The Power of Experiential Therapy within a Residential Addiction Treatment Program

Ziplining is unlikely to be the first thing that comes to mind when thinking about addiction treatment. After all, the work of recovery is often imagined to be something that happens exclusively in the clinical spaces of therapy rooms, involving the thoughtful and deliberate exploration of your emotions and behaviors in the hope of creating relief from suffering. But people and addiction are both complex, and the best treatment offers multiple paths to healing to engage you in a holistic process that is as versatile and multidimensional as your needs. That’s where ziplining comes in. And hiking. And kayaking.

Three times a week, clients at Alta Mira are taken off-site to participate in a variety of outings that allow them to take full advantage of the Bay Area’s beautiful natural spaces and renowned cultural institutions. Some days, this may include sailing on the San Francisco Bay or hiking Mt. Tamalpais, while others it may be a tour of the Museum of Modern Art or a trip to an equine therapy center. But the outings are more than just fun; they are an integral part of the addiction treatment process itself. Alta Mira’s Experiential Therapy program coordinator elaborates. “Our intention is to make this program rich in experience and create deep meaning for our clients. Through experiential therapy, we want to provide them with activities that really get them in their bodies, to really let them get acquainted with their emotionality without substances.”

What is Experiential Therapy?

Experiential therapy is not a single activity, but a flexible and multifaceted therapeutic modality rooted in the belief that concrete experiences can unlock subliminal barriers to healing and allow you to both increase awareness and make internal changes in the present moment. As opposed to talk therapy, experiential therapy does not require verbal communication. Rather, it engages you on a multi-sensory level to access parts of yourself that addiction has kept hidden and, in doing so, create healing experiences that allow you to rejuvenate your mind, body, and spirit.

The dynamic and highly adaptable nature of experiential therapy allows for therapeutic experiences that speak to clients both individually and as a group. The best experiential therapy begins with one-on-one meetings to gain insight into each person’s needs, strengths, and struggles. Alta Mira’s experiential therapy program coordinator asks clients:

‘What is it that you really want to experience? What is it that you’ve left behind due to your addiction? What do you mourn? Where does that guilt and shame sit when it comes to participating in life? What are you most disconnected from? What was so meaningful in your life, and addiction severed it?’ We want to get them back in touch with that feeling.

By designing each outing to the abilities, interests, and desires of the group, each person is able to participate in a way that is relevant and meaningful to them. Equine therapy, for example, may give someone with significant trauma a path to safely explore their experiences without having to relive their painful memories by talking about them. This ability to reach people according to their needs and inviting them into a healing space that will give them strength is one of the most remarkable aspects of experiential therapy.

Often, however, the benefits of experiential therapy have less to do with the specifics of the activity itself than with the totality of the experience. “A lot of the time, it’s not the content, it’s the feeling and the essence that the client brings.” For some, even something as seemingly small as being able to cope with being in traffic can be a deeply nurturing experience and act as a stepping stone towards reintegration with the world around them.

There are all different stages in recovery and in life. Experiential therapy creates space for them to express themselves authentically. Emotionally, it can really open clients up. The key for continued recovery is to give clients enough space to explore who they are individually and get that real-time experience of finding themselves. And when they don’t feel safe, we can reel them back in.

While those who are naturally connected to the unconscious self may be keenly aware that these experiences will help their recovery, for many, it’s a much more subtle process that happens beneath the surface. The benefits, however, can be extraordinary, regardless of whether they are clearly visible in the moment or not.

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Integrating Healing

Although experiential therapy can have profound benefits for people struggling with all types of mental health disorders, it has unique qualities that make it particularly suited for supporting people in early recovery.

Some people are ambivalent about being in treatment and they’re hesitant to go out into the world. Our goal is to give them enough space to get acquainted with that feeling and then bring them back in, redirect them, and use that experience as a teaching tool. Often what ends up happening is that the trust and respect between the program coordinator, the program, and the client is really developed in these moments.

As participants gain their grounding within the treatment program in general and in experiential therapy in particular, this ambivalence is often replaced with a sense of possibility as they forge deeper connections, both with their own self and with those around them. Through experiential therapy, something shifts. That shift comes in the form of newfound insight, awareness, confidence, and commitment to recovery, which in turn allow people to more meaningfully engage in the treatment process as a whole.

What happens is that they start integrating and demonstrating the skills that they have learned in the groups here on campus, whether in individual therapy or one of our intensive workshops. They start seeing that their thinking is changing and they start to emanate confidence. They think, ‘I can do this.’ It becomes real to them and they can feel it on a really rich, profound level. It’s not a fleeting thought that comes and goes; it’s now ingrained in them.

One of the most critical pieces of experiential therapy, and one that sets it apart from many other modalities, is this practical application of the skills addiction treatment has given its participants. Rather than simply being theoretical, this form of therapy gives them the opportunity to take their newfound sobriety, knowledge, and coping mechanisms out into the world and try them.

Continuing Recovery

The ability that experiential therapy has to fortify the recovery process and reignite a passion for life has led Alta Mira to integrate experiential therapy not only in our residential program, but in our Intensive Outpatient Program and weekly alumni groups. Incorporating the modality throughout Alta Mira’s care continuum and tailoring activities to each stage of recovery expands the possibilities of the therapy and lays the foundation for long-term wellness. For many, experiential therapy is such a vital part of ongoing healing that it becomes a part of the discharge planning process to ensure that clients are able to access the activities that have been particularly meaningful to them.

Alta Mira has seen many clients weave the activities from experiential therapy into the fabric of their everyday lives once they have left treatment, allowing them to create richer, more joyful experiences for themselves while fortifying their commitment to sobriety. For some, this includes taking up bike riding or hiking, while for others it means participating in ongoing equine therapy or even giving rise to business ideas. “It’s very inspiring. We get to hear about how they are not only connecting to themselves on a very profound, spiritual level, they are living their authentic selves. They are actually in this life. That in itself is like medicine for addiction.”

The Possibility of Transformation

The transformations that happen at Alta Mira are exceptional. “It’s a hard thing to capture, but we see clients who are coming in afraid, closed, and in a lot of emotional pain.” Experiential therapy opens up a door and invites them to release that fear and suffering. “You really start seeing this hope in them. Their affect changes, they communicate more, they’re more engaged in treatment, they start expressing themselves with inspiration to others and to themselves.”

This remarkable ability to find healing and grace in the present moment and carry that forward into the larger adventure of recovery is where the strength of experiential therapy truly lies.

Alta Mira offers a comprehensive range of addiction treatment programming, including residential, intensive outpatient, and continuing care options. Our innovative curriculum integrates the best therapeutic practices to create extraordinary treatment experiences that create a strong foundation for long-term healing and personal growth. Contact us to learn more about our programs and how we can help you or your loved one on the path to recovery.