Following a traumatic experience (or series of experiences), the body and mind can become disconnected. This is a survival mechanism that helps people cope with the unimaginable.
Research in neuroscience suggests that traumatic memories are stored not only in the brain, but also in the body. Trauma impacts every part of the individual – emotional, physical and spiritual – which means treatment needs to address each of those areas.
While talk therapy can be helpful, it has limitations. Studies suggest that trauma is rooted in the right-brain, cut off from the conscious mind, and cannot always be accessed through words alone. Other types of therapies, including experiential therapy, make it is possible to access different parts of the brain, getting to the root causes of trauma responses rather than just the symptoms.
The ‘Treatment of Choice’
For these reasons, experiential therapy has been called the “treatment of choice” for emotional trauma. It is a safe way for trauma survivors to experience painful emotions and release them not only through words but also movement.
“Experiential therapy allows trauma survivors to access their emotions, integrate mind, body and spirit, and reconnect with their authentic selves,” says Buddy Horne, a clinical specialist at The Ranch treatment center for addictions, eating disorders and trauma.
In his work, Horne utilizes a variety of experiential approaches including:
- Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR)
- Rage release
- Empty chair
- Role playing
- Use of props (e.g., blindfolds, twisting a towel)
The Ranch also offers adventure therapy, equine-assisted psychotherapy, yoga, expressive art therapies and other experiential approaches. These techniques allow individuals to re-enact significant experiences, feelings or relationships in their lives and work through the trauma in the present moment, after the initial danger has passed. By addressing the trauma in a hands-on way, the individual develops the skills to avoid masking their emotional pain with drugs, alcohol, eating disorders and other unhealthy coping mechanisms.
Why Residential Treatment?
In residential treatment, clients identify unhealthy beliefs and defense mechanisms and develop more effective communication and coping skills. Whereas clients in less intensive programs may learn new skills and plan to use them once they leave, in a residential program clients get hands-on experience putting their new skills to use with guidance and support from a team of experienced clinicians.
The residential setting creates a family-like dynamic, which brings up emotional issues more quickly than other settings, and also encourages group support, self-disclosure and self-expression. In treatment, clients slowly and safely experience traumatic memories until they can be released and lose their intensity. Since processing the trauma only partially can put the individual at risk for re-traumatization, it is important to take the time needed to process and resolve the trauma during treatment.
Benefits of Experiential Therapy
Individuals who have participated in experiential therapy have reported some of the following benefits:
- Higher self-confidence and belief in their own abilities
- Greater ability to focus on the present
- Feeling more connected with themselves
- Greater ability to trust themselves and others
- Enhanced self-expression and communication skills
- Reduced feelings of depression, anxiety or hopelessness
- Improved self-awareness and problem-solving skills
“Using experiential therapy, I have the opportunity to help clients with unhealthy core beliefs like ‘I’m defective’ or ‘I’m not good enough’ come around and see the truth that they have intrinsic value that no one can take away from them,” says Horne. “Freed from the past, the glow comes into their eyes. There’s nothing better than to see people who are suffering come alive right there in front of you.”