Experiential Therapy for Trauma

experiential

When we experience a traumatic event, it impacts both the emotional and physical state of a person.  If we encounter a threat, our nervous system reacts by entering survival mode.[1] The amygdala area of the brain sends signals to our muscles to prepare for mobilisation (fight or flight). If the threat cannot be fought against or escaped from – for example, a catastrophic accident or a child experiencing abuse – the nervous system utilises its third threat response – freeze.[2]

The freeze response initiates an emotional and psychological shutdown. This is a safety mechanism to prevent the psyche from becoming too overwhelmed. Trauma survivors can frequently become ‘stuck’ in this state of freeze. The nervous system, therefore, can interpret safe environments or situations as life-threatening. When the freeze response becomes maladaptive in this way, it can be extremely difficult to break free from, and sufferers can find themselves in an almost constant state of hyperarousal, leading to increased states of agitation, stress, anxiety, and fear.

In these situations, the mind and body can become disconnected. [3] Neuroscience suggests that traumatic experiences are stored within the body as well as within the brain.[4] For this reason, experiential therapy, a type of therapy that promotes working with the body, is an apt form of treatment for trauma. It creates a safe place where painful emotions and experiences can be connected to and then released through actions rather than words.

 

What is Experiential Therapy?

Experiential therapy is a therapy based upon experiences involving actions, movement, voice, and re-enactment. This form of therapy is often used for anger management, eating disorders, substance abuse, behaviour disorders, and trauma.

Common types of Experiential Therapy include:

  • Art Therapy – uses art materials as a medium to explore and convey emotion.
  • Equine/Canine Therapy – this commonly includes grooming, feeding, walking/leading and stroking an animal which has been proven to reduce stress levels.
  • Yoga Therapy – uses breathing exercises, yoga poses, and meditation to integrate body and mind.
  • Music Therapy – here, you may sing, listen to melodies, play an instrument, drum, or write songs as a means of expressing yourself.
  • Dance Therapy – uses movement to help individuals achieve emotional, cognitive, physical, and social integration.
  • Adventure Therapy – uses challenging activities to help people overcome fears and anxieties in order to achieve a sense of empowerment.
  • Outdoors Therapy – this therapy, and wilderness therapy, are excellent antidotes to the stress caused by trauma. Whilst out in nature, the fresh air, birdsong, and natural beauty, grounds and relaxes a person and allows them to connect with painful emotions more freely.
  • Drama Therapy – provides a liberating context for expressing emotions, acting out memories, sharing stories, setting goals, and problem-

An experiential therapist will often use a variety of experiences rather than focusing on just one. This allows the individual to freely move between the various experiences enabling them to find the one which best suits their needs and best communicates their trauma.

During the therapy, a therapist will focus on the client’s awareness and perceptions of what is happening and how the actions resonate within the body, noticing which emotions emerge and where they can be felt in the body.

During an experiential activity, clients are also given the opportunity to increase self-esteem, experience success, and identify obstacles. These types of therapy can be undertaken in group settings which helps an individual build trust and gain responsibility.

 

How Does Experiential Therapy Work?

It is well understood that perceptions affect behaviour. For trauma sufferers whose nervous systems are frozen in past trauma, their perceptions are often inaccurate and inappropriate to the world around them. These action-based techniques allow individuals to re-enact or re-experience significant events, memories, or feelings in a safe space within the present moment, far away from the traumatic events of the past.

The nature of the activities allows clients to bring their whole self to the therapy, thereby enabling them to access the emotional, spiritual, and physical aspects of their trauma. By addressing the trauma in a hands-on way, the individual can develop the skills needed to address their trauma healthily without reverting to unhealthy coping mechanisms, such as substance abuse, to escape their pain.

Experience is known to make lasting changes to the brain. [5] An experiential experience can change the imprints of trauma by accessing the traumatic neural network and providing a safe way of addressing the trauma, and allowing the energy stored by the body’s survival processes to be released. [6]

 

 

Conclusion

Experiential Therapy is a powerful tool to allow trauma suffers to positively alter their perceptions of the world around them and shape their sense of self.  Unlike more traditional forms of therapy such as Cognitive-behavioural Therapy (CBT), experiential therapy allows for renegotiation, integration, and resolution of unresolved trauma.[7] An important secondary benefit of experiential therapy is that people can learn new and healthy ways to fill their time, and can start new hobbies, instead of turning to destructive coping behaviours.

If you have a client, or know of someone who is struggling to heal from psychological trauma, reach out to us at Khiron Clinics. We believe that we can improve therapeutic outcomes and avoid misdiagnosis by providing an effective residential program and out-patient therapies addressing underlying psychological trauma. Allow us to help you find the path to realistic, long-lasting recovery. For information, call us today. UK: 020 3811 2575 (24 hours). USA: (866) 801 6184 (24 hours).

 

[1] Harvard Health. 2011. Understanding The Stress Response – Harvard Health. [online] Available at: <https://www.health.harvard.edu/staying-healthy/understanding-the-stress-response> [Accessed 23 October 2020].

[2] Schmidt, N., Richey, J., Zvolensky, M. and Maner, J., 2008. Exploring human freeze responses to a threat stressor. Journal of Behavior Therapy and Experimental Psychiatry, 39(3), pp.292-304.

[3] Courtois, Christine A. “Complex Trauma, Complex Reactions: Assessment And Treatment.”. Psychotherapy: Theory, Research, Practice, Training, vol 41, no. 4, 2004, pp. 412-425. American Psychological Association (APA), doi:10.1037/0033-3204.41.4.412. Accessed 5 May 2021.

[4] van der Kolk, Bessel A. “The Body Keeps The Score: Memory And The Evolving Psychobiology Of Posttraumatic Stress”. Harvard Review Of Psychiatry, vol 1, no. 5, 1994, pp. 253-265. Ovid Technologies (Wolters Kluwer Health), doi:10.3109/10673229409017088. Accessed 5 May 2021.

[5] Siegel, Daniel J. The developing mind: How relationships and the brain interact to shape who we are. Guilford Publications, 2020.

[6] Porges, Stephen W. The pocket guide to the polyvagal theory: The transformative power of feeling safe. WW Norton & Co, 2017.

[7] Giacomucci, Scott. “Addiction, traumatic loss, and guilt: A case study resolving grief through psychodrama and sociometric connections.” The Arts in Psychotherapy 67 (2020): 101627.

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