When it comes to treating addiction of any kind, therapy is an important part of the rehabilitation process. After all, it’s not enough simply to rid the body of drugs or alcohol. Effective rehabilitation also works to discover the underlying issues that led to addiction.
For many of our patients at Alpine Recovery Lodge, addiction goes hand in hand with mental health issues, something we refer to as a dual diagnosis. Patients who have a dual diagnosis need therapy to help them overcome their addiction and manage their mental health.
One of the questions we hear most often has to do with the differences between individual and group therapy. It’s not uncommon for people who come to us for rehabilitation to be new to the whole idea of therapy. They have questions about how it works and what they hope it will do for them.
The Differences between Individual and Group Therapy
Let’s start by talking about some of the key differences between individual and group therapy. That might seem like an obvious thing, but there are actually more differences than you might realize.
The first and biggest difference is that individual therapy involves a one-on-one session between a patient and a therapist. Individual therapists may use a variety of therapeutic methods and theories to treat addiction and mental health issues. The overall result is an intense focus on the individual.
By contrast, group therapy involves a single therapist and a group of patients, all of whom are struggling with similar issues. During a session, various members of the group may share their experiences with assistance from the therapist.
It’s very common for rehabilitation programs to use a combination of individual and group therapy. At Alpine Recovery Lodge, we tailor the treatment plan to the individual, but we usually view group therapy as an essential component of individual therapy.
Understanding Individual Therapy
Now that you understand the key differences between individual and group therapy, let’s talk about some of the specific things that individual therapy can do for you.
The primary benefit of individual therapy is that it allows for a deep examination of your life, emotions, and relationships. Many addicts have deep-seated issues with their families that contribute to their abuse of alcohol and drugs.
Individual therapy is the ideal place to explore those issues. Working one-on-one with a therapist allows you to build a relationship of deep trust and mutual understanding. In that atmosphere, it’s possible to explore difficult topics that might be uncomfortable or even impossible to discuss in a group setting.
For example, people who struggle with addiction often come from families where addictive behavior is passed down from one generation to the next. They need help sorting out their family dynamics and learning how to coexist with family members who may exhibit addictive behavior.
Individual therapy is also the place where patients can deal with mental health issues that may exist in tandem with addiction such as depression, bipolar disorder, anxiety, and schizophrenia. This type of therapy is necessary to help patients learn to cope and how to function in their day-to-day lives.
There are many forms of individual therapy. Traditional talk therapy builds a close relationship between the therapist and the patient and uses the trust developed to explore painful and difficult issues.
By contrast, cognitive behavioral therapy or CBT, is usually a short-term therapy that helps patients to change negative or harmful thought patterns and behaviors. It does not rely on a close patient/therapist relationship.
Finally, another form of individual therapy that is extremely useful for patients who have experience trauma is Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) therapy. This particular kind of therapy helps patients learn to cope with traumatic events in their past. It’s common for people who struggle with addiction to have experienced abuse, whether physical, sexual, or emotional, in their lives. EMDR can help them learn coping mechanisms to forestall panic attacks and recurrences of self-destructive behavior.
In each case, individual therapy maintains a tight focus on the patient.
Understanding Group Therapy
Now, let’s talk about group therapy. As we noted above, the most immediate and obvious difference is that the patient is not alone with the therapist. Most group therapy sessions involve a single therapist and a group of patients who are working to overcome similar problems.
In a group therapy session, group members share experiences. One of the reasons we like group therapy as a treatment for addiction is that addicts tend to isolate themselves from friends and family. As their addictive behavior worsens, they often alienate the people who love them and feel alone.
The cycle of self-blame and recrimination that follows can worsen addiction and increase an addict’s sense of isolation. When they first start group therapy, many of our patients are astonished to discover that their experiences are not unique to them.
In the throes of addiction, very few people stop to think about how common their emotions and troubles are. They look inward for answers, and their continued use of drugs and alcohol makes it impossible for them to see their emotions with any degree of attachment.
The truth, however, is that people are more alike than they realize. People turn to drugs and alcohol for help when they feel emotionally overwhelmed. Drinking and taking drugs helps to numb negative feelings. Addicts hide from themselves and others, and group therapy teaches them not to hide. It shows them that they are not alone.
As you might expect – and as was the case with individual therapy – group therapy can take several forms. Here are a few that are common.
Psychoeducational therapy is leader-focused, meaning that the therapist leads the session and participates in every aspect of the therapy. The focus may be on teaching participants about different aspects of addiction. Psychoeducational therapy is often a precursor to entering rehabilitation because it helps patients get to the point where they realize that they need treatment.
By contrast, skills development groups focus on teaching group members how to cope with life’s challenges after they leave rehab. For example, they might learn how to recognize triggers and avoid them, and how to manage when they experience a craving for drugs or alcohol.
Cognitive-behavioral therapy groups operate on the same basic principle as individual cognitive behavioral therapy. The group leader works closely with members to change negative thought processes, beliefs, and perceptions that may have led to addictive behavior.
Support groups are an important part of rehabilitation and may range from therapist-supervised groups in an inpatient facility to peer-run groups outside of therapy. The most famous peer-run support group is Alcoholics Anonymous, and their meetings provide an essential support system for people struggling with addiction. Typically, group members share personal experiences and provide unequivocal support for one another throughout the recovery process.
Finally, interpersonal process group therapy uses the dynamics of the group to affect change in the individual members. It focuses on helping members learn to manage their interpersonal relationships, something that is often a challenge for recovering addicts.
Group therapy sessions are an important part of rehabilitation. They help patients learn to share their experiences and understand that they’re not alone. As mentioned previously, they are often used in conjunction with individual therapy to achieve results.
Individual or Group Therapy?
Choosing between individual and group therapy is something that may not be appropriate for some patients. In many cases, we recommend both types of therapy to our patients. They serve similar but not identical purposes.
If you do feel that you must choose just one, then here are some questions and points to consider as you evaluate your options.
- How comfortable do you feel discussing the issues and events that led to your addiction? If you are dealing with deep personal trauma or abuse, then you will likely benefit from individual therapy so you can explore those issues in depth.
- Do you have a dual diagnosis of depression or mental illness that goes hand in hand with addiction? In such cases, individual therapy is always preferred because the group members may not be prepared to help you with anything other than your addiction.
- Do you feel isolated and alone? If so, then the collegial atmosphere of group therapy may be exactly what you need to reconnect with society. Group therapy sessions underscore our similarities and help addicts realize that they do not have to struggle alone.
- Have your interpersonal relationships suffered or evaporated as a result of your addiction? Often, group therapy sessions – particularly interpersonal process group therapy – can help you get to the root of your interpersonal issues and help you to overcome them.
As a rule, people with deep-seated emotional problems or a dual diagnosis need individual therapy. People who feel deeply isolated or need help learning to interact with others in a healthy way may find that group therapy is precisely what they need to overcome their addiction.
Keep in mind that even group therapy is an individual experience. It may take you more than one try to find the therapist or group that’s right for you. Be patient and stick to it. Therapy is a key component of rehabilitation and should not be avoided or overlooked.
Individual and group therapy can both be helpful to people struggling to overcome addiction. Ultimately, drug and alcohol abuse are symptoms of other problems in life. If you fail to address those things, then it will be very difficult to avoid having a relapse when you encounter stressful situations.