Substance Abuse Group Therapy

What is Group Therapy?

There are many ways to optimize addiction treatment, and one such way is group therapy. One major benefit of group therapy is that it provides an addict with a safe, welcoming environment. It can be challenging for someone to talk one on one with a therapist, and group therapy can help bridge this gap.

Many people have a lot of worries when going into addiction treatment. Stressing about how you’ll “fill the time” with an individual counselor shouldn’t be one of them. Although individual therapy can be very beneficial, there are a few reasons an addict might be wary of this dynamic:

  • They feel intimidated or overwhelmed with such an intimate setting.
  • They worry about how they’ll articulate their thoughts or feelings one on one.
  • Sharing very personal information with a single stranger can be very difficult, but there’s a sense of “safety in numbers” in group therapy.
  • In some situations, there is a financial aspect—if there’s a lack of insurance coverage or funds available for individual therapy, group therapy can be a more affordable option.

Group therapy creates a culture of camaraderie. When you’re “all in this together,” the prospect of living a sober life can seem a lot more achievable. Think of how it feels to be part of a group exercise class compared to going to the gym on a regular basis by yourself. A lot of people do better in group exercise classes because they’re part of a group that cheers one another on, and they also share a responsibility toward one another.

Sometimes, a person is comfortable in individual therapy but uncertain of how they’ll feel in group therapy. If you or someone you love is considering group therapy, know that these settings can be an excellent addition to individual therapy.

However, not all group settings are alike. You may have to try a few group sessions before you find the right fit. At the same time, be careful not to give up too easily. Try a group for a few sessions before deciding whether it’s helpful. The myriad of dynamics, from the moderator to the physical space and other attendees, all play a role in how you feel about each group.

Advantages of Group Therapy Over Individual Therapy

Individual therapy certainly has many benefits. It gives you exclusive access to a trained expert, and sometimes this allows you to delve a little deeper into your psychological problems. However, a lot of addicts say that group therapy is actually more helpful. Here’s why:

  • A lot of people have your back instead of “just” your individual therapist. Sometimes, individual therapists don’t have personal experience with addiction. This isn’t a deal-breaker necessarily, but it can be helpful to talk to someone (or many people) who really know what you’re going through.
  • You can empathize with others in group therapy, and they may articulate challenges you didn’t realize you have or struggle to talk about yourself. This leads to helping you see things from multiple perspectives. Empathy is a great recovery tool.
  • Group therapy fosters the ability to dabble in different behaviors. Through empathy and listening to others, you can test out alternative thinking behaviors in a safe space as a “warm up” before you try them in the real world.
  • Myths are dispelled quicker. When you’re surrounded by others who are also addicts, it’s faster to break down persistent stigmas about the disease.
  • We are social by nature. It’s no wonder group therapy has been a staple in addiction treatment for decades. When we surround ourselves with supportive people, we grow.

Models of Group Therapy Sessions

There are many models of group therapy, and one might work better for you than others. You might have a referral from an individual therapist or an expert in your substance treatment program, or you might want to try out a few different models to see what you think works best.

Some of the most common models of group therapy include:

  • Interpersonal Group Therapy. Interpersonal learning, or learning with and through other people, is a proven tool for change. As you listen and converse with others, you will get and give feedback. Sharing experiences and anecdotes in interpersonal group therapy gives you a “historical origin” to help develop what is called the “dynamic presence.” Although some people do quite well without the group experience, there’s a reason most children excel in the classroom—or in a group. We depend on one another in shared settings to optimize our learning and growth.
  • Tavistock Model. This model operates under the idea that the group culture is managed by “primitive unconscious anxieties.” These anxieties are the major barrier to successful group functioning. That’s why a skilled therapist uses specific techniques to manage interactions and decrease anxieties. In this model, the therapist is often more engaged and involved in the sessions, compared to the more relaxed setting of interpersonal group therapy.
  • Group Analytic Model. Also called group psychotherapy, this model blends psychoanalytic approaches with interpersonal approaches. Specifically, the group work focuses on relationships—but with group members. It’s based on psychoanalysis, but also weaves in a number of different psychotherapeutic tools. Social psychology and developmental psychology are regularly found in the group analytic model. This model can be very helpful, but also demands more intensive participation due to the emphasis on group relationships. The group dynamics are carefully fostered, and ideally mirror the kinds of healthy relationships the addict will nourish in the real world.

The range of group therapy models will resonate with different people. Most addicts entering therapy know very little, if anything, about the various models. Referrals are very helpful, but the best way to tell if a specific model is right for you is to experience it. You might be surprised at the kind of therapy that is most effective.

Group Therapy Topics in Substance Abuse

One of the first questions you might have as you consider group therapy is, “What will we talk about?” The topics might vary a bit based on the group therapy model you choose, but some standard topics include:

  • Sharing past addiction experience. This is not only a way to connect with the group, but also a means of practicing empathy, compassion, and problem-solving. It’s not uncommon for an addict to think they are all alone or that only a handful of people from their “addiction days” will understand. Sharing stories and shared experiences, can help the addict figure out ways to avoid or solve these issues in the future.
  • Relationships with friends and family. Addiction is one of the quickest ways to destroy relationships. It’s likely that every person in the group will have these experiences. Rebuilding relationships when possible and learning how to build new relationships is key to addiction recovery. Everyone needs a strong support network.
  • Worries about the future. From stressing out about avoiding temptations in the future to figuring out how to get a job, there are a lot of worries about addiction specifically and tertiary concerns. Talking about these worries lets the group work together to problem-solve and offer support.
  • Discussing skills to develop. Pinpointing a potential problem (or worry) is just one part of group sessions. This is also a time to acquire various skills and tools necessary to address these problems in the future.
  • The wide variety of human emotions. “I feel” are two very powerful words to begin a sentence. Although the therapist or moderator will help maintain the flow in group sessions, this doesn’t mean you can only talk about addiction specifically. It’s a disease that can affect all aspects of your life and feelings. Group therapy, no matter the model, is naturally interdisciplinary.

There are five primary stages to group therapy. Regardless of what model you choose, you will likely experience the following in group therapy for substance abuse:

  • Forming (orientation): This stage occurs when the group first forms or “meets.” Anxiety levels may be high, and if all the group members are new, everyone has a desire to be accepted. There’s a high chance of conflict, misunderstandings, and other issues which can be exacerbated due to addiction. Depending on the type of therapy, this might be the stage when creating and agreeing to rules and purposes is achieved.
  • Storming: The group is still relatively new, and people are trying to find out where they fit. Competition is fierce at this stage, and the moderator will work diligently to keep disputes at bay.
  • Norming: As the group continues to get to know one another, “norming” begins to set in. The primary storms have passed, and members will begin to actually enjoy aspects of the group therapy. Disagreements get resolved more quickly, and members feel more comfortable discussing addiction issues.
  • Synergy: In this stage norming is kicked up a few notches. Members have established trust with one another, and everyone belongs. At this stage, quieter members of the group might begin sharing (or sharing more) about their addiction struggles.
  • Closure: Some substance abuse therapies have a formal “adjourning stage” while others are continuous as members come and go. The adjourning stage is bittersweet accomplishment for the group members. During this stage they share their insights and hopes acquired throughout the journey before they part. Members often keep in touch with their group members after the therapy.

Getting Help for Addiction

Do you know someone who is ready to get help for addiction? Are you interested in learning more about group therapy and other approaches? Detox and rehab facilities are well-equipped to provide recommendations for group therapy sessions. However, you may also want to do your own research.

Remember that it might take a little experimentation to find the right group for you or an addict in your life. Meeting with the therapist in advance is a great way to see if this might be the right fit for you.

Ready to make a change? Talk to a specialist now.