Updated: Apr 16, 2021
While you are probably very familiar with the idea of individual therapy or counseling, the concept of group therapy is more vague for you. You likely have either gone to individual counseling yourself, are already in therapy, or know someone who has been in individual therapy in the past. But, what about group therapy? Why would you consider going to group therapy instead of individual therapy? There is no one right answer to the question “is individual or group therapy better?” because it really depends on you, your treatment concerns, and where you are in your counseling journey.
How Individual Therapy Works
Usually, in individual therapy, the main focus is on the relationship between the individual (you) and your therapist. Research shows that up to 95% of the healing that occurs throughout therapy is a direct result of the therapeutic relationship. Individual therapy can be very effective treatment for issues such as anxiety, depression, grief, trauma and stress management because together you and your therapist explore the concerns that brought you to therapy and work together to solve the presenting issues. You, as the client, will get support, understanding, and compassion through the deep and unconditional relationship with your counselor.
How Group Therapy Works
Group therapy, on the other hand, involves a skilled counselor who becomes the group leader or facilitator, but is also dependent on the other group members for some of your healing. Group therapy taps into another whole set of helpful skills, with a focus on having you apply what you learn in the group to your larger, outside world. You interact with other group members in very similar ways to how you interact with others during your daily life. In group therapy, there is a focus on communication and listening skills, social skills, and developing your own self-awareness through connections with others. These are competencies that you do not learn as well in individual therapy working with only your therapist.
Who Individual Therapy Works Best For
Most people coming to counseling seek out and prefer individual therapy, at least to start out with. Coming to therapy for the first time can be very anxiety-producing, and meeting with just one new person versus a whole group of new people can ease your way into counseling. There are also many more individual therapists out there and available for you to choose from than groups, so access to mental health treatment for individual therapy tends to be easier. In addition, if you have concerns about confidentiality (e.g., you live in a small community, are a high-profile person, or famous), individual therapy may be more indicated than group.
If you need more immediate access to therapy, it is also easier to get in more quickly with an individual therapist than to try to find a group and wait until the group starts or has an opening. Perhaps your treatment needs are more intense or immediate, and you are looking to meet twice a week until you feel more stable, then individual therapy can accommodate this better than a weekly group session. Individual counseling would also be indicated if you have multiple treatment issues that require a deeper dive with a therapist. Finally, when you have a very strict schedule due to work or family demands, it may be difficult to find a group that addresses your particular treatment issue(s) and meets at a time when you are able to.
Who Group Therapy Works Best For
Hopefully you are continuing to read this article and are not wholly convinced that individual therapy is for you! There are many situations and people that group therapy works best for. Perhaps you have been in individual therapy, have met most of your treatment goals, but are loathe to completely stop counseling because you’ve found so much benefit from it. Your therapist may refer you to a group to get some of the ongoing support that you are looking for in addition to developing relationships with other group members. Or maybe there are specific skills that you want or need to learn that are best taught and discussed in a group setting with a skilled counselor as the group facilitator. Issues that can be effectively treated through groups are anxiety, depression, grief, stress, life transitions (such as having a baby, divorce, being widowed), and addiction recovery.
Some of the healing that takes place in counseling involved the idea that you are not alone in your suffering. Knowing and hearing about others who are going through similar things as you are can make you feel a lot better, and this is best demonstrated in a group setting. Group therapy can be so powerful because you get to know people who are similar to you, and together you create a shared bond that helps with overcoming your difficulties. Groups are also excellent places to give and get support, and both the giving and the getting of peer support have a positive effect on your mood. In group therapy you also get different perspectives on your situation from not only your therapist, but from the other group members. Group therapy also tends to be cheaper per session, at about one third to one half the cost of individual therapy, thus making it more accessible to the general population.
It’s Your Choice
So now what do you think? You know the benefits of both group and individual therapy, and you know your own situation. Do you think individual or group therapy would be best for you right now? And, there’s a third option: both. Many people engage in both individual therapy and group therapy and find both beneficial, for different reasons. Some people may start out doing individual counseling and progress to group therapy, or vice versa. Remember, there’s no one answer about which is best, individual or group therapy. The question is, what is best for you?
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Shannon Heers is a psychotherapist, clinical supervisor, guest blogger, and owner of Catalyss Counseling in Englewood, CO. Shannon helps adults in professional careers manage anxiety, depression, work-life balance, and grief and loss. Follow Catalyss Counseling on LinkedIn, Facebook and Instagram.