We all need a safe space to talk things out. Group therapy can be that for people looking to manage a mental health condition or major life change.
You might have heard about group therapy to manage your mental health condition and are wondering whether it’s something that could benefit you.
Group therapy involves one or more therapists working with a small group of people, anywhere from 5 to 15 people, who all have similar issues they’re looking to improve.
There isn’t a one-size-fits-all when it comes to group therapy. Many approaches and types of groups exist based on the method of therapy or the mental health condition.
If you’re on the fence about trying group therapy to manage a mental health condition or life situation, here’s a primer on how group therapy can benefit you in ways beyond your diagnosis or situation.
Here are a few ways that group therapy may help you work through a mental health condition or tough life circumstance.
Group therapy helps you realize you’re not alone
“A big part of the group therapy experience is recognizing that others are struggling with very similar emotions and circumstances, so it’s helpful to have that support,” says Dr. Allison Chase, regional clinical director for Eating Recovery Center and Pathlight Mood and Anxiety Center.
For instance, when members join the group at different times, being able to share their progress can encourage new members. Chase’s clients have experienced a sense of empowerment by sharing their stories with others.
Group therapy facilitates giving and receiving support
Giving and receiving support from others can even boost your overall health.
When you feel good about helping someone else, or feel heard yourself, your brain releases dopamine, the “feel good” chemical messenger, into your body. Even the anticipation of give-and-take can be enough to raise dopamine levels.
“Group therapy can be really helpful in exposing others to a lot of discomfort with having interactions and even talking about their feelings [and] their emotions,” Chase explains.
A group setting can be a place where members can receive the support they need, and even prompt you to talk about your feelings, knowing others are there to do the same thing.
Group therapy gives you a voice
If you’re not used to it, it can be difficult to look inside yourself at how you’re feeling and expressing those thoughts and needs to others.
When you’re connecting with fellow group members, it can help to articulate your own feelings as they’re happening. This can help build your confidence and empower you to work toward positive change, as one 2018 study demonstrated.
This is a place where you can think and feel as you are. You don’t need to change your communication depending on the person, which is maybe what you’ve been doing in your personal life. Expressing yourself can be healing.
Group therapy also allows you to try different ways of communicating. How does it feel to state your concerns with no filter? To speak uninterrupted? Do you feel like everyone in your life sees you as shy? Outgoing?
In group therapy, you have the freedom to discover new ways of talking with others.
Group therapy helps you relate to others (and yourself) in healthier ways
Sometimes when you’re experiencing a mental health condition or traumatic event, your relationships can be affected, whether you realize it or not.
Group therapy can help you practice interacting with other people in a safe space, and learn that how people communicate has an effect on others.
You can learn this by talking with other group members, both while in session and during breaks.
A note on mixing progress with pleasure
Relating to others is an important aspect of group therapy, but this probably isn’t the best place to scout a romantic interest or even make friends. There are usually ground rules about this that you’ll agree to before joining.
It’s not that these relationships are in and of themselves taboo, but the goal of therapy is to work on yourself.
You and other group members are in your most vulnerable state when opening up and talking through painful experiences, so it’s often a good principle to stick with bonding through your growth, during session.
Group therapy provides a safety net
In a group therapy situation, you have an opportunity to lean into feeling accepted by others and to challenge yourself in making your needs known.
This can include motivating yourself out of your comfort zone to speak in a group, or giving yourself validation that you were heard.
When not in your group, it can also be helpful to know you can report back to them about your progress and celebrate your success. Or perhaps you bounce situations off them for an objective perspective on what you could’ve done differently if you didn’t handle something as well as you had liked.
The most obvious difference between group therapy and individual therapy is the number of people attending the session at one time.
In individual therapy, it’s just you and a therapist. The focus is on you and your own situation.
In group therapy, a facilitator leads a group of people with similar experiences or diagnoses.
Facilitators can hold different titles or accreditations. If the facilitator is a therapist or social worker, they should be licensed by their state. You can also verify that they’ve never had their license revoked.
Certified Group Psychotherapists are mental health professionals with additional certification in leading groups for therapy.
Some groups are led by peer facilitators. In this case, they should be certified by the organizing group as such.
Goals and fringe benefits of group therapy
Group therapy can be intimidating at first, but its value outweighs any initial awkwardness by providing a sounding board and social support outside your inner circle as you work through your situation.
It can also help you manage your mental health condition or work through difficult experiences with a group of people who are working through similar issues and toward similar goals.
Even if you’re not attending group therapy for social skills, this type of therapy can still provide fringe benefits such as:
- comradery while growing with a group of people
- role modeling and mentorship
- hands-on experience with active listening
Plus, there’s the idea of herd mentality, where you and other group members as a collective can influence each other positively.
Besides, you may even connect with one or several members who can hold each other accountable when practicing new skills or learning new ways to cope.
Many perspectives are brought up by group members, and this can help you not only learn more about yourself, but you may be introduced to new ideas and perspectives you haven’t thought of before.
Group therapy techniques
The technique used in group therapy sessions depends on the preferences of the therapist or facilitator leading the group.
Experiential activities such as art, music, dance, or movement therapy are ways to express yourself, according to Chase. Doing creative activities in this environment can help you become more aware of your own self and feelings.
For more info on experiential activities in therapy, check out this video by Nana Koch, chair of the department of health, physical education, and movement science at Long Island University Post:
A technique that Chase feels empowers group members is having members take turns leading the group, aka becoming the instructor.
“It’s a powerful way to become more actively engaged with your group,” Chase says.
Sometimes you may practice role-playing. This technique involves practicing new skills by interacting with a therapist in a fictional situation.
Different groups can use different therapy approaches, and some will use more than one at the same time.
Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) groups
CBT works to change your thinking and behavior by recognizing negative patterns and reevaluating them. Group sessions can consist of identifying the situations that are triggering for people and working to develop skills for managing those situations.
A support group can be online or in person. The purpose is to give and receive support from other group members who are going through similar difficulties.
According to a 2016 study, online support groups can still be beneficial, even through a screen.
Support groups aren’t always led by a trained professional, notes Chase, and tend to be more peer-facilitated. They can be an accessible and informal type of group, with different offerings than those run by professionals.
An interpersonal process group, or process group, doesn’t necessarily have an agenda or skill that’s being taught, but according to Chase, it’s more what members are bringing to the group related to their thoughts and emotions.
Process group offers an opportunity to help people unpack what’s happening to them. This type of group can work well for those experiencing anxiety and PTSD symptoms, as a 2019 study indicated.
This type of group stands behind the “knowledge is power” mantra. There’s a specific focus on defining, providing coping tips, and building your knowledge base on your specific mental health condition.
Psychoeducational groups tend to focus on particular conditions. A
Skills development groups
In a skills development group, facilitators focus on introducing and developing new skills you may need to make the best choices for improving your mental health.
In a 2016 study involving adults with intellectual disabilities, study authors found that participants were more likely to acknowledge their own progress when the input came from their group peers versus a professional.
Group therapy may be a great fit for you, even if you’re not 100% sure at first. If it’s something you’re considering, it might be a good idea to look into finding a group near you. You can also ask your healthcare team for recommendations.
Whatever you decide, know that making the step toward a treatment decision is something to recognize and be proud of.