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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)

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

Newcomers to support groups often feel out of place in the initial meetings. However, these meetings are a great place to just sit and listen. Participation is voluntary and just being able to hear how someone is managing a situation like your own is very helpful. Most groups focus on sharing their experiences in order that others may gain some knowledge into the problem that brought them to the group. These groups are not about giving advice, but rather they are about sharing the strength and hope that are needed in tough situations.

As you become more at ease with the group, you may want to share your story. Groups are generally set up to allow everyone a chance to speak within the time frame of the group.

Giving back

At any point along the way, you'll give back by offering information, support, and friendship. While sharing their experiences, and how they have coped with them, members begin to realize that they are capable of coping with difficulties. This helps their own personal level of confidence, and develops the hope that things can get better. Most people are capable of helping themselves. However, in the middle of a crisis, or a prolonged situation, it can become overwhelming. Group support offers feedback to help an individual realize that they have access to the skills to help themselves.

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 have a more positive outlook.

Although some people attend their support group for years, you'll know when it's time to move on. Time-limited groups often have a session around closure, while ongoing groups may have a special process for those who are ready to leave. Other groups have an open door policy, meaning that they are there for whenever a person wants to participate. Whatever group you choose, the information, support, and confidence that you receive will stay with you for a long time. The benefits of helping, and being helped, lay a foundation for confidence in working through life's challenges.