The Role of Group Therapy in Addiction Treatment

According to Dr. Noam Shpancer, human beings are herd animals. We conform because that is how we are designed to behave. Commonly, the term “peer pressure” is used to describe how our children submit to the pressure of their classmates and friends to behave in a certain way.

Generally, it has a negative connotation – the pressure to use drugs, to drink or to otherwise behave badly. Peer pressure can also be used for good, as seen with many campaigns in the media against bullying in schools. In an article published by Psychology Today, Dr. Shpancer espouses that humans, essentially, do not even realize they are conforming when it happens.

One classroom exercise described by the doctor involves two students exiting the room. The remaining class members are told to ignore the two students when they return. The volunteer students are told to politely engage the rest of the class. After several minutes of rejection, the experiment is halted and the two target students are asked how they felt about what has just happened to them. Generally, they express concerns over how horrible it feels to be rejected. When the entire group is asked what the purpose of the experiment was, they often reply that it is meant to show how badly we can feel when we don’t belong. In fact, according to the doctor, it is meant to show how easy it is to get people to go along with a plan, even if they don’t know why, and even if it hurts other people.

Group therapy for the treatment of drug and alcohol addiction may work on this same principle. The National Institute of Health has published information concerning group therapy and how it is of great benefit for the treatment of addiction, for several reasons, including the concepts of peer pressure and conformity.

According to the NIH information concerning groups methods for the treatment of addiction, all groups can be therapeutic, regardless of what kind of group it is or whether it is formal or social. These groups, labeled as “therapeutic” by the compilers of the information for NIH, break the various forms of therapeutic groups into five subcategories, each with different benefits.

Five Types of Therapeutic Groups

Group TherapyThe least used type of group is known as interpersonal process group psychotherapy. The purpose of this group is for participants to relive the mistakes they’ve made through talk therapy and to see how they could have handled issues different, rather than choosing drugs or alcohol. This process can take quite some time, according to the experts; therefore, it is not used as often as some of the other processes.

The remaining four types of therapeutic groups are used more often, including psychoeducational groups, which are avenues that teach recovering addicts about their disease and the harm involved in substance abuse. Next is the skills development group, which trains individuals with practical methods for breaking addictive patterns. Cognitive behavioral groups delve into the processes to teach members better ways of thinking, which translates to improved behaviors. Finally, support groups are an informal forum of free thought and expression where participants can either celebrate each other’s successes or discredit excuses and reasons for using drugs in the event of a relapse.

The last group, perhaps, is the one in which Dr. Shpancer’s herd mentality description might come into play directly; however, participation in any group might cause an individual to want to conform to the goals of the group, even subconsciously.

Self-Help Groups Offer Support and Resources

When an individual seeks treatment at either a residential treatment facility, such as the one here at Axis Residential Treatment, or through an outpatient program, they may be asked to participate in a self-help group in addition to their formal therapy. These are the “meetings” that one hears about concerning recovery. There are many times of meetings and groups in the United States. A research paper on the usefulness of self-help groups estimates that a combined 1.6 million people participate as members of 14 various groups, with the majority of members belonging to:

  • Alcoholics Anonymous
  • Al-Anon Family Groups
  • Narcotics Anonymous
  • Adult Children of Alcoholics
  • Cocaine Anonymous
  • Marijuana Anonymous

While all of these groups fall under the “Anonymous” umbrella, there are other groups from which to choose, such as SMART recovery, Women for Sobriety and others. The question that bears asking is whether these organizations, managed and overseen by lay individuals who are, themselves, recovering substance abusers, really work?  According to the experts, the answer is “yes.” The experts at the National Institute on Drug Abuse released the results of a study that compared treatment alone to treatment in conjunction with some form of self-help 12-step participation. The participation in the self-help group could have come before, during or after treatment, but all showed a marked improvement in the rate of relapse.

Remember, addiction is a chronic disease that changes the brain, emotionally and physically, according to the NIDA’s explanation. This means that even with treatment, relapse is still possible and likely in some cases. The goal of treatment is to prevent relapse as much as possible and to lengthen the timeframes in between relapses. Relapse does not mean that treatment has failed; it means only that treatment plans need to be adjusted.

With that understanding, the use of self-help groups can increase the odds of a successful treatment plan and a reduction in relapse, according to the study. Specifically, the participants interviewed for the study who had attended 12-step meeting while waiting to enter formal treatment stayed in treatment longer and completed treatment at higher rates than those who did not participate in 12-step meetings. After the completion of treatment, those recovering addicts who participated in 12-step group meetings during treatment prevented relapse more successfully than recovering addicts who only participated in meetings or who only participated in formal treatment.

Social Groups Can Be Powerful Influences

Social GroupEvery day, we’re surrounded by groups of people. We take part in groups, or we are on the fringes of groups at school, work and sometimes at home. How these groups behave have critical influences on how we behave. In 1958, a researcher named Solomon Asch designed an experiment to measure how humans think when confronted with peer pressure on our decision-making abilities. A group of eight individuals sat around a table and were asked a series of questions regarding lines on a paper. For instance, one question asked which line was the longest. In one control group, everyone gave correct answers. This is significant because, unbeknownst to one subject – the only true subject of the experiment – everyone else at the table were planted there on purpose and told to give very specific answers.

The second group of tests hinged on the planted individuals giving incorrect answers to some of the questions. The second group of test subjects had as many as 75 percent wrong answers while the first group provided correct answers. The results showed that peer pressure on something as simple as our own knowledge and beliefs can bring about a change. When an individual has decided to take that first step to recovery – to make the changes in their life that will free them from the active disease of addiction so they leave clean and productive lives – it is a good idea to make changes everywhere possible. We can’t necessarily choose our families, but research shows that our peer groups can sometimes outweigh the influences of our families, as described by the Australian Institute of Family Studies. While this is not-so-great news for parents who work tirelessly to instill their children with certain values, it is beneficial for the recovering addict. Choosing our social groups carefully and maintaining relationships with individuals who do not use drugs or drink alcohol can increase our abilities to remain true to our commitment of recovery.

Good news for parents, however, is a research paper published at the Institute of Medicine which suggests that a great number of adolescents who succumb to deviant behavior do so because of participation in unsupervised peer groups. Groups of peers that are supervised regularly, or teens who are not permitted to “hang out” with social groups that tend to use drugs or alcohol, fare much better when it comes to conforming with their parents’ ideas versus their friends’ ideas. While this seems impossible in today’s world of hectic schedules and dual-income families, keeping tabs on your children’s activities can make a difference, according to the research.

Group Therapy Is a Factor in Successful Treatment

When you are seeking a treatment program, it is important to ensure that group therapy is a part of the plan, however, it is also important to determine what other factors of effective treatment are included. For instance, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, you should be certain the treatment program:

  • Offers programs tailored to the needs of the individual seeking treatment; no single treatment is going to work for everyone the same way
  • Offers programs of a sufficient length to treat the issues at hand; the length of treatment varies from person to person and may include inpatient and follow-up outpatient programs
  • Is flexible and adaptable as the treatment plan progresses; the needs of the individual may change during the course of treatment and the plan should be adjusted accordingly
  • Offers treatment for co-occurring disorders and a means to diagnose them; many individuals suffering from addiction also suffer from psychological disorders that can greatly impact recovery, including depression, anxiety or eating disorders
  • Offers a means to diagnose physical conditions that may have developed due to high-risk behaviors

If you or someone you love needs help to recover from alcohol or drug addiction, we here at Axis can help. Please do not hesitate to contact us to find out more about our comprehensive recovery program which includes group therapy and personalized attention to help you create a better life for you and the people you love.