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What Happens during a Group Therapy Session? 

There are a number of different treatments involved in rehab programs, ranging from detox treatments and behavioral therapies to experiential therapies and peer group support sessions.
One of these elements is group therapy, in which groups of people learn how to manage various aspects of addiction treatment and recovery together.

The way addiction treatment is portrayed in movies and television sometimes implies that group therapy and peer support groups are the same thing. However, they involve different activities and goals, and are organized in different ways.

Group Therapy in Addiction Treatment

In addiction treatment, group therapy is provided to help people talk through their issues, learn about ways to manage them, and gain confidence in their ability to achieve recovery. This is done by assembling individuals in a room with a treatment professional and enabling them to share with one another, with guidance and support from the professional.

As explained by Treatment Improvement Protocol 41 from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), group therapy has many benefits in substance abuse treatment such as:

  • Opportunities to learn how to deal with recovery through one another’s experiences
  • Mutual commitment to and accountability to complete treatment
  • Reduced feelings of being alone in the experiences and effects of substance abuse
  • Ability to see others achieve recovery, which can provide motivation
  • Expanded resources for those who are new to treatment
  • Development of a family-like atmosphere that provides support, coaching, accountability, and feedback for the members of the group

An article from Psychology Today explains that group therapy is also a good fit for addiction treatment because, unlike individual therapy, it provides participants with an experience closer to real life, in which they are dealing with a variety of different people with different opinions and values, with opportunities for exploration and feedback. This can make it easier for the individual to readjust to daily life and interpersonal encounters after therapy is over.

The Goals of Group Therapy


By getting therapy with others in a small group, individuals in addiction treatment experience a strong tool that helps them achieve a variety of different treatment goals.
SAMHSA breaks these down into five different group approaches:

  • Psychoeducational: Participants learn about substance abuse and related behaviors.
  • Skills development: The group focuses on developing skills to cope with triggers and other aspects of recovery.
  • Cognitive behavioral: These groups work to develop changes in thinking patterns that can then translate to changes in behavior.
  • Support: Individuals learn from and help one another through the treatment process.
  • Interpersonal process: Participants explore, process, and learn to manage the elements of their own psychologies that have contributed to the substance abuse.

The format of the group session is typically shaped by the approach as described above, and the professional who leads the group shapes the experience based on the direction the approach offers.

What to Expect


The individuals who participate in group therapy have often been screened and consulted to make sure they will be served by the group process and to prepare them for participation. As described by the American Psychological Association, groups are usually somewhere around 5-15 people to provide a rich but not overwhelming environment.Before starting, the people in the group agree on confidentiality, ground rules, and other aspects of group participation. This establishes a level of trust and respect that can help everyone feel comfortable participating. The group leader helps the individuals focus on a particular topic, which is then discussed by the members of the group. Sometimes, activities or role-playing exercises can help the participants work through their concerns or learn new skills.

The group may meet daily, or a couple of times per week, depending on the treatment schedule. This enables the group to develop trust and a sense of continuity through the process, coming to rely on one another and develop the social bonds that provide additional support and motivation throughout the treatment process.

Differences between Group Therapy and Peer Support Groups

This process may still sound a lot like a peer support group, especially in the support-focused model. However, SAMHSA outlines the various ways in which group therapy differs from 12-Step or other peer support groups:

  • Small groups of 5-15 people
  • May be required
  • Managed and led by a treatment professional
  • Does not include sponsorship
  • Often limited to occur during the treatment period
  • 12-Step/peer support groups
  • Can be large groups – unlimited membership
  • Usually voluntary
  • Managed and led by members
  • Includes sponsorship
  • Continues after treatment

Both of these types of group work can prove quite valuable for addiction treatment. Working in a research-based, addiction treatment program can offer the benefits of both types of groups, enabling the individual to increase the chances of achieving recovery and maintaining it in the long run.