Is Group Therapy Effective, and How Does It Work?
Group therapy can take many forms. It is an umbrella term referring to any type of therapy that promotes recovery in groups of two or more people at once. A lower treatment cost and higher client-to-professional ratio leaves some people with misgivings or questions about this format; however, interaction with peers facing the same obstacles can be an extremely effective approach to addiction recovery.
What to Expect
Group therapy allows everyone to come together and discuss or offer one another advice. In a typical group therapy session, a trained mental health professional will guide a small number of individuals in recovery (typically eight to fifteen) through a series of techniques. Each session usually follows a format, and group objectives can vary from understanding the emotional processes driving a member's addiction to building resilience and developing coping strategies.
Diverse Approaches in Group Therapy
The exact structure will depend on the type of therapy you have enrolled in. A short break-down of the most common approaches include:
Cognitive-behavioral therapy: Focused on the connection between negative thinking patterns and self-destructive addictive behavior, CBT helps group members recognize these patterns when they come up and develop tools to address them.
Interpersonal process therapy: Uses group dynamics and role play to help process past and present issues related to addiction. Members of the group witness honest reactions and can contribute and offer solutions in a safe and supportive space. They also work on social skills and communication techniques that can help improve external relationships.
Psychoeducational groups: In an interactive group setting, members learn about the biology of addiction, dependence, tolerance, substances of use, medical and mental health conditions. Education is understood to be a key to recovery, and if people in recovery are fully informed on the mechanisms of what they are experiencing, they are more likely to succeed.
Skills development groups: These groups are focused on internalizing and honing practical skills associated with relapse prevention. They don’t look at the underlying drivers of addiction and are best used to supplement another psychological approach.
Support groups: The most common examples of this type of therapy are 12-step groups like Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous. They offer accountability, a peer support structure, and space for reflection for people in rehab aftercare. These groups listen to each other’s challenges, debunk negative thinking and excuses, and offer support and advice.
Group Therapy vs Individual Therapy: How Do They Compare?
Let’s address the question of efficacy first off. Group therapy can be just as effective as one-on-one sessions, with a professional starting and maintaining the dynamic throughout the session. The most important thing is finding the treatment option that the client responds to best. With that in mind, there are similarities and differences to take into consideration.
Some benefits are shared between individual therapy and group therapy. Expect both to:
foster an optimistic, empowered, and hopeful recovery mindset.
offer appropriate and truthful information on the topics of addiction and the process of recovery.
deliver the therapeutic tools necessary to help members increase awareness of and change their behaviors (e.g. challenging irrational beliefs or thought processes.
educate and practice healthy coping skills for triggering or stressful situations.
provide structure and accountability.
However, group therapy also offers some distinct advantages that you won’t find in its individual therapy counterpart. When you go through a treatment program as part of a cohort, you can expect the following advantages:
More accessible therapy that can be delivered by one therapist to many clients simultaneously
Peer support and tacit accountability, motivating members to stay on the road to recovery through challenges
Opportunities for leadership (e.g. offering help and feedback to others in the group)
Potential to build a wider social network in a sober community based on mutual understanding and trust
Learning to be Vulnerable
The choice between group and individual therapy should be based on what setting works for your unique situation. Most rehab clients opt for a complement of both types, as individual and group therapies synergize well to cover different faces of addiction recovery.
If you plan on pursuing a group option as one of your primary treatment methods, you need to be comfortable with vulnerability since you will be sharing personal struggles with a group of strangers. While it may initially push you out of your comfort zone, it will be worth it in the long run. With time, the trust and humility required will become foundations for staying on the sober path.
Recovery is always worth it, but it can sometimes be profoundly lonely when the people around us don’t understand what we are experiencing. Whether we are joining sessions to counsel others or seek advice, group therapy of any kind is doing its best work when we find ourselves learning to translate our personal experiences into words we aren’t afraid to share.