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Using Expressive and Experiential Therapy to Heal in Addiction Treatment

4 minute read

More than 23 million Americans suffer from addiction to drugs or alcohol. Unfortunately, 75% of them report not receiving any form of treatment for their addiction. If you do choose to get help, picking the right treatment can feel overwhelming because of the many different options.

In the world of addiction treatment, talk therapy is the most well-known approach, but it’s not the right fit for everyone. Talk therapy can be scary, especially when you’re expected to discuss past trauma and difficult emotions. You might find it hard to describe your experiences, or you may not be ready to talk about them yet.

Recently, other therapy approaches have gained the spotlight, including expressive and experiential therapies. These therapies focus on engaging in specific activities and experiences. They go beyond traditional talk therapy and provide unique ways of healing.

Experiential and Expressive Therapy for Addiction

Imagine addiction as an iceberg: The part above the water—that you can see—is just the symptom of something deeper. It shows only part of what is going on. The unseen part of the iceberg represents the trauma or pain that is driving the addiction. Therapy that addresses only the tip of the iceberg isn’t effective, and it means a higher chance of relapse. Experiential and expressive therapies provide a way to see what is below the surface. By exploring and resolving root causes, the chances for recovery are much better. Until past traumas heal, people tend to continue old behaviors. While all effective therapy should address the root cause(s) of addiction, experiential and expressive therapies provide unique alternatives to traditional therapy. They can also be used in conjunction with other therapies.

Beyond healing past traumas, experiential and expressive therapies can help you:

  • Release negative emotions
  • Form healthy relationships
  • Feel more open and independent
  • Live in the present (rather than focusing on the past)
  • Feel more ready and able to face the future

What Is Experiential Therapy?

Experiential therapy grew out of experiential learning theory and comes in many forms, but it’s main goal is to help people heal through doing. It uses different activities and experiences as ways to engage in the addiction recovery process. Experiential therapy is often used alongside traditional talk therapy.

Here are a few common examples of experiential therapy:

Adventure therapy uses recreational activities, like hiking, backpacking, or rock-climbing, to aid in recovery. The thought of doing these things may feel uncomfortable, or even scary, but working through these hard activities can improve your problem-solving skills. Adventure therapy also supports trust-building and teamwork.

Martial arts, like Jiu jitsu, are becoming more popular in treating addiction. They promote personal discipline and focus on the present moment and can also help establish a sense of personal control. This is helpful because as someone addicted to a substance, you may have felt out of control for a long time.

Volunteering Studies show volunteering helps in recovery from mental health problems and addiction.  Addiction can cause people to focus inward—only on themselves. Volunteering is a way to shift the focus to others. People who volunteer report increased empathy and compassion. It can also provide community and connection. There are many ways to volunteer.  You could:

  • Donate your time to the local animal shelter
  • Visit a senior center
  • Fix and serve meals to the homeless or hungry

What Is Expressive Therapy?

Expressive therapy combines psychology with different creative outlets. This therapy comes from the belief that everyone can express themselves through creativity. It encourages healing and growth in a non-traditional way. Because everyone expresses themselves differently, this is a very flexible therapy. 

Here are a few common examples of expressive therapy:

Art therapy is about creative expression using various types of art, such as:

  • Drawing
  • Sculpting
  • Painting
  • Cross-stitch
  • And more

Creating art is a way to promote:

  • Mindfulness
  • Creative problem-solving
  • Self-acceptance

In addiction treatment, art therapy helps people express emotions without having to come up with words to talk about them. Art therapy also increases emotional understanding and confidence. 

Dance therapy comes from the idea of the mind-body connection. It uses movement to support all parts of you: emotional, physical, and mental. The purpose of dance therapy is more than exercise; movement expresses emotion and allows you to connect with your body.

Bibliotherapy uses the written word to help the healing process. You may read specific books recommended by your therapist, compose poems, and/or write or tell stories. Bibliotherapy provides a unique space for expressing your feelings and emotions, and it can help you work through past hurts and tap into a creative side you may have been missing.   

Music can increase positive feelings in your body and your mind, and while music therapy can just involve listening to music, it’s also diverse! You could create music yourself by playing an instrument or writing song lyrics, or you could sing. Music therapy might also combine another activity (such as journaling) with the music process.

Drama therapy is one of the most engaging therapies. It uses role-playing and other theater practices (like improvisation, projection, and metaphor) to help you share your stories. It can also help with expressing feelings and strengthening relationships. Drama therapy allows you to take on other “roles.”  For many people, it can feel “safer” to convey their thoughts and feelings as someone else. Drama therapy also creates the opportunity to re-enact difficult experiences from the past, which can be healing. This expressive therapy can be done by yourself, as part of a couple, or with family members or other groups.   

If you’re interested in learning more about experiential and expressive therapy to help you work through your addiction and live a sober, happy life, contact Footprints to Recovery today. 


Jenna Richer
Medically Reviewed by Jenna Richer, MSW, LCSW
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