When we are struggling with our mental health—whether with an eating disorder, with an anxiety disorder, with depression, with grief, or with many other afflictions—we sometimes feel like we are all alone. We might feel isolated, or as though we are the only people who have ever felt the way we are feeling. Our mental health can be hard to talk about, but talking about what we are feeling, and where those feelings may have come from, is a very important part of healing. Group therapy (usually in addition to other treatment) can be a beneficial part of our road to wellness.
In a group setting, not only can we
hone in on areas of vulnerability
but we can also begin to recognize
our strengths and our inherent value.
What is Group Therapy?
The American Psychological Association (APA) explains that “group therapy involves one or more psychologists who lead a group of roughly five to 15 patients. Typically, groups meet for an hour or two each week.” There are all kinds of groups to choose from.
Some groups center around the treatment of a specific diagnosis, like depression or social anxiety. These types of groups can be more or less precise—some will center on a more general diagnosis like chronic pain, while others will group members together who share a particular type of condition. As the APA describes, “Other groups focus more generally on improving social skills, helping people deal with a range of issues such as anger, shyness, loneliness, and low self-esteem.” At Galen Hope, one of our main themes is belonging. In a group setting, not only can we hone in on areas of vulnerability but we can also begin to recognize our strengths and our inherent value.
Benefits of Group Therapy
There are many potential benefits of group therapy. In a group, you will meet other people who are dealing with many of the same things you are—including some of those issues that can be hard to talk about with others who haven’t been through them. This makes it easier to share your feelings without fear of judgment. While nobody’s journey is quite the same as yours, being around and talking with others who have been on similar roads can really help! Dr. Amy Boyers explains, for example, that for those diagnosed with ARFID (Avoidant Restrictive Food Intake Disorder), group therapy “facilitates a supportive space in which to share meals with others and treat sensory issues. As treatment progresses, this might mean eating in a public place or visiting the grocery store as a group.”
In addition to similarities, group therapy can also provide you with access to new ways of thinking about what we are struggling with. Often it can be helpful to see how others are working through things. Often group members will be at various stages in their respective recoveries. You may encounter members who have “been there and done that,” and similarly your experience may bring perspective to others in the group. It’s a win-win!
Group members are able to provide support for one another in many different ways, and that support can be a real confidence booster. As Dr. Wendy Oliver-Pyatt explains it in her book Questions and Answers about Binge Eating Disorder: A Guide for Clinicians, “frequently individuals with BED [binge eating disorder] discover through group therapy that other members enjoy them for who they authentically are. This can lead to greater self-esteem and increased trust that relationships can evolve in a positive way.” This type of growth is true for many who engage with group therapy, regardless of primary diagnosis. As Dr. Amy Boyers puts it, “being among those who struggle with similar issues is invaluable. It gives the patient an opportunity to immerse themselves in social situations with familiar and understanding peers.”
participating in groups “holds up the mirror”
to our own behaviors and struggles
in a safe environment.
Part of a Plan
Most of the time, group therapy works best when it is used in conjunction with other forms of treatment, including individual therapy and possibly medication. Interestingly, group therapy can help you to feel more comfortable opening up in one-on-one sessions, in part because the group will help you to get used to talking about things, and to build the confidence mentioned above. And, group therapy provides more than just the other group members—don’t forget that groups are led by folks specifically trained to provide proven strategies, ideas, and methods for working through a wide range of issues you might be facing. Groups can (gently) hold you accountable for your own healing, they can help you understand the nuances of medications, and they can be a part of your care plan as you transition from stage to stage throughout your healing process. There can be nothing quite like a peer to help us become vulnerable enough and open enough to take a look at our self and our patterns.
Group therapy can be a vital piece of the puzzle as you move from getting better to getting well. Group interactions are real life experiences with other human beings. Dr. Amy Boyers explains that participating in groups “holds up the mirror” to our own behaviors and struggles in a safe environment. She says, “I think what is really powerful about groups is that you start to get feedback from others who are also doing the work, about how they experience the things you do and say. Since it is a safe space, it is said carefully and with support. Groups can really help people change so much more quickly because you get feedback in real time, as you are talking about something, and that is just so powerful. It really is an experience you can’t get in individual therapy.” Dr. Wendy Oliver-Pyatt adds “there is nothing like connection and support when it comes to healing, and the power of group therapy cannot be overstated.”