Group therapy has a long history of working with people struggling with addiction and mental health problems, coming together to focus on one particular area of their lives.
In substance abuse group therapy, there is no stronger example of this than Alcoholics Anonymous. This was founded in 1935 as a self-help group for addiction recovery and has been the progenitor of many other types of recovery support groups that follow the 12-step model.
Group counselling is a concept that has been around for over a hundred years. Doctors have been bringing patients together that have had common ailments since 1905. Here one doctor would bring tuberculosis patients together to support each other and try to find ways to manage their experiences.
Group therapy, as more of a counselling process, has been carried out since the 1930s, where social workers would bring groups of people together for counselling. This was a way to provide counselling to impoverished populations in a cost-effective way.
It grew more after World War II when returning soldiers were in desperate need of support, help and counselling. Therapists would bring groups of soldiers together to treat them in groups because of the sheer number of people needing help. During this process, the therapists began to see the benefits of group counselling and how it worked in different but equally helpful ways than individual therapy.
This all demonstrates the staying power of group therapy and how it has filled many needs for many reasons over the years. Group therapy has become a go-to tool for treating addictions and other compulsive behaviours for many reasons and has been shown to be helpful over various issues.
In addiction treatment, substance abuse group therapy, in combination with other forms of treatment, has become the norm. Partially it is due to the intensive nature of treatment and the amount of help a person struggling with addiction needs. It is also due to the specific benefits that addiction group therapy offers and how it can help. Let’s take a look at how group therapy helps those in addiction treatment.
Many people who go into substance abuse group therapy experience reluctance at best, downright resistance and agitation with it at worst. This is pretty common, and most therapists will expect it with new group members.
The reasons for this are pretty simple. No one likes being exposed in public, and that can be a similar feeling to group therapy. People in an addiction treatment program often come in experiencing a lot of shame and guilt for how they acted while using or drinking. No one wants to expose this to others. It is, however, part of the healing process and necessary. It quickly fades as they realise they are in a safe place with others who have been there and done that already.
Another reason people dislike the idea of group therapy is the worry about negative groups or interpersonal conflicts. This does happen sometimes. It is less likely, however, in groups with a trained therapist running it. The therapist is often able to redirect the group and use any personality conflicts as teachable moments, showing how others react to our behaviour and different ways to respond to others.
Substance abuse group therapy is different from individual therapy. The end goal of sobriety and a healthy lifestyle may be the same, but the ways it gets there are very different. Group therapy gives people an experience that is lacking in individual counselling, and for people in an addiction treatment program, the ways it helps are vital to the process.
First of all, it helps by having a group of people with a similar cause or issue. In group therapy, there are a group of individuals, all unique, going through the same thing. Whether this is an addiction, cancer, depression, or tuberculosis from a hundred years ago, we have known that bringing people together with similar issues makes things easier on everyone.
This is due to feeling safe and not judged in a place with people like you. People in a group therapy setting feel like they are understood, and understanding makes people feel safe and more likely to open up and talk about themselves more. This can only increase what people get out of the group.
It also helps to bring individuals with similar struggles together because of the benefit to problem-solving. A group with different experiences dealing with alcohol addiction is actually a wealth of knowledge about substance use. They probably know more about it than the therapist due to having lived it. They can use this experience to help others. They can normalise what someone is going through and let them know it gets better because they have been through it. Group members can give each other helpful tips based on experience and teach others what can work to help towards sobriety and what triggers will only lead to relapse. Sometimes group members are the best recovery coaches because they have lived experience.
Another benefit very particular to addictions treatment is that group therapy is a way to check behaviour. Confrontation coming from someone else who is dealing with drug or alcohol abuse comes across differently than from someone who has never struggled with that issue. Group members in addiction groups are quicker to see signs of impending relapse because they have seen it in themselves. This gives them more credibility and allows them to get through where others might not.
Group treatment also works to provide a very vital function in any form of therapy. It instils hope. Everyone in a group setting is at a different point in their lives and recoveries. Seeing an end goal and that there is a way out can be enough to keep someone going while they are still struggling through withdrawal symptoms. People sometimes cannot see that the pain they are experiencing is temporary. Having that reminder sitting in front of them in the form of another group member can instil hope and motivation to keep going.
A group therapy practice can also give people the perspective of others, talking honestly. We don’t often know or notice how our behaviour impacts others. Add drugs or alcohol, and that awareness is almost zero. Being able to talk with others about how we are talking or acting can give us valuable feedback. This is an insight we likely would not get from our friends or family. Or perhaps we would not hear it from them. Groups give the ability to shed light on interpersonal problems and provide suggestions for new ways of being and interacting with others.
People often find their social skills improving when in addiction group therapy. It can help lessen anxiety in social settings by giving people a place to practice the skills they need, for example. It can also be a role model for what is good and helpful interpersonal skills and what is just more destructiveness from addiction. This is called modelling, and it is a sincere and useful type of imitation. Group members can see what is working and helpful and try to duplicate that. It’s one of the more important and positive aspects of group therapy.
Education is another reason that group therapy is so effective in treatment. It is in many ways, like teaching a class of students. There is a lot that many still need to learn about addiction, healthy choices, good interpersonal skills and many more topics that make up overall well-being.
Finally, substance abuse group therapy provides learning and relief that cannot be found anywhere else. The type of emotional learning, the hope, healing and comfort that can be found through this type of shared therapy is powerful. People in the group will be invested in each other’s success. They will work to help and empathise with each other and their struggles and triumphs. Group therapy can provide an emotional experience that motivates and heals as well.
Group therapy has been a traditional treatment for many personal struggles and illnesses. Addiction treatment centres have learned to use it in conjunction with Cognitive Behavioural Therapy for substance abuse and other types of therapy to help those struggling with addiction enter into recovery. It provides many benefits that are not found in individual treatment or are more intense. Group treatment for substance abuse provides insight into ways that only people going through the same thing understand. Group therapy is one of the most effective forms of treatment, and help is available to you right now. If you or someone you love is struggling with drugs or alcohol, please reach out for help right now.
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