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Dropping defenses through experiential therapy

July 31, 2013
by Shannon Brys, Associate Editor
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We all know that people learn differently. While most people utilize a combination of learning styles, usually an individual has a preference for one of them -- auditory, visual or kinesthetic. Deana Grall, a certified therapeutic recreation specialist at Rogers Memorial Hospital near Milwaukee, says that the kinesthetic method emphasizing movement offers one of the most impactful ways to learn, develop and grow.

This kinesthetic type of learning comes through when experiential therapy is incorporated into traditional treatment. “Experiential therapy,” Grall explains, “is really a blanket term for all the different expressive therapies including art, dance, movement, drama, music, recreation, adventure and relaxation.”

Rogers employs an art therapist, a yoga/relaxation professional, and Grall, the recreational therapist. All clients participate in the three types of experiential therapy at Rogers, where about 35% of the programming is experiential-based. Because everyone learns differently, it’s helpful for those people who enjoy sitting down and talking to be able to participate in psychotherapy. Some individuals are more creative so it is beneficial for them to explore through art therapy. For others, the recreational-based treatment adds a new dynamic to the treatment process and may get at certain emotions or issues that couldn’t be reached otherwise.

Grall explains that the biggest component of experiential therapy at Rogers is the recreational therapy piece. She relates it to the saying, “Give a man a fish, feed him for a day. But teach him how to fish, and feed him for a lifetime.” It’s important, she says, not only to tell the clients in psychotherapy what they may need to work on, but actually to watch and see what they do when emotions begin to run high and they are faced with a challenge.

The impact of open communication

The team at Rogers demonstrates extremely open communication and works together for the client’s sake. “I work very closely with our therapists and a lot of times they’ll tell me, ‘Deana, we’ve got to get this person feeling; push some buttons. We’ve got to get them to break through their shell.’ And I’m kind of the go-to person to make that happen, because they’re not getting anywhere in their individual or in their group therapy,” Grall explains.

On the flip side, oftentimes she is calling the therapists asking about what’s happening in therapy and sharing with them about the situation in her group setting. Many times clients direct anger toward Grall, so she said it’s beneficial to work with the therapist to have them talk that through in their sessions and turn it into a learning experience.

In therapy, the client and therapist are able to recognize what the anger was actually about. Although it was directed at Grall, it really had nothing to do with her. Instead, it had to do with the parallel within the client’s life that played out in the activity or game. For example, perhaps in the activity the client feels like he is not being heard, and he’s gone through his life feeling like that. Therefore, he is taking it out on his peers or the supervisor of the activity.

Benefits to recreational therapy

The specific activities in which Grall involves her clients depend on a number of variables, including:

  • What’s happening with the individual.
  • How the group is getting along.
  • What can be done in the amount of time available.

The main benefit to recreational therapy, according to Grall, is seen in the degree to which clients’ defenses drop. In traditional therapy, clients try to figure what the therapist wants to hear, what the professional wants them to say. “Coming into recreational therapy, that’s not what it’s about, so they’ll try to figure out what I want them to say and they get really frustrated really quick with it, trying to figure out what’s behind it. It’s really not about what I want to hear, it’s about what they do with it, how they respond to their emotions when they happen, all the natural responses to things that happen within the situation,” Grall explains.

The activities in recreational therapy work to:

  • Enhance communication skills.
  • Provide adjunct tools to the 12-Step program (there are initiatives that work with each of the Steps).
  • Bring awareness to the shame cycle and responses to being trapped in it.
  • Focus on relationships: family relationships, working with other people, the people who are closest to them.
  • Help increase awareness of the need to ask for help or the need to even have help.
  • Focus on anger issues and working through them.
  • With the professionals who come into treatment, Grall says a huge piece of their recovery is the activities that challenge the intellectualizing. These individuals have a tendency to believe that they can outthink the addiction rather than connect with their emotions, so this is addressed.

Grall explains that some people still mistakenly believe that experiential therapy is simply healthy leisure activity. Although that is addressed at Rogers, it certainly isn’t under the scope of what Grall is involved with. “The therapy aspect of what I do at Rogers is so powerful and has been so powerful for the people we work with that I don’t have time to fit in a healthy leisure component,” she says.

Some of the most common activities in which Grall engages her patients, include: