Group Therapy’s Role in Optimizing Daily Mental Health

When individuals wrestle with mental health issues, daily life can become incredibly challenging. Sometimes, people need professional assistance in developing skills and confidence to mitigate their mental health concerns. Group therapy is a viable option for getting people the help they need.

Shawn Cooper, Clinical Case Manager at Riverside Healthcare, explains what group therapy involves and how it helps people optimize their daily mental health.

Shawn Cooper

The Group Therapy Setting

Group therapy is a type of therapeutic tool that typically involves one or two licensed professionals leading a group of five to 15 members. During their time together—which can last anywhere from a few weeks to a few months—the clinicians help members work on honing evidence-based coping skills and techniques. The group setting also allows members to receive social support and accountability from one another.

“I know a lot of people are a bit hesitant because social anxiety is something real,” notes Cooper. “I’m an extrovert, so it’s a little easier for me, but I always say, ‘Allow yourself to be vulnerable and take that chance because you don’t know what you might learn or take away from it.’ You’re going to be there with people who might have a very different experience than you, maybe a different generation than you. Or, come from a different background, socioeconomic status. You get to learn a lot from other people, get that support and accountability, while also hearing perspectives you maybe wouldn’t have otherwise interacted with.”

Challenges of Making the Transition

When a person’s group therapy comes to an end, it can prove to be a difficult transition back to daily life. Group therapy is quite intensive, usually five days a week and up to three hours a day. Cooper says many people struggle with not having the daily check-ins and support. One of the goals is for people to find their next layer of support in the “outside world,” but that can be challenging as well.

“We’re going back into the real world and everyone isn’t focused on being their best self, right? Whether that’s being at work, being at home, interacting in the community, everybody’s not trying to work on themselves. That’s something we also have to get better at, adjusting to a higher-stress environment.”

In order to prepare for such encounters, group therapy focuses on identifying the right support system, which could be family, friends, or a neutral party. The key is setting expectations and being clear about a support system’s willingness to commit to providing support.

Foundational Skills of Group Therapy

Various skills make up the foundation of group therapy. For example, emotional intelligence. Individuals work on how they are feeling, what they are feeling, and how to communicate or express that to someone else.

Another skill is cultural humility; understanding that everyone is different and everyone is always learning. “None of us are perfect, but there can be humility in terms of how we interact with people who are different than us,” says Cooper.

In communication, empathetic listening and responsive listening are essential. “I’m not only engaging with you, but I’m repeating back what I heard from you. That skill can translate into all your relationships throughout your lifetime,” he adds.

Finally, problem solving and conflict resolution are also going to help people along their journey.

Proven Mental Health Modalities

In addition to the skills and techniques covered in group therapy, clinicians also use proven mental health modalities. For instance, cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), which explores the interconnectedness between thoughts, feelings, and behaviors. The approach with CBT is cognitive reframing.

“We can’t necessarily control how we feel, but what we can control is how we think about things. What we want to do is eliminate or reduce our negative thinking and our negative thoughts and reframe those into the positive,” explains Cooper. “In creating more positive thoughts, we’re going to then influence our emotions and influence our behavior or action based off of those thoughts.”

Dialectical behavior therapy (DBT) teaches emotional distress tolerance skills. One of Cooper’s favorite DBT skills is “opposite action.” If a person is a stress eater, the goal is to get them to make an opposite choice when they find themselves in an uncomfortable situation.

“If I feel vulnerable, overwhelmed, stressed out, instead of going to what my urge is, which is to eat, let me get on my elliptical for 10 minutes or go talk to my wife or to my kids. That’s going to then eliminate some of those negative patterns.”

Behavioral activation can also be very effective. There are certain chemicals in the brain that help humans feel better: endorphins, dopamine, serotonin, oxytocin. Behavioral activation says, “Even if you don’t feel like doing something, do it anyway.”

“Whether that’s physical activity, or being social and going out and interacting with other people, I’m going to do it anyway,” shares Cooper. “That’s going to bring about some of those emotions and some of those chemicals that help us along the way.”

An Ongoing Journey

Even if a person excels in group therapy, and successfully transitions to living independently, there will still be times when mental health concerns are knocking at the door. It’s important for individuals to recognize when those concerns are becoming too big to handle.

“None of us are perfect human beings. We have to be realistic with ourselves and be objective in that slip-ups are going to happen. Safety planning is when we start recognizing the warning signs, we catch ourselves sooner. Then, we can bring it back,” assures Cooper. “Resiliency is the capacity to recover quickly or bounce back or know you’re going to make it through it, no matter the situation.”

For more information about the Riverside Pathways group therapy program call 815-936-7373.