Group and Individual Addiction Therapy (And How They Work Together)

When you engage in treatment for substance misuse, addiction therapy can take place in multiple formats.1 Group therapy and individual therapy are two mainstays of addiction treatment. Though these two approaches to treatment share a similar goal of helping you overcome the effects of substance use, they offer unique therapeutic experiences.

Comparing Individual Therapy and Group Therapy

Addiction treatment programs offer a myriad of services designed to meet the wide range of concerns associated with substance misuse.2 Therapists and substance use treatment professionals know that each person they serve needs individualized attention and care. Treatment programs often offer a flexible blend of individual and group therapy interventions to help you in your efforts to overcome addiction.

Though these two approaches have distinct qualities, they also share common attributes.1,2 Group therapy and individual therapy often have similar objectives. Topics and objectives that you might encounter in group and individual therapy include:2

  • Recovery and life skills training
  • Motivational interventions
  • Education on the nature of addiction and coping skills
  • Interpersonal relationship skills building
  • Education on how to connect with family or significant others
  • Mindfulness interventions
  • Long-term recovery skills building
  • Case management services

Although group and individual therapy can help you achieve similar goals in recovery, your needs will determine which format may benefit you at any given time.2,3 An assessment by a licensed treatment professional can help you choose what to include in your unique treatment plan.

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One-on-One Care: Individual Therapy

One of the main differences between group therapy and individual therapy involves who receives the services.4 While group services help several people at once, individual therapy can allow you to focus on your own recovery.

The assessment process at the start of treatment can help you and your clinician uncover the exact nature of your concerns.2 If you have not had a previous mental health evaluation, you may receive the diagnosis of a substance use disorder or co-occurring disorder that can inform the treatment planning process. When you can fully identify the challenges you face and the goals you would like to achieve, you can collaborate with your therapist in developing your own addiction treatment plan.

In early recovery, the opportunity to engage with a treatment provider on a one-to-one basis can offer several benefits, including: 2

  • Providing focus on your personal recovery journey
  • Helping you find and maintain motivation for recovery
  • Determining your specific preferred strategies in recovery
  • Offering the opportunity to ask questions about the treatment or recovery process without the judgement of others
  • Fostering a closer collaborative understanding with your therapist of your history, background, and needs

Individual therapy can help you build a sense of safety, support, and trust with a clinician.2 This sense of trust and rapport can serve as a backdrop to the therapeutic exploration of your relationships, resources, challenges, and experience of addiction.

Individual therapy will often combine several different approaches to meeting your needs in recovery, which may include modalities such as:2, 4

Though many individual therapies use structured schedules for session and goal planning, therapists can work with you to enact flexible interventions to meets your needs.4

Working Together: The Group Therapy Process

The opportunity to connect with peers who share the goal of addiction recovery in group therapy sessions offers a host of benefits for the healing process, such as:2, 4

  • Reducing the actual or perceived isolation and disconnection that can occur in addiction
  • Providing a safe, structured environment to explore recovery-oriented relationships that have clear and reciprocal expectations
  • Giving you the opportunity to hear experiences and feedback from individuals whose situations are similar to yours
  • Enhancing personal motivation by allowing you to witness the recovery journeys of others

Therapists and group leaders establish rules and expectations before members join the group.2 They will discuss confidentiality, how to share, the purpose of the group, and what the group process may look like from start to finish.

When you join a group, you may not know the members in attendance.2 Working to build trust with people you just met takes time and support. A qualified clinician can guide you through that process.

A substance use treatment professional receives training before they can conduct certain group therapy activities.2 A provider’s level of training can have a major influence on how they conduct group therapy and how well the sessions serve members’ needs.

Talk with your therapist or treatment provider about your expectations and responsibilities in different types of groups. Doing so can prepare you to obtain maximum benefit from connecting with your peers in recovery.

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The experience offered by an addiction recovery group depends on a number of factors, including:2

  • Purpose—What purpose is the group intended to serve? Groups can be formed to address a specific purpose, such as addressing the needs of a certain demographic (e.g., teenagers with alcohol use disorder or individuals with co-occurring alcohol use disorder and PTSD) or offering support around a specific challenge.
  • Size—How many people are in the group? A group can include you, a therapist, and another peer in recovery. Larger groups may hold more than 10 people at a time.
  • Type—What kind of group is it? Several types of groups exist. The group therapy activities you encounter will depend on the type of group you join. Your therapist or treatment professional can help you identify which groups would best support your unique needs in recovery.

Types of Group Therapy

Treatment programs may utilize different group therapy activities to promote your efforts at overcoming addiction.3 The U.S. National Institutes of Health (NIH) identifies five different models for group therapy that can promote wellness and recovery from substance misuse. Each of these types of group therapy requires a trained professional facilitator.

The five types of group therapy identified by NIH include:2, 3

  1. Skills development—These groups help you learn to manage specific areas of your life, such as dealing with stress, building job skills, learning to collaborate with others, and learning techniques to improve your abilities in other life domains.
  2. Psychoeducational—These groups provide education and information about topics like addiction and wellness.
  3. Cognitive-behavioral—Informed by cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT), these groups help you examine the relationship between your thoughts, feelings, and beliefs and your actions. This skill can help you manage your internal experiences and find new coping mechanisms.
  4. Psychotherapeutic interpersonal process groups—These groups are overseen by specializing, highly trained facilitators and focus on developing new coping mechanisms by examining present-moment experiences in the group.
  5. Support—Support-style group therapy helps peers connect in a collaborative way. Activities and discussion in these groups help members “debunk each other’s excuses” and create constructive solutions to the challenges they face.

Peer-led or mutual-help groups, like Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) or Celebrate Recovery, are not the same as group therapy.4 While these groups have a large body of research and evidence documenting their success in helping members overcome addiction, they do not require facilitation by a trained professional.

How Long Does Group or Individual Therapy Last?

How often you attend these any kind of alcohol addiction treatment depends on your needs in recovery.2 Individual and group therapy can start as soon as you enter into treatment.

For some people receiving treatment for addiction, therapy may start in a residential or inpatient hospital setting.2 These levels of care offer the most intensive and frequent services.

Intensive outpatient programs (IOPs) can offer both individual and group therapy formats at regular intervals throughout the week. Some people may benefit from regular outpatient services, attending individual therapy once or twice a week to manage the symptoms of addiction and substance use.2

Comprehensive treatment programs can offer a set of services that fit your life and individual recovery needs.2,5 For more information, call 800-839-1686Who Answers? to speak with a treatment specialist about the treatment options available to you in alcohol addiction recovery.

Resources

  1. National Institute on Drug Abuse. (2019, January 17). Treatment Approaches for Drug Addiction DrugFacts.
  2. Miller, W. R., Forcehimes, A. A., & Zweben, A. (2019). Treating addiction: A guide for professionals, 2nd ed. The Guilford Press.
  3. Center for Substance Abuse Treatment. (2005) Substance Abuse Treatment: Group Therapy [Internet]. Treatment Improvement Protocol (TIP) Series, No. 41. Rockville (MD): Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.
  4. Moran, G., Knudsen, H., & Snyder, C. (2019, July 07). Psychosocial Supports in Medication-Assisted Treatment: Recent Evidence and Current Practice. Office of the Assistant Secretary for Planning and Evaluation.
  5. National Institute on Drug Abuse. (2018). Principles of Effective Treatment: A Research-Based Guide (Third Edition). National Institutes of Health.

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