Substance Abuse Group Therapy Activities

Updated September 14, 2022
People sitting in group therapy session

It's not easy to navigate a new commitment to sobriety or recovery from substance use. Addiction and recovery can cause people to isolate themselves from family members and loved ones. And, it can impact a person's physical, mental, and emotional well-being.

Many therapists and substance abuse counselors encourage people to engage in group activities as part of the recovery process. Group activities create a safe space for individuals to explore their current needs and goals alongside others who have had similar past experiences. Support groups and their activities can offer participants new insights and meaningful experiences on their road to recovery.

Benefits of Substance Abuse Group Activities

According to research, people working through substance use disorders often experience feelings of isolation and shame. Activities in a group therapy setting give participants an opportunity to connect with others who understand what they are going through because they have a shared struggle. Support groups also encourage members to validate each other's experiences and provide a sense of comfort.

In addition, some people may not yet be ready to enter into a therapy program. In these instances, support groups can give participants a better idea of what it would be like to share their experiences and struggles with others.

Also, some may not have the financial means to cover the costs of a therapy program. Support groups offer people an opportunity to protect their mental health in a setting that is usually low or no cost. They can also help people get a better idea of where they are at in their healing process.

Group Activity #1: Share Your Role

This activity helps people gain insight into their family dynamics and how it has impacted their lives. Many individuals working through substance use disorders might feel as though their relationships with their loved ones have changed. They might feel judged, disconnected, lonely, or even supported by those around them. In fact, many group members might be experiencing the same changes. These shared experiences can help others know that they are not alone.

How to Set Up the Activity

  • Each week, have one or two individuals share their family role. You can ask for volunteers the week beforehand so that group members have time to think about their experiences. Don't feel the need to get to every group member in just one session. When you spread this exercise out over time, it will give people more time to process the activity and get other individuals thinking about their own roles.
  • Have the person sharing select some volunteers from the group to play members of their family. For example, if a group member identifies a mom, dad, and sibling as their family unit, you will need three volunteers.
  • The individual will then symbolically place the bodies of the volunteers in a way that represents how they see themselves within their family. During this time, you can give different prompts to the volunteer sharing their role. For example, you can ask them to position family members in a way that reflects how they felt their family dynamics worked before they started using substances or after they developed a substance use disorder. In addition, you can ask the participant to show how they believe their family views them, as well as how they would like to be viewed.
  • Then, process the scenes by discussing the situations the participant shared. How close were the individuals placed next to each other? Why were they placed that way? What facial expressions did the "family members" show? What about their body language? What are the differences and similarities between the different scenarios? Are there any similarities between participants?

This activity requires participants to be vulnerable, dive into their past experiences, and share how they want to change their relationships with their loved ones. This exercise doesn't have to be limited to family dynamics. People can share their relationships with friends, romantic partners, or even their work environments.

Group Activity #2: Find Common Ground

One of the most challenging parts of dealing with substance use disorders is feeling like there is a lack of understanding and support. Support groups are an opportunity to create an inclusive and connected environment by bringing together individuals that share common ground. This can encourage participants to open up, look to others for support, and promote a sense of healing.

How to Set Up the Activity

  • Pass out pens and paper to everyone in the group. Instruct members to not write their names on the paper because their answers should remain anonymous.
  • Give everyone about 15 minutes to write down their biggest fear when it comes to substance abuse treatment. Give them a series of prompts to deepen their thinking. What do they hope to get out of treatment? How do they envision their lives after treatment? What do substances provide them that they aren't getting elsewhere? What alternatives can they try to meet these needs?
  • At the end of the time, collect everyone's paper.
  • Then, shuffle the papers and pass them back out to members of the group. Ideally, everyone should have a paper written by someone else in the group.
  • Give everyone a few minutes to read over the anonymous responses.
  • Then, start a discussion about how people have responded. Do members notice any similarities between their responses and the anonymous responses? Are there common fears or goals? Do they have any advice to share that might help others reach their goals? Does anyone want to read an impactful response out loud? What similarities do you have with this person?

This activity can help establish a strong sense of community and understanding among members of the support group. It allows participants to express their fears and goals in a safe space without judgment. And, it can serve as a strong reminder that other people are going through similar experiences.

Group Activity #3: Practice Self-Care

Self-care is an important aspect of taking care of a person's overall well-being. Especially if they are experiencing a mental health struggle. Without having healthy coping skills to fall back on during times of stress, the chance of relapse can increase significantly.

It can give people a resource to turn to whenever they start to feel overwhelmed by stress or emotions. And, it can remind them to take a step back and evaluate their needs.

How to Set Up the Activity

  • Talk to members of the group about self-care. Do they know what self-care is? Do they practice it themselves? Does anyone have a favorite self-care activity? See what they know, and share what you know.
  • Have the members of the group brainstorm different self-care activities. You can do this by calling on members of the group and writing ideas down on a whiteboard, or by having everyone write as many ideas as they can think of on a piece of paper. Gather as many responses as you can to create a wide variety of self-care activities.
  • Then, ask for volunteers to lead self-care activities each week during the group. Taking turns leading the exercises encourages members to take initiative and find a self-care activity that speaks to them. It also promotes leadership skills and can boost a person's confidence.
  • Some self-care activities you won't be able to practice during sessions. For example, it may be difficult to get the group to exercise together during session. However, these self-care activities are equally important and should be encouraged. In these instances, have the group member talk about their self-care activity with participants. Then, challenge the members to try the activity on their own and have them share their experiences the following week.
  • You can set an example for the group by leading the first self-care activity. For example, you can introduce the group to breathing techniques.
  • Have everyone sit comfortably in a chair or on the floor. Then, have everyone breathe in to the count of four, hold their breath for the count of four, and then finally breathe out to the count of six. Repeat the process for as long as you would like.
  • Afterward, have everyone in the group talk about how they feel. What did they like or dislike? Do they notice any changes in their bodies or mood?

This group activity can give participants a self-care tool belt that they can turn to whenever they need it. The more self-care activities they learn about and try, the more options they will have whenever they feel stressed or simply want to unwind.

Group Activity #4: Let Go

Many people with a substance use disorder might find that they have hurt those that are close to them in one way or another due to their struggles with addiction. This can create additional baggage or pressure that can weigh a person down when they are going through recovery.

Everyone makes mistakes. And, everyone has also said or done something that might have upset someone in their life at one point or another. However, it's important to let go of the past in order to put your best foot forward in the future. This activity can help participants do just that.

How to Set Up the Activity

  • Pass out a piece of paper and a writing utensil to everyone in the group.
  • Ask the members to write a list of things they have done in the past that they regret or wish they could change. Give everyone about 15 minutes for this activity.
  • Once everyone is done writing, check in with the group. How do they feel? What was challenging about the activity?
  • Then, instruct them to rip up the paper.
  • Discuss how self-forgiveness and self-compassion are imperative in order to move forward in life. If members are willing, have them share aspects of their past that they want to move forward from. Talk about ways that would make that possible.
  • Ask participants to think of one way they can help forgive themselves for the past. Then, walk around the room with a trash bag to collect the paper pieces. Have them make a silent promise as they throw their paper away.

People can get caught up in past mistakes very easily. These worries might always be in the back of someone's mind and can contribute to negative thought patterns. Although this exercise won't cause group members to forgive themselves immediately, it can help them take one step forward in that direction.

Group Activity #5: Note To Self

People start to use substances, such as alcohol or other drugs, for a variety of different reasons. Oftentimes, it can offer a person a sense of escape from other stressors or pressures in their life. This is how it can eventually turn into a coping mechanism and become something that people rely on in order to make it through tough situations.

This activity will help group members reflect on why they began using substances. It can help them analyze their mental and emotional states at the time. And, it can allow them to offer a sense of support and understanding to their younger self.

  • Make sure everyone has a few pieces of paper and a writing utensil.
  • Ask participants to write a letter to their younger self. Provide prompts to guide their thoughts. What would they tell their younger self? What do they wish they had known when they were younger? What did they need at that time? What things did they wish they had looked out for?
  • Give participants about 20 minutes to complete the activity. If group members aren't finished with the activity when the time is up, give them more time during session or encourage them to finish the activity at home.
  • Check in with group members and see how they feel after the activity. Ask if there are any members that would like to share their letters with the group.
  • Have participants take the letters home. They can reflect on what they wrote at different points in time, add new elements to it, or write a new letter to repeat the exercise on their own time.

Negative self-talk can drastically impact a person's mental health and lower their self-esteem. It can be difficult for a person to talk to themselves the way they would talk to a friend, but this idea can be a bit easier when done through letter writing. It can help people show up for themselves, even though they find it difficult.

Whether you are a leader or a participant in an addiction support group, you'll find that group therapy activities create a unique environment that promotes insight, connection, and problem-solving skills. They give participants the opportunity to learn from peers, and to grow alongside one another.

Joining a support group can be a great step on a person's journey in recovering from substance use. Not only can it offer reassurance, but it can also provide the support that a person needs to maintain their sobriety and take further steps towards maintaining their well-being.

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Substance Abuse Group Therapy Activities