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Group therapy - what it is and why it really works

Many people have reservations about the idea of participating in group therapy. Sharing your most intimate thoughts and feelings with complete strangers? That's off-putting. But group therapy has been neglected for far too long. Here, you'll learn more about its characteristics, benefits and effectiveness.

What is group therapy?

In traditional group therapy, a small group of five to a maximum of 15 people are treated at the same time under the guidance of psychotherapists. Patients typically have the opportunity to interact and benefit from professional help once a week in a session that usually lasts 90 minutes.

Although outpatient therapy has for a long time focused primarily on individual therapy, group therapy is at least as effective in helping people cope with various mental illnesses or crisis situations. Group sessions can alleviate the distress of many problems ranging from ADHD to depression, eating or anxiety disorders to post-traumatic stress disorder or addictive disorders. And last but not least, it offers help in acute crisis situations, such as dealing with chronic pain, stress, burnout, breakups, divorce or grief.

And how does it help? On the effectiveness of group therapy

For a long time, group therapy has been in the shadows of individual therapy. But why is that? Not because of its lack of effectiveness! Rather, because of various other factors. For example, it is correlated with the greater organizational effort required of psychotherapists. Applying to get this type of therapeutic services approved is more extensive, it is much more complicated to put together a full group, suitable premises must be available, and managing possible cancellations is also more complicated, to name just a few reasons.

And the difficulties don’t only come from the psychotherapist's side. Participants often have reservations about group therapy. For example, the inhibition threshold to open up to a group of initially unfamiliar people is often high. In addition, there is a general distrust of the effectiveness of group therapy. But the data from various empirical studies clearly prove the opposite: group therapy is in no way inferior to individual therapy when it comes to efficacy. More than two decades ago, experts came to the conclusion that group therapy can achieve at least as good or better results in comparison. Moreover, this form of therapy is characterised by its own unique qualities.

The advantages of group therapy

When we talk about the benefits of group therapy, we are in no way talking about a competitive comparison between different therapeutic approaches. Each form is important and has its own individual merits and strengths.

You are not alone! Exchange and inspiration in group settings

Often people with mental health problems suffer from great shame - about not being able to "function" in everyday life, having certain feelings, or not being able to handle situations on their own. In group settings, people meet like-minded people who are struggling with similar problems. The realisation that one is not alone and that others are dealing with similar struggles is already a great relief.

In particular, the group being composed of multiple people is beneficial. People with diverse personalities and backgrounds assess each situation differently. This reveals multiple perspectives and viewpoints from which to learn. How do others deal with problems? How do they manage to change things for the better or overcome difficult situations? The diversity of a group reveals a wide variation of strategies and approaches, and thus numerous opportunities to learn something new.

In this sense, the individual stories of other people in the group can also provide motivation and serve as role models. Those who are further along in the healing process can act as inspiration to members who are still at the beginning of their journey. Watching the progress of others can mobilise one's own energies and encourage one to accomplish something similar in one's own life.

The group as a safe place: giving and receiving support

Another important benefit of group therapy is the aspect of mutual support. Regardless of whether it is through the feeling of being heard or through helping someone else: Mutual help can already have a positive impact on the spirit. This is because dopamine is released in the brain, which is also known as the "feel-good hormone" and makes people feel better. Even the anticipation of an empathic exchange can increase the level of dopamine in the body. Consequently, everyone benefits from the assistance within a group, whether one is giving or receiving it.

In addition, this type of mutual support also affects group dynamics. This is because the person receiving it builds a stronger bond with other members as a result. While empathy and the offering of sympathy also give the chance to develop and learn.

As therapy progresses, a close bond can form within the group, which becomes a safe haven for members - a trusting "safe space" where everyone can talk about their feelings and problems in a protected way.

Improved self-confidence, self-image and social skills

People who participate in group therapy can also strengthen their communication and social skills. By being part of a group, people not only feel less isolated, but also gain strengthened skills in dealing with others. The group is a place to try out and learn different things: holding back less with one's own opinions, expressing concerns without backing and taking the space one needs can be trained and tested here.

In this context, the group acts as a mirror. Because within this setting, there are always a wide variety of perspectives and approaches to solutions. This can help to better deal with one's own problems or to see oneself in a completely new light.

Especially within a group session with people with whom one has not yet gained much trust and whose reactions are unpredictable, it is often difficult to reveal oneself. The fear of condemnation and incomprehension always resonates. As well as the worry of having things reflected and shown to you that you might not want to be confronted with. But by overcoming these hurdles and mustering the necessary courage, positive results are produced. Studies show that you can learn how others perceive you, discover new aspects of yourself, and boost your self-confidence.

Practicability: Easier accessibility

Last but not least, significantly easier accessibility is one of the advantages of group therapy. It is no secret that existing therapy services are far from being able to meet current demand in a timely manner. The result is long waiting times and continued suffering for those affected. Since in group therapy one psychotherapist can care for several patients at the same time, such groups are characterised by their low-threshold nature.

This is even more impressive with new forms of therapy, such as online services. These are often available even more quickly and are easier to access. Taking the step to therapy is always difficult and takes a lot of overcoming. Online group sessions can be attended from the comfort of one's own home, there is no need to travel any distance and one can participate comfortably. This can already lower the first inhibitions and pave the way to mental recovery.

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