In Support Groups, You Get (and Give) Help

What if you were diagnosed with cancer? What if your spouse died and you suddenly found yourself a single parent? What if you were living with an alcoholic and didn't know how to cope? Any of these situations—and a host of others—would leave you feeling alone and in need of an ally.

You could find help in a mutual support group. Sure, you've got family and friends, but do they really understand what you're up against? Your doctor, social worker, or counselor may be there for you, but you may need more.

In a mutual support group, people just like you face similar ordeals and challenges. You come together to express common concerns and issues. You provide and receive emotional support and share information. It all happens in a caring, open, and accepting environment.

Wide variety

You can find thousands of mutual support groups (versus professional ones, led by doctors, psychologists, and sociologists). They range from online chat rooms for people with depression to church-basement Alcoholics Anonymous groups. There are basically three types of support groups:

  • Emotional growth and wellness: to improve overall health and well-being (losing weight or looking for work, for instance)

  • Situational crises: to help you through a temporary, difficult period (divorce or a parent's death)

  • Chronic illness/conditions: to cope with a long-term physical, mental, emotional, or social issue, whether it's your own or that of someone close to you (cancer, autism, addiction, shyness)

"When you're faced with a tough situation, there's comfort knowing that everyone there is similar to you," says Greg Meissen, Ph.D., spokesperson for the Self-Help Network in Wichita. That similarity could be based on age, gender, economic status, or even the stage of a particular cancer or the number of months divorced.

The meeting may last an hour or two, follow an agenda, or remain spontaneous. Some groups meet for a limited time, others indefinitely. They could require attendance and commitment or let you show up whenever you like. Most are free, or charge a minimal fee to pay for meeting space.

A friendly ear

"People genuinely listen. They don't jump in with advice. There's a great deal of support and empathy, with words like, 'That is just how I felt. The same thing happened to me,'" says Dr. Meissen. "And you won't be forced to speak. You can sit back and soak it all in."

But what if you're not comfortable there? "Support groups aren't for everyone," he adds. "Or maybe it's a matter of timing. It could be too soon to hear about another mother who lost her child, for example."

At least you'd know you're not alone. "Just being in a mutual support group assures you of that," says psychologist Leslie Borck Jameson, Ph.D., a member of the American Psychological Association. "And even if you only listen, you'll pick up coping tips and nuts-and-bolts information coming from such a variety of life experiences and knowledge, all in one room."

As you become more at ease with the group, you'll want to share your story—"at the level you're comfortable with," Dr. Meissen stresses. When you're ready, you'll more freely express your feelings and thoughts.

Giving back

At any point along the way, you'll give back by offering information, support, and friendship. "This only improves your own coping skills, because you realize, within yourself, how much knowledge and strength you've already got," Dr. Jameson says. "Many studies now show that giving help to others can enhance your self-esteem more than receiving help."

Along with greater self-confidence, active participation in a mutual support group decreases your emotional distress and elevates your mood. When you feel a part of a community with the people in the group and have made friends with some of them, "you feel more positive and hopeful," says Dr. Jameson.

Although some people attend their support group for years, you'll know when it's time to move on. "It's when you don't need it anymore," says Dr. Meissen. "And that's healthy."

But your support group experience never leaves you, he adds. "You're changed, in subtle ways—as you take those powerful lessons you've learned into the rest of your life."

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