Substance Abuse Group Therapy Activities

Gabrielle Applebury
People sitting in group therapy session

Group activities create a space for individuals to explore themselves and their substance use in a safe setting. For participants, these activities have the potential to offer new insights and meaningful experiences.

Purpose of Group Therapy Activities

Isolation, secrecy, and shame are often major themes for people working through substance abuse. Activities in a group therapy setting give participants an opportunity to connect with others who may better understand what they are going through while also encouraging group members to support each other. People who are nervous about therapy get a taste for how it works, what they're comfortable with, and how ready they are to process their experiences.

Activity #1: Understanding Your Role

This activity helps individuals increase insight into their family of origin role and how that has translated into adulthood. For many individuals working through substance abuse, their role in the family was as the identified patient (IP). As an adult, this can translate to the individual having a difficult time caring for themselves and seeking out unhealthy partners who mimic childhood familial roles, such as their mother or father.

Setting Up the Activity

Each week, have one or two individuals share their family role, so there is plenty of time for the group to process it. Have the person sharing select some volunteers to play members of their family. The individual will then symbolically place the bodies of the volunteers in a way that represents how they see themselves within the family through the lens of their substance use, as well as how their family views them. If time permits, have the individual place themselves (played by a volunteer) and another volunteer in a representation of their last romantic relationship. Process the scenes by discussing:

  • How close the individuals are placed to each other and why
  • The facial expression each "member" shows
  • The differences and similarities between each representation- how they see themselves, how their family views them, and what their romantic relationships look like

Activity #2: Finding Common Ground

One of the most challenging parts of dealing with substance abuse is feeling like there is a lack of understanding and support. To create a supportive, inclusive atmosphere, try to connect the group members through common ground. This encourages higher rates of opening up, as well as group retention, which promotes healing.

How to Set Up the Activity

Start the activity by passing out pens and paper to everyone. Give everyone 15 minutes to write down their biggest fear when it comes to substance abuse treatment, what they hope to get out of treatment, what they envision their lives like once treatment is over, and what do drugs provide them that they aren't getting elsewhere and where can they get these needs met in healthier ways?

After collecting everyone's paper, reshuffle them and pass a paper out to everyone. Give everyone a few minutes to read over the anonymous responses. Go around the circle and ask:

  • What similarities do you have with this person?
  • Do you share common fears or goals?
  • Do you have any advice when it comes to getting this person's needs met in healthier ways?

Activity #3: Self-Care

People doing group breathing exercise

Encouraging self-care is one of the most important aspects of substance abuse treatment. Without having healthy coping skills to fall back on during times of stress, the chance of relapse increases significantly. A big problem many of those dealing with substance abuse experience is not being in tune or connected to their bodies. This can lead to not realizing how anxious, or how upset or angry they are feeling until they are at a 10. By intervening when they are lower on the intensity scale, they can help themselves return to a calmer state before feeling too overwhelmed.

Preparing the Individual and the Group for Self-Care

Let everyone know each week one of them will select and run a self-care exercise from a few minutes long to up to 10 minutes at the beginning of group therapy. Letting the group members take turns running the exercise encourages them to take initiative and find a self-care activity that speaks to them. It also promotes leadership skills and boosts confidence as each group member helps run the exercise. Run an example of an appropriate self-care exercise by:

  • Encouraging everyone to sit comfortably and taking slow breaths in for five seconds, holding for five and releasing - do this for five rounds.
  • Process as a group where everyone felt the tension in their body, where they felt a release, and how long it took for them to feel a shift.
  • Discuss what they liked and disliked about the exercise and why.
  • Discuss any discomforts felt during the exercise.

The Importance of Group Activities

Group therapy activities for those dealing with substance abuse can create a unique environment that promotes insight, connecting with others, and problem-solving skills. Using various group activities can be a great addition to any substance abuse treatment plan.

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Substance Abuse Group Therapy Activities