What are the advantages of group sessions for addiction recovery?

What are the advantages of group sessions for addiction recovery?

 A. Tom Horvath, Ph.D.
There is no single correct or best way to recover from addiction.  There is no element of the recovery process that must completed by all individuals.  Although group sessions are often described as essential to recovery, they are not.  In fact, most people who recover do not attend groups of any kind!  However, these non-group-attending individuals are often ignored by treatment professionals, who are sometimes so focused on how they approach recovery that they fail to recognize other approaches.
Nevertheless, group sessions can be valuable.  This article will describe some of the advantages of attending groups.  By groups we are referring to a) free, mutual-aid, self-help or support meetings (let’s call them support groups), b) professionally-led therapy groups, and c) educational (or psycho-educational) groups.
Both support groups and therapy groups offer the following advantages.  1) You will likely discover that there are individuals who have problems similar to your own.  The problems may not look similar on the surface (e.g., she craves cocaine, I crave alcohol). However, as you get to know each other you might learn you both experience craving similarly, try to cope with it similarly, and mismanage it similarly.  2) You will likely see someone who is similar enough to you, but farther ahead in the process of recovery, that you feel an increased sense of hope.  Like any project, you are likely to work harder if you feel more hopeful!  3) You may “confess” some of your secrets, fears, or traumas.  You probably already know that in the past such experiences can be helpful.  Burdens can feel lighter when shared.  Human beings are very social creatures.  It is often more helpful to share a burden with an entire group than just a single person or therapist.  Of course, you may want to share the burden initially with just one person, to build courage about telling a whole group.  4) These groups also give you an opportunity to improve your ability to relate to others, if for no other reason than you get more time to practice.  Although these advantages of group participation are significant, it is of course not necessary to attend a group to experience them!
Therapy groups offer these advantages to a greater degree, because there is a professional to guide the process, the membership of the group is usually known and limited (e.g., 8-12 members), there is greater assurance of confidentiality, and the therapist may also make “here-and-now” observations, about the behavior of individuals and the group as a whole, designed to improve your ability to understand your own behavior and the behavior of others.  The advantages of therapy groups are most noticeable when you participate for months to years.  This is a much longer period of time than you would attend most residential addiction treatment programs.
Psycho-educational groups offer the advantages of group attendance to a smaller degree.  Many such groups are fundamentally classes on coping skills (e.g., assertiveness, effective communication, overcoming thinking errors).  They may not allow much time for group interaction.  Learning better coping skills can be valuable, but depending on how the group is conducted, reading a book may be just as effective!
If you want the best group experience, find a well-respected local professional and begin attending meetings (usually after a screening session or sessions with the professional).  For a less helpful but still worthwhile experience, attend a support group, because they are free, often available at a range of times, and don’t require the commitment of therapy group (e.g., same time every week). Remember that there are two main types of addiction support groups, 12-step groups (such as Alcoholics Anonymous) and the self-empowering groups (including SMART Recovery, Women for Sobriety, LifeRing Secular Recovery, Secular Organizations for Sobriety and Moderation Management).  The approaches these support groups use are quite different from one another.
Despite the advantages of groups, they are not for everyone!  You can arrange to experience in other ways the advantages of group attendance if you believe they would be important for you.