What is a Support Group?
Support groups are groups of people who share a common condition or difficulty, such as medical conditions, grief, or substance abuse. Members of such a group share their personal journey, comfort, support and advice based on their own experiences. These groups are often run by nonprofit organizations, hospitals, clinics or other established organizations. Support groups are different from therapy groups in that they are not necessarily run by a licensed mental health professional. They are often member run and organized, but some do invite a mental health professional to facilitate the group or to consult about how to make it most helpful.
Support groups do not focus on “group process” and therefore are not meant to uncover or treat the psychological or pathological dynamics of the members. They are simply an opportunity to meat with an understanding group of people who have had similar experiences.
When Should I Consider a Support Group?
These groups are especially helpful in the first few months of an illness or disability, as the reality of the situation begins to set in. This is when people tend to feel alone, overwhelmed, and may not know where to turn for information. Such groups can also be very important to people with long lasting or chronic illness, because the ongoing difficulties can otherwise wear on a person’s emotions, motivation and relationships.
What Are Some Benefits of Participating in a Support Groups?
Support groups offer a variety of benefits, from the emotional to the practical. Some benefits include:
Emotional connection and support: Sharing your honest feelings with a group of people with similar concerns can help you to feel more emotionally connected and less alone, especially if you’re feeling isolated from friends and family. A safe and welcoming environment, filled with compassion, reassurance and understanding, can also reduce any stigma you may feel over your condition. Support group members often realize how their experiences in the group have created a special bond and identity between group members. By sharing feelings, accomplishments, losses, and humor, members can develop strong emotional ties to one another. Participants sometimes form friendships that can continue beyond the support group.
Understanding and shared experiences: It helps to know you’re not alone and to talk to others who have been through similar experiences. Hearing others’ stories can be very validating and can help you to see that your reactions, struggles or feelings are not “crazy.” A support group can offer acceptance, and can appreciate you for who you are. It is often a relief and reassuring to find others with the same illness and understand what you are going through.
Exchange of useful information: A group can provide and share information about the issue that the group focuses on, whether it is community resources, medical information, treatment developments, or related community events. People involved often say this exchange of information is one of the most valuable elements of participating in a support group.
Coping skills: Group members share ideas for coping. Support groups offer the chance to draw on collective experiences. Others who have “been there” may have tips or advice about coping with your condition that hasn’t occurred to you. Brainstorming with others may inspire even more ideas. For instance, swapping information about medications can help you see how others handle side effects. By learning how others have coped with similar problems, and witnessing the coping styles of others, members can improve their own problem-solving abilities. Furthermore, groups can offer members realistic feedback as they consider or try out new coping strategies.
Emotional release: Support groups offer people the opportunity to appropriately release powerful emotions you may otherwise keep to yourself. It is an opportunity for you to share your feelings, fears, and concerns. Members who already have a highly supportive network of family and friends can find that a group provides a place to continue to share feelings without overburdening their loved ones. A safe, non-judgmental environment enables participants to acknowledge and verbalize their feelings.
Emotional and psychological boost: Support groups can improve your mood and decrease anxiety and stress. Sharing experiences and making connections can make you feel better about life in general. Seeing others making progress in coping with their illness may give you hope and optimism about your own future. Also, your self-esteem will increase as you improve your coping abilities and as you get a sense of perspective that comes from facing difficult life challenges. Facing your challenges together as a group can make it easier to achieve personal growth through your struggles.
Motivation: An environment of positive reinforcement, emotional support and hopefulness can encourage you to take good care of yourself. Meeting with a group of understanding individuals on a regular basis can help you to feel motivated to follow through on goals. With encouragement from a support group, you may find it easier to take a more active role in your treatment, to seek out more information, or to follow through on your doctor’s recommendations.
Contributing: A support group is also a place to contribute, so that you might reach out to help others, and in so doing you might lift yourself up as well. Contributing is a good way to increase your sense of meaning and purpose in life, and to make use of all that you have learned on your journey through a difficult experience. At support groups you can hear about opportunities to participate in events that educate the larger community about your condition, or that support research efforts.
You may be nervous about sharing personal issues with people you don’t know. So at first, you may benefit from a support group simply by listening. Over time, though, contributing your own ideas and experiences can help you get more out of a support group.