Understanding Experiential Learning as it Applies to the Therapeutic Process

As a therapist working Somatically, I often suggest little experiments for my clients to try that involve an experiential component. Clients have stated that they find these experiments to be informative and healing. They often reflect that this trial and error aspect of learning a new skill gives them a sense of mastery. I became curious as to why experiential learning seems to be an important aspect of the therapeutic process. This blog breaks down some of the research I discovered and outlines some of the benefits of working somatically in an experiential way.

What is Experiential Learning Theory?

A simple explanation is that people learn new skills and knowledge through “discovery and experience.” David Kolb, a social psychologist, published Experiential Learning:  Experience as the Source of Learning and Development in 1984. In this publication, he coined the term “experiential learning.” His theory is broken down into a four part cycle: experience (doing something), reflection (reviewing what was experienced), conceptualization/generalization (the process of making sense of what happened and then making connections between these elements), and experimentation (putting the pieces of what was learned into practice in other life situations). His research indicated that when we see how something we’ve learned is useful in our lives, we are more likely to retain and utilize that knowledge in the future. For example, if an individual has neck pain every time they bike commute and they decide to try a different posture when biking, they might discover that their neck pain decreases. If they continue to utilize good posture when biking and continue to have decreased neck pain, then they are reinforcing the new knowledge that good posture leads to less neck pain and are more likely to utilize good posture.

We can also apply this theory to the therapeutic process to see how this cycle can benefit our ability to heal and develop more adaptive ways of engaging in the world. Let’s look at a hypothetical client. Sarah came into therapy curious about the ways in which she engages in relationships with romantic partners. She was concerned that sometimes she gets angry and becomes reactive and she wanted to not only understand why this happens, but prevent it from happening in the future. In the beginning stages of therapy, Sarah shared what happens when she gets upset and described the cycle of conflict (her partner says something that upsets her, and she raises her voice to yell at her partner). Using a somatic experiment, I had Sarah get in touch with her body as she was describing this situation. During this process (experiential stage), she shared that she felt her heart racing, her pelvic area tighten, and her throat clench. I asked her to notice the sensations she was feeling to see what was present (reflective stage). She said she felt a sense of needing to gain control and defend herself because her body felt unsafe. I asked her to float back and notice those feelings to see if there was a time earlier in her life that she felt this way (conceptualization/generalization). She said that she remembers feeling this way when she was 5 years old. She said that she saw herself pushed and held against a wall as she was crying, being told to stop crying and get a hold of herself. 

I then asked her to listen to herself to see if there is a physical action that feels present (experimentation). She said she feels the need to move her arms (experiential stage). As she begins to do this (reflective stage), she explores other movements and begins to think about how it feels (one second being still, and then being in motion). I ask her to reflect on the sensations and feelings that are present and to see if there is a way to complete the movements (conceptualization/generalization). She shares that her body felt trapped when it was still, as she remembered being held against the wall. She shared that she now feels a sense of freedom and autonomy as she moves her body in space. (From a neuroscience perspective, this is because the trapped energy/memory in her amygdala was able to complete the action that her body wasn’t able to complete when she was 5 and held against the wall). 

As she completes this process, we discuss how this could be applied to her relationship with her partner and her need to defend herself (experimentation). She shares that when she senses this tension in her body, she can understand the connection to her childhood experience, then she can move her body to bring herself into the present moment and reflect to her partner what she is experiencing so they understand. Over time, as Susan experiments with making these connections and expressing herself, she will find that she has more awareness and is better able to make a choice as to how she responds, rather than impulsively responding.

How does experiential learning theory apply to the development of maladaptive coping skills?

The tension that Sarah felt in her body was a learned body response from the experience of being held when she was a small child. When children are upset, their bodies need to release the energy through movement and emotions. If this process is stifled, the energy becomes trapped and the body learns to hold in future situations when it feels emotion. In order for the body to engage in a more relaxed way of processing emotions, it needs to unlearn being tense and discover a new way of engaging. So through the lens of experiential theory, Sarah was upset and cried (experiential stage), was held against the wall and felt trapped (reflective stage) and made the connection that when she has emotions she will feel trapped (conceptualization/generalization). She learned to defend herself when she feels emotions present (experimentation). When she made these connections in session and had an opportunity to try another way of engaging, she discovered that she has more agency than she originally felt. The process of exploring movement helped her to release and make connections. From a neuroscience perspective, this process helps the brain make new neural pathways to reinforce new ways of engaging in the world.

As you can see, the body and the brain are complex, and the coping skills we have developed in life are based on our past experiences. We are all doing the best we can with the skill set and understanding that we have available. Our lives can shift in a positive direction if we foster a greater understanding of why we do the things we do and allow ourselves the opportunity to learn new ways of engaging in the world.

If this way of working is interesting to you, please feel free to contact me for a free 20 minute consultation at allison@blossomingheartcounseling.com or 503-880-7190