Group therapy is the most common treatment for substance use disorders, and it has proven to be extremely beneficial in helping people achieve and maintain abstinence.
Overview of Group Therapy:
- Led by a professional counselor, group therapy allows individuals to share stories about their experiences and help each other set goals in recovery.
- The groups typically range from six to 12 people with similar problems.
- Sessions last one to two hours and are usually held two or three days a week.
- Group therapy sessions are about one-third the cost of individual therapy.
People in treatment for substance abuse will probably have both group and individual therapy, though they will attend group more often than one-on-one sessions. During individual therapy, the focus is wholly on you. A psychotherapist will help you get to the root of your drug use and offer tools to help you in recovery.
During group therapy, however, people use the power of the group to explore what lies behind their substance use and develop the skills necessary to break free from addiction. Another reason groups work so well is that an individual’s thinking is pitted against the “reality check” of the other members who offer their insights and perspectives.
“Sometimes an individual in a group session won’t identify as an addict,” said Jennifer Schlader, a primary therapist at Journey Healing Centers who has conducted group therapy for years. “People in the group will call them out on that.”
Another benefit found to group sessions that you can’t get with one-on-one therapy, Schlader said, is a peer opening up about what the relapse process was like.
“Generally, when people come in after a relapse, they’re in a place of shame; they’re beating themselves up about what happened,” Schlader said. “It helps them understand that relapse can happen. People who are in treatment and have never relapsed before, they learn from it.”
How Group Therapy Works:
- Members introduce themselves, admit to their addiction, and state their date of last use.
- Members talk about how they are doing and about any cravings or temptations since the last group meeting.
- If anyone has slipped since the last session, the group will help them create a plan to prevent further relapse.
- If there is a topic, the therapist will introduce it and ask members to discuss how it applies to their recovery.
- At the end of each session, members are asked to talk about their plans for the next few days in an effort to help them structure their time.
Learning to manage triggers during recovery is key to maintaining sobriety from alcohol or drug addiction and one of the most important topics covered in group, Schlader said.
“The group just brainstorms all of the triggers they have,” Schlader said. “After that, we recognize that triggers are anything and everything, and we can’t avoid them, so what can we do to cope with them? I’ll suggest downloading the Cassava app to find meetings, that they should get to 90 meetings in 90 days and go to fun sober support activities. BBQ parties and a sober softball league are a few of the things we offer at Journey. We also talk about healthy distractions — I’m going to go for a walk if I’m feeling triggered, to the gym, maybe reach out and call somebody.”
How Much Do I Have to Talk in Group?
It’s up to you. Many people feel nervous when first joining a group. They just can’t fathom talking openly about issues they’ve kept locked inside of them for so long. But because everyone agrees to respect one another and keep the conversations confidential, people find that after the first few weeks, their anxiety decreases and they feel more comfortable sharing their experiences.
Do I Need Individual Therapy Too?
Again, it’s up to the individual. Research has demonstrated that there is little difference in the results of relapse prevention conducted in group or one‐on‐one therapy. One study examining relapse rates in people addicted to cocaine found similar success rates with both approaches. Another study found that six months after outpatient treatment for cocaine addiction, people treated in a group setting had higher rates of sustained abstinence than those treated through individual counseling.
One therapist recalls a session in which a member arrived, furious and hostile, shouting, “How much longer do I have to do this stupid program? None of it works anyway!” Another group member immediately asked, “So, how does the anger keep things going for you?” In the ensuing conversation, the group learned that the angry member’s ex-wife had just sent him a bottle of expensive whiskey with the following note: “Dying to get together again.” This revelation and the supportive group listening that followed, occurred largely without verbal involvement from the therapist.
The Power of the Group Therapy
The idea behind group therapy is that human beings have a natural need to relate to others, which makes group sessions an ideal form of treatment. Under the direction of a well-qualified therapist, you and the other group members can work together on the issues that each person brings. Group therapy also helps people with problems that commonly go hand-in-hand with substance abuse, such as depression, isolation and shame.
“You get hope from other people, Schlader said. “People who are further along in their recovery, you get encouragement from them. If they can do it, you can do it. They learn they’re not alone.”