Irvin Yalom Group Psychotherapy: Theory, Practice, And Benefits

Medically reviewed by Laura Angers Maddox, NCC, LPC
Updated April 30, 2024by BetterHelp Editorial Team
Content warning: Please be advised, the below article might mention trauma-related topics that could be triggering to the reader. Please see our Get Help Now page for more immediate resources.

Group therapy is a therapeutic method with many benefits for mental health. In particular, professor emeritus of psychiatry at Stanford University and author, Irvin Yalom, wrote what is widely considered to be the definitive, comprehensive text on group therapy, The Theory and Practice of Group Psychotherapy.

The book was originally published in 1970, but has been completely revised to integrate the most recent developments in new research and be up to date with today’s group therapy practices.

In the modern era, broad clinical wisdom holds that group based therapy is integral to many therapeutic processes. The American Journal of Psychotherapy has found therapy in a group setting as defined by Yalom to be beneficial for a variety of mental health conditions, including “depression and bipolar disorders, schizophrenia, anxiety disorders, social anxiety disorder, panic disorders, obsessive-compulsive disorder, posttraumatic stress disorder, eating disorders, borderline personality disorder, substance use disorders, and chronic pain.” Many groups have benefited from attending sessions with a therapist, which have helped them improve their interpersonal skills.

Irvin Yalom's group psychotherapy is a form of social therapy that allows you to interact with other groups who may relate to what you are going through. Over the past decade, group work with mental health therapists has continued to increase in popularity. 

The benefits of Yalom-inspired group therapy 

There are groups for many areas of mental health. For example, some people may attend group sessions to cope with anxiety or depression symptoms. Groups led by a therapist may also be designed to help those who have lived through similar traumatic events or those struggling with substance use. 

Irvin Yalom's founding principles outline what works in the group process, no matter the focus. Yalom completed additional research into existential psychotherapy, published nearly a decade after The Theory and Practice of Group Psychotherapy, enhances the process through the use of “existential factors,” which help clients learn that they are responsible for their own healing process. The latest edition from Yalom features clinical vignettes drawn from Yalom’s experience as a therapeutic teacher, professor, and clinician.

people can benefit from meeting together

Learn about Irvin Yalom and group therapy

Learning through group sessions

Many people learn through hearing the stories of others. Often, it may not feel easy to see where one's thinking is misguided, but it may be easier to learn alongside others, a process known as interpersonal learning. 

Being able to relate to others may help you recognize certain aspects of your own behaviors that you'd like to keep or change. You may realize where you could improve your behaviors by hearing someone's story. Groups may allow you to learn by interacting with others and their experiences. You may also feel free to speak openly about your problems and struggles. 

In addition to learning from others, you may find that you can help others by imparting information about your own life and experiences. It often brings together people who experience similar concerns and are working toward the same goals. If you have advice, your group leader may encourage you to tell others. 

This kind of group-wide learning is described by Yalom as “corrective recapitulation,” in which the group dynamic offers healing and validation. 

Gaining a new perspective

Another potential benefit of group sessions is that you may gain a new perspective on your situation. Although groups might experience similar challenges, people often bring different experiences and approaches to the situation.

They may have suggestions, comments, or ideas you could have never thought of. It can be helpful to think about your challenges from a different angle. Yalom called this part of group therapy “imitative behavior” and noted that it can result in positive shifts in both behavior and thinking patterns. 

Seeing you aren't alone

Recognizing that you are not alone in what you are experiencing can make a difference in your life. Studies show that social support can improve various areas of health, including physical health. Mental health conditions can make people feel as if they are isolated. If you feel alone, group therapy may help you connect with others who feel similarly. 

In addition to meeting people with similar concerns, you may meet people at different stages in their mental health journey. Seeing people progressing positively with depression or other concerns might be a source of hope for you. 

support in numbers for challenges you might be facing

Help with social skills

At times, people struggle with social anxiety or loneliness. If you live with one of these conditions, social situations and interpersonal relationships may feel challenging. Some people have severe social problems that can make the prospect of interacting with others feel awkward. However, research has shown that cognitive-behavioral group therapy can help improve social anxiety disorder (SAD).

The group sessions may provide a safe place to learn to interact with others again. You may develop better social skills, which can translate into real-world settings.

Confidence through group sessions

Once socializing with a group starts to feel natural, you may find that you can start improving your social behaviors when you are out in public too. You may feel more confident speaking with others, which could prove helpful in numerous areas of life, from personal interactions to communication at work.

People who experience social anxiety may benefit from attending a controlled group session led by a therapist. Even if you only participate in a small group session with three or four people, you may benefit from the group cohesiveness and dynamics and come away with renewed confidence.

Release of stress

In addition to helping build confidence and social skills, group therapy can provide a place for people to vent about their stress. As noted by Irvin Yalom, one of the mechanisms of change is catharsis. Letting go of stress can be an essential part of the healing process, and participating in group sessions led by a therapist may also allow you to support others in releasing their concerns.

For this reason, many people look forward to group sessions led by a therapist. In addition to releasing stress, you may find that group therapy is a place where you can begin to let go of guilt, pain, sorrow, and other challenging emotions. 

help is never far away when you are online

Learn about Irvin Yalom and group therapy

Other counseling options 

If you are nervous about the prospect of group therapy, you may prefer to try another option. For those struggling with social anxiety or who do not have admittance to group or individual therapies in their area, online therapy is a potential method to try. 

With online therapy, you can schedule individual sessions with a therapist from your own home. You may find it a safe or comfortable way to reach out for support without going to the office of someone you don't know. Additionally, studies show that online therapy is effective in treating mental health conditions. 

If you're ready to try online therapy, platforms such as BetterHelp may allow you to choose from a growing database of counselors who specialize in a variety of topics. If you're interested in learning about group resources, ask your online therapist to help you find support groups in your area. 

Takeaway

Yalom's influential brief group therapy research has paved the way for many support groups today. This up to date approach, featuring new clinical vignettes and clinical observations, has become a staple in mental health care. Both group therapy, where group members learn from other group members, and individual therapy can have multiple benefits for your mental health. Many people choose to attend both at the same time, retaining valid research and Yalom's own broad clinical wisdom from his influential psychiatry publications. Regardless of your decision, you don't have to face your challenges and concerns alone. Consider reaching out to a counselor to learn more.

Explore mental health and healing in therapy
The information on this page is not intended to be a substitution for diagnosis, treatment, or informed professional advice. You should not take any action or avoid taking any action without consulting with a qualified mental health professional. For more information, please read our terms of use.
Get the support you need from one of our therapistsGet started