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Group therapy helps people deal with social anxiety disorder

People who struggle with work and social situations because of anxiety could benefit from group therapy, according to a new study.
By Grant Stuart

BMJ Group News

What do we know already?

female therapist consulting female patient

For people with a condition called social anxiety disorder, anxiety means more than just being a bit shy. Between 6 and 12 in 100 people suffer from social anxiety to the point that it can stop them from living a normal life. For example, some young people do worse at school because being with so many people makes them feel anxious. Other people are so afraid they will ‘perform’ badly in social situations - for example, that they will say the wrong thing, or be boring - that they avoid them altogether. Anxiety can have serious negative effects on people’s personal and work lives.

Previous studies have shown that a type of talking treatment called cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) can help people deal with this type of anxiety. With this treatment, people learn with a therapist how to deal with situations that frighten them. Now researchers have looked at whether group therapy, where therapists work with groups of people who suffer from social anxiety, might help. In theory, group therapy could have several advantages over one-to-one therapy.

  • In group therapy it’s easy to simulate, or ‘role-play’ social situations, so that people can practise the ideas they discuss with their therapists.
  • People who suffer from social anxiety can encourage and support each other.
  • In group therapy, social situations can occur naturally, so that people can relax and share their fears, experiences, and ideas.

The researchers pooled the results of 11 studies of cognitive behavioural group therapy (CBGT), which altogether included 654 people. In the studies, people had either CBGT or no treatment. People who had CBGT had between 6 and 16 sessions of therapy with two therapists in groups of at least four people. The therapy sessions lasted between two and two-and-a-half hours. At the end of the studies, people rated their anxiety symptoms to see whether they had improved.

What does the new study say?

In general, people who had CBGT had improved anxiety symptoms at the end of the studies compared with people who had no treatment. The researchers described the improvement in symptoms as “moderate but significant”.

How reliable is the research?

Large reviews like this that pool the results of many smaller studies can offer a useful overview of how well treatments work. But they are only as good as the studies that they pool. In this case the researchers pointed out that not all of the studies they looked at were of a high quality. So we can’t be absolutely sure about these results.

This review also didn’t look at how group therapy compared with one-to-one therapy. So we don’t know from this review which type of treatment might help people the most.

What does this mean for me?

This study suggests that group therapy can be an effective treatment for social anxiety. And, even if it is no more effective than one-to-one therapy, group therapy gives people an option other than one-to-one treatment.

If you have social anxiety disorder, or if you think you might, you don’t have to suffer needlessly. You can talk to your doctor in confidence and find out what treatments may be available.

Published on December 06, 2013

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