What Is Group Therapy?
Addiction therapy and recovery programs often include group therapy components. Generally speaking, it’s a method of therapy in which people who are dealing with similar issues work together to better understand themselves and their circumstances. Group therapy has been around for a long time and offers benefits that one-on-one treatment, even with a professional, may not provide.
History of Group Therapy
The history of group therapy as a treatment traces back to at least the early to mid-20th century. At the end of World War II, soldiers were returning home from all over the world, and many of them were looking for treatment. While some professionals were using group therapy techniques prior to World War II, the large number of soldiers who needed psychotherapy led to more professionals attempting to treat them in groups. Group treatment methods thus improved significantly over the years following the war, and psychotherapy professionals such as psychiatrists, clinical and counseling psychologists, and social workers began to implement group therapy practices.
Group therapy has been demonstrated effective in many areas of mental and physical health. A report by doctors at Stanford University indicated that women who had metastatic breast cancer lived 18 months longer, on average, if they participated in group treatment. Many professionals agree that group practices are preferable to individual therapy because a person in a controlled group can be supported and challenged by peers who understand their particular struggles better than maybe even friends and family.
Models of Group Treatment
There are five different models that are commonly relied upon for group meetings. They are:
- Cognitive-behavioral groups: Groups like this seek to alter learned behavior by modifying the beliefs, perceptions, and thinking of the individual.
- Skills-development groups: These groups also use a cognitive-behavioral model to help people deal with triggers and urges. They may also focus on anger management and other problems that may previously have led the person to substance use.
- Interpersonal process groups: The interpersonal process model focuses on human sociability as it relates to attachment and rivalry. It emphasizes how connections led to culture, spirituality, and social hierarchies.
- Psychoeducational groups: These groups expand the person’s awareness of the medical, behavioral, and psychological consequences of substance abuse. They focus on teaching people how to avoid situations that they associate with using drugs or alcohol.
- Support groups: Support groups focus on providing support and helping group members manage the issues in their day-to-day lives and make friends and avoid isolation. These are the groups that people most often think of when they think of group therapy.
Addiction Group Meetings
According to a Treatment Improvement Protocol published by the National Center for Biotechnology Information, group therapy focused specifically on addiction requires three improvements before it can be successfully applied. The first is specific education and training for therapists to help them understand group work and clients with addiction or substance use disorders.
The second improvement to group therapy for substance use treatment has to do with answering why addiction group meetings appear to be so effective. Part of the answer might lie with the individual nature of addiction and the heavy role denial plays in its existence. People who have developed chemical dependencies often enter treatment with elaborate defenses to their own responsibility. Group leaders who want to be effective must clearly understand the character dynamics and defensive processes of the group members.
The third improvement required is an adaptation to the model of substance abuse treatment specifically. The principles applied to group recovery models should be tailored to the needs of clients who are seeking addiction recovery. Individual therapy is often used in conjunction with group therapy as part of a comprehensive addiction recovery program.
Benefits of Group Therapy
Group treatment of adults with addiction issues offers several advantages, but it also poses some risks. Any method of treating addiction can be ineffectual if it is administered by an improperly trained or unskilled therapist. The drawbacks of addiction group meetings are no greater than any other type of treatment. The benefits of therapy in a group setting include:
- Positive peer support and positive peer pressure: From the beginning of treatment, group work demands a commitment from each member of the group to attend sessions, to be on time, and to treat the group’s time as valuable. Because of this dynamic, the pressure and support of peers are strong.
- Witnessing the recovery of others: Another significant advantage of a group setting for addiction therapy is seeing other people overcome similar addictions. This allows people to gain hope that they can also overcome their addictions. It also gives them the opportunity to learn some of the specifics of that change from up close.
- Reducing the sense of isolation: Groups enable their members to feel camaraderie and to identify with other people who are going through similar issues.
- Development of coping skills: Because people who work together in groups gain access to the experiences of their peers, they are often able to develop healthy coping skills based on how others handle similar problems. This can be extended to include how members relate to spouses, parents, bosses, friends, children, siblings, and other associates.
- Provision of feedback: People who are members of addiction recovery groups get lots of feedback. They get to learn the abilities and values of the other group members, and they can use this information to more accurately develop pictures of themselves. They can improve or modify incorrect or distorted perceptions. Over time, members might get similar feedback from the group because they are still making the same sorts of errors or suffering under the same misconceptions. This repeated feedback can wear away at misconceptions until they are eventually corrected.
- Inspiration of hope: There are few things more motivating toward success than seeing a peer achieve it. Therapy groups allow for the sentiment that “if this person can do it then so can I.” This is tremendously useful not only for addiction recovery but also for nearly any change a person wants to make in his or her life.
- Structure and discipline: For people who are suffering from addiction, avoidance of responsibility and obligation to others is a big part of the denial process. Their lives are often in states of chaos when they come into treatment. A therapy group can establish rules and consequences, helping members clarify their ideas of responsibility.
- Family-like setting and interaction: Therapy groups can be a source of nurturing and support that group members may not have access to otherwise. Interaction with the group develops social skills and may help people learn healthy ways to get along with family members and other people outside of their therapy group.
Reasons to Attend a Therapy Group for Addiction
For people who are struggling with addiction or substance use disorders, there are at least four things that they might gain from group therapy: communication, insight, companionship, and accountability. Those who are trapped in addiction often have few or no people to talk to about their issues. This means that they have no healthy place to discuss their frustrations or to work out ideas.
Communication is among the most important things recovering alcoholics and drug users can find in a group setting. It is amazing how often a person can work out solutions to his or her problems simply by talking about them with others who are willing to listen. Listeners benefit as well because the person who is speaking is dealing with similar circumstances, problems, and consequences.
Insight in group therapy refers to access to the ideas of others. Sometimes, we are too close to our problems to solve them on our own, and the perspectives of others can help us see things in a new way. People working to overcome addiction in groups can offer advice without being judgmental because they know where the speaker is coming from on some level.
Companionship may be especially beneficial to people who are struggling with substance use issues. Loneliness often goes part and parcel with addiction and addiction recovery, which usually requires a separation of ties with previous enabling or also-addicted acquaintances. This loneliness often leads to self-medication, perpetuating the addiction. With the companionship of group therapy, many people quickly develop supportive, positive relationships that can help end the vicious cycle of addiction.
Accountability makes it easier to achieve goals or make changes in life. The strength of supportive peers makes people stronger in whatever direction they are being supported. By developing bonds with others who want to overcome addiction, people in group therapy take on responsibility for one another. It becomes harder to relapse, even in small ways, because of the promises made to others.
Is Group Therapy Like a 12-Step Program?
Many people have had success in dealing with substance use problems by joining programs like Alcoholics Anonymous and others that rely on a 12-step process. These are group therapy programs, but group therapy includes many other things beyond these specific approaches.
What Are Addiction Group Meetings Like?
The exact structure of an addiction group meeting will vary depending on where it is held and who the group leaders are. Typically, the meeting will begin with an introduction period, during which the members of the group state their names so everyone can get to know everyone else. Members might mention what they believe has led to their struggles or how addiction has affected their lives.
New members learn more about the group as they attend meetings. They learn how addiction impacts other people and what issues it leads to for them. Sometimes, groups bring in speakers to discuss special topics or to provide insight regarding a specific hurdle to addiction recovery.
How to Get the Most From the Group
Regardless of the exact type of group treatment that is utilized, effort on the part of the patient is required in order to maximize the effectiveness of therapy. Most members of addiction recovery groups take a pledge, and they are expected to participate and share their own experiences during meetings. The pledge should spell out what will be expected of group members and include what their responsibilities are to the group.
Participation is key. Every person has days when they don’t feel like talking or being vulnerable, and that’s fine. The more the person contributes to group discussions, though, the more he or she will get out of them. Sharing personal experiences with the group builds trust and personal relationships, and it often helps others in the group, too.
Whether the group work is a stand-alone therapy or part of a broader treatment program, working in groups with others can be helpful in moving a person toward addiction recovery. Group treatment provides participants with opportunities to get away from isolation, to feel support and positive pressure from group members, to learn from the achievements and trials of others, and to enjoy a family-like environment with their peers.