What Is Group Therapy?

A group therapy session

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What Is Group Therapy?

Group therapy is a form of psychotherapy that involves one or more therapists working with several people at the same time. This type of therapy is widely available at a variety of locations including private therapeutic practices, hospitals, mental health clinics, and community centers.

Group therapy is sometimes used alone, but it is also commonly integrated into a comprehensive treatment plan that also includes individual therapy and medication.

Types

Group therapy can be categorized into different types depending on your mental health condition as well as the clinical method used during the therapy. The most common types of group therapy include:

  • Cognitive behavioral: center on identifying and changing inaccurate or distorted thinking patterns, emotional responses, and behaviors.
  • Interpersonal groups: focus on your interpersonal relationships and social interactions, including how much support you have from others and the impact these relationships are having on your mental health.
  • Psychoeducational: focus on educating clients about their disorders and ways of coping. A psychoeducational group is often based on the principles of cognitive behavior therapy (CBT).
  • Skills development: used to improve social skills in people with mental disorders or developmental disabilities.
  • Support groups: provide a wide range of benefits for people with a variety of mental health conditions as well as their loved ones.

Groups can be as small as three or four people, but group therapy sessions often involve around eight to 12 individuals (although it is possible to have more participants). The group typically meets once or twice each week, or more, for an hour or two.

Group therapy meetings may either be open or closed.

  • Open sessions: new participants are welcome to join at any time.
  • Closed session: only a core group of members are invited to participate.

Techniques

So what does a typical group therapy session look like? In many cases, the group will meet in a room where the chairs are arranged in a large circle so that each member can see every other person in the group.

A session might begin with members of the group introducing themselves and sharing why they are in group therapy. Members might also share their experiences and progress since the last meeting.

The precise manner in which the session is conducted depends largely on the goals of the group and the style of the therapist.

Some therapists might encourage a more free-form style of dialogue, where each member participates as he or she sees fit. Other therapists instead have a specific plan for each session that might include having clients practice new skills with other members of the group.

What Group Therapy Can Help With

Group therapy is used to treat a wide variety of conditions, including:

  • Attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder
  • Depression
  • Eating disorders
  • Generalized anxiety disorder
  • Panic disorder
  • Phobias
  • Post-traumatic stress disorder
  • Substance use disorder

In addition to mental health conditions, CBT has been found to help people cope with the following:

  • Anger management
  • Chronic pain
  • Chronic illness
  • Chronic stress
  • Divorce
  • Domestic violence
  • Grief and loss
  • Weight management

In The Theory and Practice of Group Psychotherapy, Irvin D. Yalom outlines the key therapeutic principles that have been derived from self-reports from individuals who have been involved in the group therapy process:

  • Altruism: Group members can share their strengths and help others in the group, which can boost self-esteem and confidence.
  • Catharsis: Sharing feelings and experiences with a group of people can help relieve pain, guilt, or stress.
  • The corrective recapitulation of the primary family group: The therapy group is much like a family in some ways. Within the group, each member can explore how childhood experiences contributed to personality and behaviors. They can also learn to avoid behaviors that are destructive or unhelpful in real life.
  • Development of socialization techniques: The group setting is a great place to practice new behaviors. The setting is safe and supportive, allowing group members to experiment without the fear of failure.
  • Existential factors: While working within a group offers support and guidance, group therapy helps members realize that they are responsible for their own lives, actions, and choices.
  • Group cohesiveness: Because the group is united in a common goal, members gain a sense of belonging and acceptance.
  • Imparting information: Group members can help each other by sharing information.
  • Imitative behavior: Individuals can model the behavior of other members of the group or observe and imitate the behavior of the therapist.
  • Instills hope: The group contains members at different stages of the treatment process. Seeing people who are coping or recovering gives hope to those at the beginning of the process.
  • Interpersonal learning: By interacting with other people and receiving feedback from the group and the therapist, members of the group can gain a greater understanding of themselves.
  • Universality: Being part of a group of people who have the same experiences helps people see that what they are going through is universal and that they are not alone.

Benefits of Group Therapy

The principal advantages of group therapy include:

  • Group therapy allows people to receive the support and encouragement of the other members of the group. People participating in the group can see that others are going through the same thing, which can help them feel less alone.
  • Group members can serve as role models for other members of the group. By observing someone successfully coping with a problem, other members of the group can see that there is hope for recovery. As each person progresses, they can, in turn, serve as a role model and support figure for others. This can help foster feelings of success and accomplishment.
  • Group therapy is often very affordable. Instead of focusing on just one client at a time, the therapist can devote his or her time to a much larger group of people.
  • Group therapy offers a safe haven. The setting allows people to practice behaviors and actions within the safety and security of the group.
  • By working in a group, the therapist can see first-hand how each person responds to other people and behaves in social situations. Using this information, the therapist can provide valuable feedback to each client.

Effectiveness

Group therapy can be effective for depression. In a study published in 2014, researchers analyzed what happened when individuals with depression received group cognitive behavioral therapy. They found that 44% of the patients reported significant improvements. The drop rate for group treatment was high, however, as almost 1 in 5 patients quit treatment.

An article published in the American Psychological Association's Monitor on Psychology suggests that group therapy also meets efficacy standards established by the Society of Clinical Psychology (Division 12 of the APA) for the following conditions:

Things to Consider

If you or someone you love is thinking about group therapy, there are several things you should consider:

You Need to Be Willing to Share

Especially if you struggle with social anxiety or phobia, sharing in a group might not be right for you. In addition, some types of group therapy involve role playing and intense personal discussion, which can be overwhelming for those uncomfortable around strangers.

You May Need to Try a Few Groups

Just like you might need to "shop" to find the right therapist, you may also need to try a few groups before you find the one that fits you best. Think a little about what you want and need, and consider what might be most comfortable or the best match for you.

It’s Not Meant for Crisis

If you or someone you love is in crisis or having suicidal thoughts, individual therapy is a better choice than group therapy. In general, group settings are best for individuals who can function in daily living.

If you are having suicidal thoughts, contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 for support and assistance from a trained counselor. If you or a loved one are in immediate danger, call 911.

For more mental health resources, see our National Helpline Database.


How to Get Started

If you feel that you or someone you love might benefit from group therapy, consider the following steps:

  • Consult with your physician for a recommendation of the best type of group therapy for your condition.
  • Consider your personal preferences, including whether an open or closed group therapy session is right for you. You may also choose to explore group therapy online.
  • Contact your health insurance to see if they cover group therapy, and if so, how many sessions they cover per year.
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Article Sources
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