructed the therapist will assist the client, supporting them to explore the feelings and emotions that arise.

Take divorce for example. As a child, watching parents argue and then separate has many facets that may be perceived by the child.

  • It’s my fault
  • My parents don’t love me enough to stay together
  • They never asked me what I felt or wanted
  • I feel invisible.

This may manifest when older into:

  • Low self esteem
  • Fear of intimacy
  • Low self-worth
  • Accepting the unacceptable

These feelings may interrupt with or affect relationships of a sexual or plutonic nature and in all other aspects of their adult life.

Reactions to these feelings are varied and multiple. The list above Human Reactions to untreated events clearly illustrates reactions and the importance of Psychotherapy.

Experiential Therapy addresses these situations through a variety of means.

Take art therapy for example, whilst painting, drawing, moulding or creating a piece of art. The student may be given an instruction. i.e. draw a picture of your family.

During the process of drawing this picture the artist will be using their intuition to create the scene. And will be reflecting on the event as they draw.

The trained therapist may guide the artist towards a particular area of interesting discussion that may have arisen whilst drawing.

Narrowing the event down they can discuss how they felt at time of event, how they reacted to life after the event and how they felt whilst drawing the picture.

Or they may have a relaxed conversation throughout the drawing of the picture. Action Oriented Therapy will allow the guard to drop as the drawer is more relaxed.

This conversation will help the student view the situation with a different perspective. The therapist and student can then open up certain points talking about them and working to let them go.

The benefit of Action Oriented Therapies is to help the person become distracted enough to stop controlling their emotions. The control of emotions and feelings have become a learned behaviour from childhood.

When inhibitions are dropped they will feel comfortable enough to talk and some metaphors of real life can be revealed.

Experiential Therapy – Who can it help

Experiential Therapy can help anyone with an emotional or psychological disorder. Here are some examples:

  • Trauma
  • Eating Disorders
  • Behavioural based disorders
  • Anger management
  • Grief
  • Gambling
  • Substance Use Disorders
  • Family Issues

Experiential Therapy and Substance Use Disorder

Using drama, art, music, outdoor pursuits and visualisation techniques are just some of the ways this type of therapy can be delivered.

When distracted from self and experiencing new activities a qualified therapist can guide their client towards becoming a better version of their self.

They can consider specific areas such as known as ‘meaningful centres.’ When taking part such as feelings of inadequacies or the way their mother used to look at them Mahrer (1983) to stay focussed on the task at hand these meaningful centres are the core issues and relate to why they perhaps used alcohol or drugs to begin with i.e. to escape reality or these feelings of inadequacy.

When Experiential Therapy is used in conjunction with other talking therapies such as CBT, DBT or Met. The client begins to see their self differently and walks away from the image of their own self empowered to make positive changes and become a better version of self.

Experiential Therapy is better to experience than to be theorised. As it is just that. A therapy that helps the participant experience new ways of looking at their self. Shedding the painful emotions attached to current or historic events or situations they were a part of.

Using a variety of different ways to explore this Action Oriented Therapy participants that don’t always find talking in office rooms rewarding. Will remember this type of experiential learning far longer than they would a seated conversation.

The ultimate aim is to Become A Whole New Person. Sounds good doesn’t it!

Frequently Asked Questions

“Do you do Experiential Therapy at Abbeycare?”

Experiential Therapy is not delivered within Abbeycare. A few forms of ET are delivered which are Yoga and Guided Meditation.

These therapies are not fully ET as the therapist is not qualified in this discipline. And is working to achieve relaxation of the mind and body and not the ‘becoming of a better you’ as outlined by the inventor of ET Alvin Mahrer (1983).

“Where can I access Experiential Therapy?”

Abbeycare do not endorse the use of any particular Experiential Therapist. These therapists can be found on the WEB by typing in Experiential Therapists in the area you live in.

Look for an accredited therapist with a catalogue of work and qualifications in Psychotherapy.

“How many sessions should I attend?”

There is no set number of sessions that should be attended to achieve the ‘best version of you.’ The number and duration of sessions will be negotiated between you and the therapist.

Sessions vary in price and you can ask the therapist before you begin for the prices. In some cases, booking a bundle may be more cost effective.


About the author

Peter Szczepanski

Peter has been on the GPhC register for 29 years. He holds a Clinical Diploma in Advanced Clinical Practice and he is a Clinical Lead in Alcohol and Substance Misuse for Abbeycare Gloucester and works as the Clinical Lead in Alcohol and Substance Use in Worcestershire. Find Peter on Respiratory Academy, Aston University graduates, University of Birmingham, Q, Pharmaceutical Journal, the Dudley Pharmaceutical Committee, Dudley Council, Twitter, and LinkedIn.


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