Group therapy is any sort of therapy which occurs in a group setting. Most commonly group therapy involves psychotherapy but it can also include other therapeutic approaches like cognitive behavioral therapy. Regardless of what type of specific therapy is being used, group therapy should utilize the group dynamic during the process.
Group therapy in history
The first clinical experiments with group therapy occurred after World War II and largely involved soldiers. During initial sessions, therapists found that characteristics found in patient-therapist session where also found in the group. Groups were found to have their own unique dynamics and transference (the process of transferring emotions from patient to therapist) could also occur between participants. Further studies emphasized these claims. Groups will often have characteristics which are not found within the individual members or subgroups.
Group therapy is now a common practice for many psychological disorders and even in the general population. Group therapy has evolved to include various specific approaches and concepts. With social therapy, the individuals of the group are not addressed but rather the group is looked at as one unit.
Group therapy in practice
While group therapy sessions differ greatly, a common situation would include about 5-15 participants. The participants would be expected to take turns sharing information. After sharing, the other group members may be called upon to give feedback, empathy or advice. While the topics of the sessions may be chosen by the therapist, the topics will often evolve due to the spontaneous nature of a group dynamic.
The therapist or therapists are the leaders of the group therapy. They will be in charge of the structure of the group therapy session and for shaping the course of the session. However, note that there is no one specific structure of course which group therapy must take. In this sense, the role of the therapist is can vary drastically depending on approach. Many experts agree that group therapy is only successful if a group dynamic is present. Thus, the role of a group therapist can include fostering a group dynamic which prevails over the individual characteristics of the group members.
What is expected of the participants?
It is important that all members of the group therapy make efforts to come to all of the sessions and actively participate. Group therapy session periods are usually not long term at just about 3-6 months. However, some group therapy sessions like Alcoholics Anonymous have been known to go on for years. The participants are free to leave the group whenever they wish though.
Who can benefit from group therapy?
Group therapy is available for treating a wide range of psychological disorders. There are also group therapy sessions available for people who are not suffering from a clinical disorder but are in need of counseling, such as group therapy for victims of sexual abuse. The group dynamic can be especially beneficial for people who have troubles with forming relationships, social skills, intimacy, trust, or self-worth.
Benefits of group therapy over individual therapy
While some patients may benefit better from the attention during individualized therapy, there are many therapeutic benefits which can only occur in the group therapy setting. These benefits have been defined as therapeutic principles of group therapy and include:
- Universality: realization that you are not alone in your feelings or problems
- Altruism: experiencing an increase in self esteem by helping others through problems
- Instillation of hope: by seeing other group members who are experiencing successes, this can give one a feeling of hope
- Imparting information: learning about other group members’ psychotherapeutic process can help one better understand his/her own therapy
- Role playing: the group setting is more conducive to role playing and exploring family dynamics
- Social skills: by working in a group setting, the members are improving their social skills. This can be very important for people with social-related disorders or low sense of self worth
- Imitative behavior: people in group therapy often learn to imitate the social skills of others such as when empathizing or sharing personal stories
- Cohesiveness: a group setting can help the individuals feel secure and gain trust. This can help the individuals open up more to the therapeutic process
- Interpersonal learning through input and output
- Better understand of self: while this benefit can also occur in individual therapy, group settings are more conducive for developing self understanding
“Practice Guidelines for Group Psychotherapy: Therapeutic Factors and Therapeutic Mechanisms.” AGPA Group Therapy. www.agpa.org. n.d. Web. Sept 2011.