When you picture therapy, you might envision a person sitting on a couch, pouring her heart out to a therapist who offers her full attention to this single individual. In reality, though, group therapy can be just as effective, but is often cheaper and easier to do multiple times per week. For this reason, many rehab centers rely on group therapy as a supplement to the weekly or twice-weekly individual therapy sessions you'll attend.
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What is Group Therapy?
Group therapy blends a group of people - usually facing similar issues - with one or more therapists. Though the basics of group therapy, including disclosure of feelings, planning for the future, and eliminating unhealthy coping mechanisms, are almost indistinguishable from individual therapy, group therapy is more than just individual therapy done in a large group. Instead, group therapy requires the therapist to balance the needs of numerous individuals, carefully addressing shared issues while ensuring unique challenges are also addressed.
When group therapy works well, it can be highly cost-effective. It also gives you a chance to draw on the wisdom and perspective of people facing challenges similar to your own. Because group therapy can be demanding and challenging, though, it requires a highly skilled therapist. The therapist with whom you choose to work should have ample experience working with groups.
Group therapy comes with the same "rules" as most individual therapy sessions. You'll be expected to keep what you hear in therapy totally confidential, and your therapist won't be allowed to share what you say with others. Your therapist will work to cultivate a safe space, and while some of your views might be challenged, good group therapy does not involve bullying, manipulation, or threats.
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What Happens in Group Therapy?
Group therapy sessions vary greatly, but the structure of therapy is determined by at least two factors. First, the therapeutic orientation of the therapist is the approach he or she takes to offering treatment. For instance, a cognitive-behavioral therapist will focus on helping you understand how to control your thoughts and feelings so you can adopt healthier and more effective behaviors. An interpersonal therapist will be interested in the role relationships play in your life, while an emotionally focused therapist will prioritize healthy attachments. In most cases, group therapists blend a wide variety of approaches depending on the needs of the clients.
Second, the therapist will alter his or her approach based on the needs of the group. The group also has significant control over the direction of a session. If you agree to discuss your relationships and one member is going through a divorce, for example, the group might choose to discuss the role of loss in relationships, or to prioritize the needs of the group member who's currently suffering the most.
The values, political views, personalities, and relative comfort levels of group members may also affect therapy. People who are loud, willing to share, and comfortable with therapy typically talk about much more in a given therapy session than those who are reserved. Likewise, if the group shares similar values - such as when a Christian group meets for therapy - there may be more discussions of personal beliefs and religion.
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How Can Group Therapy Help Treat Addiction?
At first, it can feel a bit uncomfortable to share intensely personal feelings in a group setting. Study after study, though, has shown the effectiveness of group therapy. In group therapy, you'll be able to chat with people who have had similar experiences to your own. This in and of itself can make you feel less isolated, less "crazy," and more hopeful. Group therapy also offers the chance to benefit from the hard-won wisdom of other addicts. Let's say you want to make amends with your family. Other group members can guide you toward the right approach based on their own mistakes and triumphs.
Is Group Therapy Right for Me?
Virtually any addict can benefit from group therapy, but you'll likely also need individual therapy to make the most progress. In some cases, though, group therapy can be premature, and potentially even damaging. Steer clear of group therapy if:
- You have a history of abuse and are uncomfortable in large groups, or wish to avoid mixed-gender groups.
- You're not comfortable sharing your story with others.
- One or more group members has intimidated or otherwise frightened you.
Barring these serious challenges, though, there are few people who cannot benefit from group therapy. Sometimes it's only a matter of finding the right group. If you're in rehab, a group will be assigned to you, but don't shy away from asking for a different group if you're not comfortable with the one you have. If you're pursuing group therapy on your own, the following steps can improve your chances for success:
- Pick group therapy that targets people with your specific challenges - addiction, addiction and mental illness, a history of abuse, etc.
- If you're shy, choose a same-sex group.
- Err on the side of smaller groups, since these groups allow for more disclosure and personalized attention.
- Interview the therapist who moderates the group to ensure you feel comfortable with him or her.
- Ask about the group's rules regarding confidentiality, talking outside of the group, and similar issues.
No matter where you are on the journey toward recovery, group therapy will make it clear that you're not alone. This approach can feel awkward at first, but the strides you'll make toward recovery just might convince you that group therapy is well worth it.