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Why Group Therapy Is Essential in Treating Addiction

Few people take the tentative first steps into full recovery without the help of their peers, loved ones, and friends. In fact, there’s a wealth of evidence to prove that having the right social supports in place can be the difference between success and failure – both in the short-term and the long-term.

If you’re considering strengthening your social supports, group therapy is a fantastic place to start. We’ll help you explore this topic and tell you why it’s such an essential facet of addiction treatment right now.

What Is Group Therapy?

Group therapy is a type of structured, guided social support experience that involves several people coming together to talk about, discuss, and find solutions for their problems. A skilled facilitator or counselor oversees the group, using specific therapeutic strategies to ensure a safe, respectful environment focused on constructive growth and healthy interactions.

Most group therapy sessions take place in person; however, some may occur online in the virtual space. Generally, people meet at a specific time, for a specific length of time (e.g., 1-2 hours). Some groups may focus on a unique goal every session, while others may have an overarching goal stretching across several weeks or months.

Is Group Therapy Effective?

Spending time with others who understand you and also want to achieve the same goals can be really powerful. There’s no need to feel ashamed, as everyone in your group has had the same experiences. But it’s also more difficult to hide addictive behaviors, which can ensure your own accountability along the way.

But that’s really just scratching the surface. Let’s dig in and talk about what makes it such a powerful, effective option for recovering addicts, too.

What Does Science Say?

There is a mountain of evidence proving that attending group therapy can significantly improve your chances of staying sober. In fact, nearly every study for the past 20 years supports group therapy as one of the best approaches for treating addiction, especially when combined with other measures.

A 2017 systematic review, found here, explored a total of 61 different studies of group therapy in substance abuse treatment. It found that the group therapy environment was almost universally beneficial provided that facilitators used evidence-based treatments (EBTs) to lead and guide the group.

What are EBTs, exactly? This term just means a therapeutic strategy or approach that’s scientifically proven to work (e.g., Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), Dialectical Behavioral Therapy (DBT), or art therapy). We’ll talk a bit more about these later in the article.

The fact that virtually all studies showed measurable benefit to addicts who attended group therapy is, in fact, proof of why it’s so essential. That the only small difference was between groups who followed EBTs and those who used unapproved approaches only tells us the importance of a skilled, educated facilitator.

Another study, spearheaded by Linda M. Martin of FGCU, found that addicts who attended a support group with their peers had a “significant reduction of risk of relapse. Martin also discovered a reduction in rates of homelessness, an improved sense of community, and renewed focus on self-supporting behaviors.

This systematic review from the New York University School of Medicine evaluated results from 81 different studies focusing on support groups in substance use treatment.

Results showed measurable benefits across the board in a variety of categories:

    • People in active addiction were less likely to actively use or abuse drugs and/or alcohol if they attended a peer support group.
    • Support group attendees were more engaged in the treatment process, more likely to remain committed to it, and less likely to relapse.
    • People who attended group therapy also had lowered rates of HIV/AIDS, Hepatitis C, and other use-associated diseases. They were also far less likely to engage in risky behaviors overall.
    • Group members frequently reported having fewer cravings and/or struggling to stay sober. They were also emotionally stronger stronger and believed in their ability to stay sober much more often.

That’s powerful proof of the important role group therapy plays in addiction treatment, both early on and for years after you successfully get sober.

The Need for Human Connections

Science proves that people who attend group therapy are more likely to stay sober and enjoy important benefits. But why exactly does this particular treatment method work so well? What is it about meeting with others that’s so powerful, anyway?

Ultimately, it comes down to the fact that humans are inherently social creatures who crave interaction and mutual support. We want to make friends, be close to others, and feel supported. When we don’t have that support, our lives suffer.

Psychology Today writer Robert Weiss Ph.D., MSW believes the opposite of addiction is connection. There’s good evidence to show he may be right.

Most people tend to think of addiction in terms of the substance; you take it, you enjoy it, you take it again, and then you become addicted. But Wiess, and many other addiction experts across the country, are looking beyond this to see that many people begin using substances in the first place because they lack the ability to connect and interact with people on a meaningful level in the first place.

In short, when we can’t develop meaningful connections, or we’re lonely, we seek to fill the hole left behind by numbing it out of our awareness. Drugs and alcohol just happen to work extremely well in this regard.

The group therapy environment is inherently healing because it works with our own inherent human desire to connect, share, and care for one another. It allows you to recieve, and give, critical social support as you work to change your life. You learn how to be accountable for your actions, how to resolve conflict, how to be a good support (to others and yourself), how to cope, and even how to socialize without drugs or alcohol on board.

Over time, you’ll also begin to slowly see that life without substances is not just possible – it’s even more amazing than any high or drunk could ever be.

Types of Group Therapy

There is no one “right” form of group therapy experience. In fact, every group generally has its own goals, ideals, rules, and guidelines. Some groups may rely on Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) best practices, while others may focus on a broader goal of sharing, re-learning how to socialize without drugs, and simply “being there” for one another. Some focus on safe recreation, self-expression, or the learning of new skills in a protective environment.

A few of the most common classifications include:

    • Short-term groups focus on a specific goal within a short period of time (e.g., six to eight weeks).
    • Long-term groups focus on ongoing support over a significantly longer period of time – often several months or weeks.
    • Psychoeducational groups focus on learning, developing, and practicing new coping skills in a safe, constructive environment.
    • Experiential groups focus on sharing experiences and how relational patterns impact emotions. Often, they are very process-oriented.
    • Interpersonal groups help members learn how to relate and communicate to one another in a healthy, constructive manner.
    • Support groups facilitate an environment where members share experiences, express emotion, and received peer support directly. These groups are generally focused on a specific problem or issue (e.g., addiction).
    • Psychodynamic groups focus on sharing past experiences, interpreting them, and learning how they affect the now.
    • Analytic groups use specific psychodynamic strategies and skills to teach members how to interpret and express emotions.
    • Art therapy groups help members learn to express and interpret their emotions and experiences through specific creative processes (e.g., painting, dancing, or collage).

Most people in recovery have their first group therapy experience in initial detox, rehabilitation, or within the confines of inpatient recovery facilities. However, group therapy programs are available on both an inpatient and outpatient basis, and they can be incredibly helpful at almost any stage of recovery.

You may already be familiar with a few community-based, addiction-related group therapy experiences, such as Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) and Narcotics Anonymous (NA). Attendees share, exchange, and support one another under the guidance of a facilitator. They are one of the most widely accessible, frequent therapeutic support groups available in America to date.

Which form of group therapy should you choose? Everyone is different, and every approach offers something unique. Speak with an addictions counselor today and start to forge your path forward toward a better life.