Whether you’re dealing with a chronic illness, emotional problem, life transition, or want to enhance your health and well-being, your community may have a group where you can come together with people in the same situation. But maybe you’re feeling a little unsure or skeptical about participating in a support group. What can you expect? How can a support group help you?
What Is a Support Group?
In earlier times, barn raisings, square dances, quilting bees, and other community gatherings were places where people came together to celebrate, nurture, encourage, and console one another. Today, most of us need that same nurturing, encouragement, intimacy and consolation, particularly during difficult times. But face-to-face interactions within the community are becoming more and more scarce. If we’re lucky, we get support from family and friends, but sometimes they can’t quite understand what it’s like to be in our situation. A support or self-help group comprising people in the same situation may help fill the void.
Support and self-help groups involve regular meetings where people experiencing similar problems or life transitions come together to offer each other support and encouragement.
What Kinds of Groups Are Available?
Support and self-help groups tend to address one of the following issues:
- Chronic illnesses/conditions—such as cancer, diabetes, traumatic stress disorder, alcoholism, and depression
- Situational crises—such as divorce, unemployment, single parenting, and family with special needs
- Personal growth and wellness—such as weight loss, smoking cessation, exercise, men’s and women’s groups
- Family support—which includes groups that help family members cope with a loved one’s illness or condition
What Do You Get From a Support Group?
Although support and self-help groups can vary greatly, all groups share one thing in common—they are places where people can share personal stories, express emotions, and be heard in an atmosphere of acceptance, understanding, and encouragement. Participants share information and resources. By helping others, people in a support group strengthen and empower themselves. In addition to providing support, some groups may also focus on community education or advocacy.
Are There Quality of Life Benefits?
Despite the inconclusive evidence, participating in a support group has many benefits that may ultimately have a positive impact on health. According to Donald Rosenstein, MD, chief of psychiatry consultation service at the National Institutes of Health Clinical Center, there is a lot of evidence that support groups help reduce anxiety, depression, and feelings of isolation.
The emotional support derived from support group participation can help reduce stress, which can have a positive impact on health. Further, people may greatly benefit from the information sharing that takes place in a support group. They may learn how to manage symptoms, develop better coping skills, and communicate more effectively with their doctors. By attending support groups, partners, friends, and family members may also learn how to be more understanding and supportive of their chronically ill loved ones. In time, all these benefits may help reduce stress and enhance recovery.
Does Everyone Benefit?
Participating in a support group does not guarantee feeling better and living longer. Support groups vary enormously. They can be helpful for people who feel comfortable in a group, but they aren’t the answer for everybody.
How Do You Find a Group?
Most communities, large and small, have support and self-help groups of various kinds. You can often find out about groups in the community pages of your phone book, websites or local newspapers. You can also ask your healthcare provider or therapist for information about support groups.