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Gary GillesGary Gilles, LCPC
Empowering and practical insights to grow your most important relationships

Kindred Hearts Unite in Support Groups

Gary Gilles, LCPC Updated: Nov 7th 2014

Life presents many challenges, some of which seem more than we can handle. These challenges may require us to cope with the diagnosis of a chronic or debilitating illness. Or it might involve breaking old habits or addictions, dealing with the past, or recovering from the loss of a relationship. Regardless of the situation, no crisis is easy. But research has repeatedly shown that those who have a good social support system cope, change and recover far more effectively than those who go it alone. And in a mobile era where family and friends are often separated by many miles, support groups have come to be a lifeline for many people.

support group sessionWhat is a support group?

A support group is typically composed of people who are struggling with a particular life situation and seek the company of those who walk a similar path. Each person who attends a group has different needs. These needs range from gathering community resources to a search for hope amid their despair. Among the many benefits of support groups, perhaps the greatest is being with people who experientially understand your situation and can offer emotional encouragement.

Support groups offer participants:

  • A chance to share feelings, struggles and successes in a safe environment with people who understand the issue at hand
  • New insight into their situation as they listen to others' stories
  • Opportunities to build new friendships with a common interest
  • Social contact with others that helps bring perspective and fights against feelings of isolation
  • Exposure to new ideas and resources that can be used to improve their situation
  • Renewed hope in facing lifestyle changes

What kind of support groups are there?

Over the past couple of decades thousands of support groups have sprung up throughout the U.S. for almost any health or lifestyle situation you can imagine. Most groups organize around a particular condition such as Alzheimer's, diabetes, stroke, or a theme such as divorce recovery, weight loss or grief, to name just a few. But it doesn't stop there. Within these support groups centered around themes or conditions you can also find more specialized groups such as teens with diabetes, spousal caregivers for Alzheimer's, grief recovery for children who lost a parent through death, and a host of others.

Some of these groups focus on helping people change behaviors like breaking free from various addictions. Other groups emphasize coping skills and emotional support such as you might find for cancer survivors. And some groups revolve more around the social aspect of meeting and talking about the issues and are loosely structured. Groups that focus on change are more likely to be led by professionals or trained lay leaders, while coping skills and social support groups tend to be led by volunteer lay leaders.

Groups vary on the frequency that they meet. Some addiction groups that are emphasizing abstinence, like Alcoholics Anonymous and others, may meet one or more times a week, while other support groups might only meet once a month. Most groups cost nothing to attend and there is no formal membership or commitment required.

How long a person remains in a support group depends on the person and the problem. There are no set rules for how long you need to attend. Many people who have benefited from a group go on to help others within the group, maybe even becoming facilitators themselves. And that is the spirit behind most support groups: as you are encouraged and helped, you in turn attempt to give back to new members who need the same.

Finding a Good Support Group

A good place to begin looking for a support group is through your local hospital or medical center. Many offer on-site groups that are led by a professionally trained facilitator. If you are looking for a condition specific group contact the local or national association office for suggestions of support groups in your area. Other good sources include healthcare professionals, hospital social workers, clergy, or mental health counselors.

When looking for a support group, don't just commit to one because it is close to home. Visit several until you find one that is healthy, feels a good match for your personality and your particular needs.

Here are some guidelines to look for:

  • It should be stated often that what is said in the group is confidential and should not be disclosed to those outside the group. Without this assurance, many people will not feel safe being honest.
  • Discussion should be respectful of members by not interrupting when they are talking.
  • Sensitive groups listen well and don't offer counseling or unsolicited advice.
  • Every member should have the opportunity to speak, but members should not feel obligated to talk or share if they prefer not to.
  • Group members encourage honest sharing of personal experiences and feelings in a non-judgmental atmosphere.
  • There should be an environment of positive reinforcement and hopefulness.
  • The better support groups have an experienced, stable facilitator who can steer the session and ensure that the meeting is not dominated by a few individuals.
  • The meetings have a defined format that is adhered to.
  • A participant may leave at anytime if she or he needs to.
  • Attendance at meetings is optional.
Gary Gilles, LCPC

Gary Gilles is a Licensed Clinical Professional Counselor (LCPC) in private practice for over 20 years. He is passionate about helping people live empowered, healthy lives. He works from the idea that we feel most contented and in control of our lives when we take action on what we value most. This typically involves choices around relationships and personal habits. He uses his expertise as a change agent in his counseling practice, his blog and his books to help people get their lives back on track. Gary's hundreds of published articles have appeared in a wide range of print and online publications. He currently publishes a popular blog entitled Relationship Matters at http://garygilles.com. His books are available at http://www.lifetransformingbooks.com. You can contact Gary at: gary@garygilles.com.

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