Group therapy is effective but how does it help addiction recovery?
When it comes to ending an addiction and sustaining recovery long-term, group psychotherapy and regular, longer term group meetings are some of the most powerful tools in the treatment toolkit.
From substance addictions like drug abuse and alcoholism, to behavioural addictions like compulsive gambling and sex addiction, group therapy and longer term meetings through groups like Alcoholics Anonymous have a proven, positive impact on recovery.
“We build group therapy and group meetings directly into our programs, and the reason is simple: It’s extremely powerful and it works,” says Di Young, Addictions specialist from South Pacific Private, a Sydney-based addiction rehab and mental health treatment centre. “The idea of speaking about these kind of issues in a group can be nerve-wracking and we understand that, nobody’s ever forced to share, but what we see is that almost everyone comes to quickly understand the value of group conversations, and becomes very comfortable with the way our groups are structured and designed.”
The research shows that group therapy is just as effective, and in some cases more effective, than individual therapy. “At South Pacific we take a blended approach with group sessions, lectures, small and large group work, and one-on-one therapy, and our clients and our staff see great benefit in those offerings” Young says. “If a treatment centre isn’t building group work into their program, and are pitching themselves more as an isolated retreat, without group work, the client may not have the opportunity to delve deeply into their presenting problems which almost always run deeper.”
So, why is group therapy effective and how does group therapy help addiction? There are multiple reasons.
Group Psychotherapy Breaks Down Shame and Isolation
Addiction is a disease that thrives in isolation, is fuelled by shame and compounded by fear. “When you’re suffering an addiction, it can be easy to feel as if you’re the only one who's ever felt this way, as though nobody understands you and as if you’re a unique failure for having brought the situation about,” Young says.
Just a few minutes in group therapy, however, is sometimes enough to completely shatter those assumptions. “People often come out of the first session saying they had no idea that other people were going through the exact same thing, that other people were having the same thoughts play out in their head,” Young says.
Groups Showcase a Pathway to Recovery, at All Stages
When we’re in the depths of addiction or just beginning to process trauma, it can feel like the start of an impossible or overwhelming journey. Being part of a group which includes members from all stages of recovery – from early recovery right through to years of sustained recovery – delivers a powerful demonstration that a better life is possible, and assist in providing a clear path of how to get there.
Groups help members share their experiences and the strategies that have worked for them, and can help foster the adoption of healthier coping mechanisms and techniques for avoiding or managing triggers.
“What’s great about our groups at South Pacific is that people who are at the very beginning of their recovery can see people at every point down the track, from those who are a few weeks clean to those who have spent decades free of the addictive cycle,” Young says. “For those of us who are much deeper into recovery, the chance to help others is actually a source of strength for our own recovery as well, and helps give a real sense of purpose even when things are sometimes feeling low.”
Group Participation Can Build Healthier Relationships with Ourselves
Those of us suffering from addiction often have a somewhat distorted image of ourselves. We can often feel worthless, hopeless or like a burden, and even if people tell us this isn’t the case, or we know we suffer from serious self-esteem issues, it can be a difficult thought pattern to break.
The structured nature of group psychotherapy, with rules about participation, confidentiality, support and engagement, is designed to ensure a supportive environment in which members not only feel safe and comfortable in engaging, but in providing real and genuine feedback to each other as well. Positive reinforcement from other group members, and the confidence we gain by sharing our reality, helps break down and reshape negative self-esteem issues and distorted self-perception.
“If you’ve gone your whole life being told by parents or other authority figures that you’re unworthy, broken or weak, then having a group reinforce the positive things your therapist and friends are telling you about yourself really helps to chip away at those negative thoughts and feelings that too often just compound our other issues,” Young says.
Groups Promote Healthy Relationship Dynamics
The tone and atmosphere created by the structures and rules which underpin group meetings are designed to create a supportive environment and healthy person-to-person relationship dynamics. Research shows that this environment helps model positive relationship dynamics and healthy boundaries to participants who may have experienced toxic and unsupportive relationships with family, friends and partners.
Research shows that in effective group settings, participants feel more security and are better able to communicate their feelings and boundaries in group settings and in other appropriate areas of their lives. Experiences in groups can lead to healthier, more confident and more sustainable relationships with bosses, colleagues, parents, spouses, siblings, children and people more generally.
“Being able to discuss something in a group framework often makes it easier to share those same things in other important relationships, be it with family members, friends or partners,” Young says. “We also report back to groups on how those relationships are going, and can get feedback which helps us understand if our partner or family member’s responses are healthy and normal, or if we may be experiencing gaslighting, coercive control or unreasonable expectations.”
Group Meeting Binds Us to Recovery
In the early stages of addiction recovery, groups add much needed structure to our lives, which can sometimes have become quite chaotic with traditional relationships with family, coworkers and friends sometimes having broken-down. Regular group meetings in person or online, such as those provided by Alcoholics Anonymous, Narcotics Anonymous, Sex and Love Addicts Anonymous and other organisations, can add much needed structure, routine and support.
Studies show that as well as providing support and understanding, groups also deliver positive peer pressure and provide a degree of accountability for addicts in early recovery. Groups of individuals who have gone through substance abuse issues themselves are also particularly good at confronting individuals who may be in denial about problematic relationships, through patterns or behaviours.
“When you’re going through recovery alone it can be a lot easier to fall off the wagon or to deny things are really a problem,” says Di Young. “The evidence is really clear about that being much less likely to happen when you’re part of an ongoing support group.”
Long-term, Sustained Support (with Proven Results)
Longer running, regular support meetings can provide lasting, long term support. “Even if you go to a comprehensive addiction treatment centre, you’re less likely to relapse years down the track if you combine it with AA or another support group or our Day Programs,” Young says. “It’s part of why we build those support groups right into our treatment programs from the start.”
Support groups and Day Programs can provide ongoing support and insight as members get further into recovery, as well as help and support at times of crisis or relapse. When members face difficult moments or challenges, groups are able to provide support, advice and positive reinforcement and lessen feelings of isolation.
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