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Learn more about the results we get at Within

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Experiential therapy for eating disorders

Experiential therapy is a form of insight-driven or action-based therapy that immerses a patient in an environment, setting, or experience.

When combined with other evidence-based treatment methods like cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), experiential therapies can be a beneficial tool for treating eating disorders. (13)

Last updated on 
October 18, 2023
Experiential therapy for eating disorders
In this article

What is experiential therapy?

Experiential therapy employs a different approach to mental health than more-traditional talk therapy treatments. Rather than discuss moments from the past or present that are troubling or may be contributing to the issue, patients are encouraged to experience and embody what they're feeling at any given time over the course of treatment.1

Learn more about the types of therapies we use at Within and what you can expect out of treatment.

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These feelings can be channeled through a number of media, activities, scenes, or settings, with techniques used at experiential therapy sessions varying by the specific modality. When guided with the help of an expert, these types of experiences can help reveal feelings both surface level and subconscious, and uncover insight into both past and present situations.1

Experiential therapy is used to treat a variety of mental health conditions, including eating disorders like anorexia nervosa (AN), binge eating disorder (BED), and bulimia nervosa (BN).

What are the different types of experiential therapy?

Many different types of therapies fall under the umbrella of experiential therapy, including:2,3,4

  • Psychodrama or drama therapy: Patients re-enact scenes in a safe setting as a means of learning new behaviors and roles, while healing from trauma.
  • Animal-assisted therapy: Patients take care of animals, which can promote healing, increase feelings of connection, and improve confidence. Equine therapy, where patients care for horses, is a popular form of animal-assisted therapy.
  • Art therapy: Patients participate in various forms of creation, such as drawing, painting, or sculpting, to facilitate self-expression, build new insights and understand emotions. 
  • Music therapy: Patients listen to or create music to help reduce anxiety, engage in self-expression, and increase bodily awareness.
  • Wilderness and adventure therapy: Patients participate in outdoor activities and excursions that can enhance group bonding, improving confidence, self-esteem, perseverance, and self-discovery.
  • Play therapy: Typically used for children to help them work through insights or self-expression through therapeutic play.
  • Mindful movement: Patients reconnect their mind with their body through joyful movement that isn’t centered around weight loss, such as dance, walking, and yoga.
Experiential therapy for eating disorders

How is experiential therapy used to treat eating disorders?

Experiential therapy is frequently used to help treat eating disorders and trauma, which often co-occur, but it can also help treat eating disorders alone, or with other co-occurring conditions.

When treating eating disorders, experiential therapies like art therapy, psychodrama, and music therapy are typically combined with evidence-based treatments, including:2

Different types of experiential therapy help in different ways, but the overall idea of experiential therapy work is to offer alternative avenues for expression. This often happens by tapping into the "right" side of the brain, which is connected more to creative artistic processes.4

Without having to be filtered through the more logic-driven "left brain," these feelings can be expressed more purely and directly. This can be especially helpful for those who don't feel as comfortable verbalizing concerns they may be experiencing. It can also help people unlock feelings or ideas they were not even consciously aware of harboring.

When used to help with eating disorders specifically, experiential therapy aims to help someone understand and confront negative emotions they may be experiencing around food, self-esteem, or body image. Additional support from CBT or other talk therapy treatments can help patients develop further understanding and strategies for alleviating harmful thoughts and behaviors.

Evaluating experiential therapy as an effective eating disorder treatment

Experiential therapy can be incredibly therapeutic and healing for people recovering from an eating disorder, although, as with other types of therapy, every patient’s experience is different.

What are the benefits of experiential therapy?
What are the limitations of experiential therapy?
Efficacy of experiential therapy in healing eating disorders

Experiential therapy at Within

At Within Health, our virtual eating disorder program integrates a variety of experiential therapies into treatment, including:

  • Art therapy
  • Mindful movement
  • Grocery shopping
  • Mealtime groups
  • Psychodrama

Our treatment providers understand that different types of care may be more helpful for different types of patients, and we are committed to helping patients recover from eating disorders through a range therapies and immersive experiences.

Call us today and get the help you need.
Learn about remote treatment >

Although we do offer more well-known experiential therapies in our treatment plans, we can also tailor experiential activities for our patient's specific history and needs. For example, if someone is stressed about going shopping for new clothes during eating disorder recovery, we may create an experiential opportunity for them to go shopping with the assistance of their care partner and other patients.

Disclaimer about "overeating": Within Health hesitatingly uses the word "overeating" because it is the term currently associated with this condition in society, however, we believe it inherently overlooks the various psychological aspects of this condition which are often interconnected with internalized diet culture, and a restrictive mindset about food. For the remainder of this piece, we will therefore be putting "overeating" in quotations to recognize that the diagnosis itself pathologizes behavior that is potentially hardwired and adaptive to a restrictive mindset.

Disclaimer about weight loss drugs: Within does not endorse the use of any weight loss drug or behavior and seeks to provide education on the insidious nature of diet culture. We understand the complex nature of disordered eating and eating disorders and strongly encourage anyone engaging in these behaviors to reach out for help as soon as possible. No statement should be taken as healthcare advice. All healthcare decisions should be made with your individual healthcare provider.

Resources

  1. Experiential psychotherapy. (n.d.). American Psychological Association. Accessed October 2023.
  2. Experiential therapy. (n.d.). Psychology Today. Accessed October 2023.
  3. Orkibi, H., & Feniger-Schaal, R. (2019). Integrative systematic review of psychodrama psychotherapy research: Trends and methodological implications. PloS one, 14(2), e0212575.
  4. Bucharová, M., Malá, A., Kantor, J., & Svobodová, Z. (2020). Arts Therapies Interventions and Their Outcomes in the Treatment of Eating Disorders: Scoping Review Protocol. Behavioral sciences (Basel, Switzerland), 10(12), 188. 
  5. Griffin, C., Fenner, P., Landorf, K. B., & Cotchett, M. (2021). Effectiveness of art therapy for people with eating disorders: A mixed methods systematic review. The Arts in Psychotherapy, 76, 101859.
  6. Art therapy’s notable impact on eating disorders and healthy eating. (2012). American Art Therapy Association. Accessed October 2023.
  7. Orkibi, H., & Feniger-Schaal, R. (2019). Integrative systematic review of psychodrama psychotherapy research: Trends and methodological implications. PloS one, 14(2), e0212575. 
  8. Giacomucci, S. and Stone, A. (2019). Being in two places at once: renegotiating traumatic experience through surplus reality of psychodrama. Social Work with Groups 42(3), 184-196. 
  9. Kellermann, P. F., & Hudgins, K. (2000). Psychodrama with trauma survivors: Acting out your pain. Jessica Kingsley Publishers.
  10. Fennig, M. W., Weber, E., Santos, B., Fitzsimmons-Craft, E. E., & Wilfley, D. E. (2022). Animal-assisted therapy in eating disorder treatment: A systematic review. Eating behaviors, 47, 101673.
  11. Greenberg, L.S., Safran, J., Rice, L. (1989). Experiential Therapy. In: Freeman, A., Simon, K.M., Beutler, L.E., Arkowitz, H. Comprehensive Handbook of Cognitive Therapy. Springer, New York, NY. 
  12. Bailey, M. E. (2022). Science catching up: Experiential family therapy and neuroscience. Journal of marital and family therapy, 48(4), 1095–1110.
  13. Riva, G., Bacchetta, M., Cesa, G., Conti, S., Molinari, E. (2004). Six-Month Follow-Up of In-Patient Experiential Cognitive Therapy for Binge Eating Disorders. CyberPsychology & Behavior, 6(3), 251-258. 

FAQs

What is experiential therapy?

Experiential therapy is an umbrella term for action-based or experience-based therapies that allow patients to access their inner feelings.1

What types of experiential therapies for eating disorders are used presently?

A range of experiential therapies can be used to help treat eating disorders. Specific recommendations depend on a patient's unique needs and history, though art therapy, psychodrama, and music therapy are commonly utilized.

What types of experiential therapy are offered at Within?

Within offers many different types of experiential therapy, including but not limited to: art therapy, mindful movement, mealtime support, grocery support, and psychodrama.

Our multidisciplinary care team can help determine what types of therapy should be included in the best treatment plan for you or your loved one.

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