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Is Experiential Therapy Beneficial for Women?

is experiential therapy beneficial for women

When most people think of therapy or addiction treatment, they’re thinking of talk-based therapies — the patient sits in a chair and talks to a therapist or counselor. Experiential therapy, on the other hand, is based on action or experience. This type of therapy includes art therapy, the use of role-playing or props, guided imagery, yoga, meditation, equine therapy and other therapies focused around doing something rather than simply talking about an issue or problem.

The way experiential therapy works is simple: A professional therapist engages a resident in a specific therapy activity. This can involve yoga, horseback riding, art or something else. Before, after or during the activity, the therapist may ask questions, may ask the resident to do certain things related to the activity (such as drawing a certain part of their life) or may ask the resident to talk about the feelings the activity brings up. While meditating, riding horses or doing yoga might not seem to have anything to do with therapy or treating addiction, these activities, in the hands of experienced therapists, can be very effective at helping residents express themselves and find solutions to their conditions.

Experiential therapy can be used alone or with talk-based or medication-based therapies to address addiction and other conditions. There is some evidence women can especially benefit from experiential models of treatment.

What Are the Unique Needs of Women in Therapy?

On the surface, the therapy needs of both men and women are the same. Both men and women deal with some similar issues (such as substance abuse, past traumas and relationship issues) and may benefit from therapy. There are some important differences, too. For example, women are slightly less likely to seek treatment. Of the 1.3 million American adults seeking specialized help for alcohol use disorders in 2013, only 444,000 were women. That year, only about 7.3% of women who needed treatment for alcohol use received it. There are many reasons for this. Women may be parents and may not feel able to take time away from children for treatment. Economic barriers can also keep women from seeking help. Obviously, making treatment for women accessible is important.

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Another unique feature of women in therapy is the aggressiveness of treatment. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, women are more likely to seek treatment for abuse of anti-anxiety medications and sedatives. The same source reports women usually have shorter histories with substance abuse when they enter treatment, but in most women the move from first use to dependence is faster. Treatment options may need to be more aggressive to help women. In addition, because women become dependent more quickly, they are more likely to have social, medical, psychological and behavioral problems when they seek treatment. Treatment programs focused on women need to be prepared to deal with these issues as well.

Some women prefer women-only programs, while others seek out outpatient programs because of family obligations. The good news is that women who complete treatment often fare better than men who complete addiction programs. Women who complete treatment for addiction are nine times more likely to avoid relapse compared to women who don’t complete treatment. Men who finish treatment are three times more likely avoid relapse compared to men who don’t finish treatment.

Women also have different reasons for relapse. They are more likely to relapse after treatment because of personal problems or because a partner is addicted. By offering a way for women to release stress and deal with personal issues, experiential therapies can address this common cause of relapse.

What Are the Advantages of Experiential Therapy for Women?

Experiential therapy can address some of the unique needs of women in therapy. For women, experiential therapy such as yoga, meditation, music therapy and art therapy can offer several benefits:

1) Experiential therapy is less hierarchical.

With most talk-based therapies, there is a clear doctor-patient relationship. The patient is meant to answer questions and speak to the therapist, while the therapist offers insights or asks questions. Sometimes, people mistakenly think a therapist is supposed to “fix” them or to offer solutions, even though this is not the case. Experiential therapy, on the other hand, is less hierarchical. It’s really more about working together to find solutions and to come up with metaphors for specific problems. This type of inclusive, more equal approach can be especially comfortable for women.

At Voyage, we take a holistic approach to treatment. We take care of the spiritual, physical and treatment needs of residents and also work hard to create a welcoming and family-like environment. Our goal is never to create a hierarchy, but rather to foster a system where each resident can learn to embrace their own leadership and healing potential.

2) Experiential therapy is more creative.

Women often thrive in creative environments, and experiential therapies offer a great way to express creative impulses. Women can create art, connect with nature or take part in other activities allowing them to express themselves. This form of self-expression can help develop metaphors for some of the problems they face in their life or it can simply offer an extremely healing and rewarding emotional outlet.

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Music and art therapies allow for spiritual healing and allow residents to reconnect with their creative side. Many women appreciate the ability to nurture their creative voice and to express themselves.

3) This type of therapy is active rather than passive.

Talk therapy can result in big changes, but it can also feel passive at times. Someone may get frustrated if they keep talking about a problem and don’t seem to be moving forward. With equine therapy, creative writing therapy, art therapy, music therapy and other forms of experiential treatments, patients are doing something active and may feel they are moving forward even in the early stages of their treatment. This can help encourage them to keep going.

At Voyage, we encourage residents to stay active and to take bold steps towards recovery. Many of our residents use experiential therapy to reconnect with themselves, often creating important connections or creating beautiful art along the way. The sense of accomplishment these steps create make residents see they are playing an active role in their therapy.

4) This type of therapy takes the body into consideration.

Addiction and other issues don’t just affect the mind and emotions. In many cases, they affect the body as well. Talk therapy addresses the mind and emotions, but experiential therapy also lets people get the body involved. Whether through equine therapy, yoga or other forms of therapy, the body can be used as a form of self-expression and the movements used in this type of treatment can also help release stress.

Women especially may come to treatment with body-image issues or medical concerns. Addressing the body through movement and proper nutrition can create positive body changes. For women, this can create a stronger confidence and better healing that can help with recovery.

5) The takeaway is more memorable.

Talk therapy can last months or years, and it’s easy for someone to forget what was discussed in a particular therapy session. With experiential therapy, the metaphors and breakthroughs are often not based on words but rather on ideas, images or feelings. They’re often more intense because of this and people tend to remember them more fully. The experiential part of experiential therapy can also mean the breakthroughs and takeaways feel more immediate and intense than they would with therapy talk therapy. For women in therapy, being able to connect with feelings and images rather than just words can be freeing and can be a more effective treatment option.

6) This type of therapy is great for women who aren’t excellent communicators.

Talk therapy relies on excellent communication skills. It can be great if a woman feels very comfortable with talking and with words. For someone with poor social skills or someone who struggles with their words, talk therapy can be difficult and even confusing. Experiential therapy, on the other hand, can level the playing field. Even people who aren’t great with words can do well with art therapy or therapy using props. In fact, even people who are great with words sometimes find they are better able to express themselves with colors or movement rather than words alone. In a way, experiential therapy can continue if talk therapy hits a roadblock.

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Sometimes, women who arrive for treatment at Voyage have been through a severe trauma, depression or abuse. Talking about these underlying issues can be difficult, especially at first. However, many women are able to express their feelings and experience improvements through yoga, meditation and art therapy. Many women are also able to connect with horses in equine therapy more easily than with people — at least at first. As their confidence grows and they begin to heal, they sometimes are able to turn to words and then group therapy or talk-based therapies.

7) This type of therapy helps build self-confidence and awareness.

Part of the goal of any therapy is to help someone improve their own skills so they can help themselves. Experiential therapy builds self-awareness and self-confidence by having residents participates actively and physically in treatment. In many cases, this helps build confidence and helps a person feel better able to address feelings of hopelessness or inadequacy. For women who often face social pressures and shaming as well as personal struggles, this boost of self-confidence is often very much needed.

For example, a woman taking part in equine therapy at Voyage may find she is quite good with horses and can ride efficiently after only a few lessons. For someone who is struggling or who is working through issues of low self-worth, even such a small boost can prompt a major breakthrough and can lead to major life changes. The resident can then return to horseback riding whenever they need assistance with stress or difficulties. It gives them another tool in their arsenal to deal with problems.

8) Experiential therapy can help women deal with trauma.

Statistically, women are more likely to be victims of sexual abuse and domestic abuse as well as other forms of abuse. Women may face a great deal of trauma before entering treatment, including relationship issues and other situations that can lead to trauma. According to some studies, trauma can lead to emotional avoidance. Women can avoid thinking about and can even successfully repress memories of trauma.

It’s important to address these underlying issues in therapy, but since the memory is essentially playing tricks, addressing these issues can be hard to do with talk therapy. In fact, when residents try to talk about past traumas they are subconsciously avoiding, they might suddenly feel sleepy, angry or upset and may not be able to take part in group sessions or one-on-one talk-based sessions. In some cases, residents would rather relapse or leave therapy instead of addressing suppressed traumas head-on.

Experiential therapy can help. At Voyage, our staff have seen many cases where women have used metaphor, music, art and other forms of experiential therapy to create metaphors or representations about past traumas, allowing them to deal with their pasts so they can focus on brighter futures.

9) This type of therapy can be very effective for “people pleasers.”

Women are sometimes socialized to think of others. They may be told women should be nurturing or they may see themselves as mothers and wives first and may be focused more on their families than on their own needs. In some cases, this leads to a sort of avoidance. Women may put on a positive face in front of their children and others to hide pain and hurt. Women may also be focused on other people’s opinions or society’s views so they don’t live in the present. Experiential therapy allows residents to focus on the “here and now” and allows them to let go of images that don’t serve them.

In equine therapy, for example, a woman who is grooming a horse or going for a ride is also gently encouraged to focus on the present moment without thinking about a to-do list or other responsibilities.

Residential or Outpatient Treatment?

Experiential therapy can take place in outpatient or residential settings. Outpatient treatment offers the advantage of allowing a woman to return to her daily life — and family — immediately. Residential treatment programs offer the advantage of removing a person from their everyday life so they can master new skills before they return to their everyday life. Sometimes, women find an immersive environment in a residential program helps them focus on recovery and master the skills they need to deal with the outside world. The family-like and supportive atmosphere of an immersive environment like Voyage can also assist women who need the added support.

According to studies, the number of services and treatments offered also matters. Women who can choose from different services at one facility have higher rates of success completing treatment programs. Women who get residential treatment and intensive treatment are more likely to finish treatment, especially if they also receive individualized attention.

Women Reaching out for Help

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Of the 16.6 million American adults who had alcohol use disorders in 2013, 5.8 million were women. These and other women facing addictions of various types need different services than men to succeed. Women face more roadblocks on the journey to recovery and have unique needs in therapy.

Both talk therapy and experiential therapy have important places in addiction treatment and other forms of treatment. Some people react better to one type of therapy or another, while others use a combination of talk and experiential therapy to reap the benefits of both. For women, experiential therapies such as yoga, equine therapy, music therapy and guided meditation can seem more intuitive and can offer important benefits.

Voyage understands the needs of women seeking treatment and our unique, holistic approach ensures each resident gets the support and treatment they need. We offer a range of experiential therapies, including equine therapy, meditation, guided imagery, music therapy, art therapy, psychodrama and more. We want to help all residents and women in our programs build better lives. To make it happen, we offer a range of services and supports in a close-knit and empowering atmosphere. We offer lots of group-based and individual-based supports and even offer the unique Rec-Coach approach to help residents in their life after therapy and after treatment.

If you’re ready to embrace sobriety and to get treatment, contact Voyage to speak with our admissions staff.

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