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What role can support groups play in the treatment of anxiety disorders? What kinds of support groups are there?

If most anxiety disorders have something in common, it is “a sense of uncontrollability focused on possible future threat, danger or other anticipated, potentially negative events”. If you combine this with real-life anxiety-provoking situations, the results can be debilitating. Your social skills, routine, and relationships with friends and family can all be affected, not to mention that anxiety disorders can interfere with activities that involve talking and relating to others such as work or school.

Sociability and anxiety

From the principle that humans are primarily designed to do everything as a group, it's only natural that in order for an individual to perform as a functional part of society, they need to be comfortable speaking, learning, playing and living with others, but these simple social skills can be a big challenge for anxious patients.

Social anxiety disorder (SAD) is the most common of anxiety disorders, and it rarely occurs as a sole diagnosis. Over 90 percent of people with SAD also have another mental disorder, most often Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD), depression, or substance abuse.

Social anxiety disorder is often mistaken for shyness, when its main characteristic is actually a permanent fear of being evaluated and judged by everyone, all the time. This means that getting help seems almost impossible, especially if that help involves interacting with others.

Group therapy for anxiety: does it work?

Support in any stressful situation is often seen not only as a privilege, but maybe even a necessity. When it comes to health-related problems, social support leads to better physical and mental health outcomes.

Mutual support groups, wether peer-to-peer or led by a therapist (like Cognitive Behavioral Group Therapy or CBGT), form themselves so affected patients can seek help from others who know what they are going through. Support groups have a clear purpose and structure that can be considered the most helpful to develop social interaction skills and an openness to intimacy, regardless of which anxiety disorder a person suffers from.

Advantages of support groups for people with anxiety disorders include:

  • Sharing. Knowing you're not the only one facing a debilitating mental illness is priceless. Support group members eventually recognize themselves and their struggles in the similarities of the other members' symptoms and stories.
  • Building confidence. Exposing yourself in a brand new environment is a very difficult task if you have anxiety, but the opportunity that you're given in group therapy — to trust and be validated by others who share some of your complex life situations — can make you feel accepted and understood.
  • Working on social skills. Support groups are based on the interaction between members who share the same difficulties when it comes to engaging in interpersonal relationships. Since these groups are structured as a social sphere, the ability to help others, offer and receive feedback, develop conflict resolution and empathic skills, are major therapeutic milestones that will eventually help control members; social phobias.

Virtual support groups for anxiety disorders: a new era

For a socially anxious person, the idea of attending an unknown face-to-face environment can be highly intimidating, not to mention the stress that comes with imagining in advance the possibility of running into someone they know. With the rise of the internet and online communities, there's not only an enormous source of information about mental health but also the possibility to share similar experiences and integrate a common self-help modality, without the anticipatory stress.

Among these internet-based group therapy possibilities there are several options to choose from: open forums and those that require registry and approval from the group “leader”, those in which you're offered guidance by a health professionals' association or independent therapists, or more flexible groups where the participants speak their minds freely and share with other patients when they have the necessity or availability.

Nowadays, it's becoming more and more common to access to free online support groups, which are now maybe even more popular than traditional support groups.

Why anxious patients should join a support group

If we compare the current high frequency of anxiety disorders as a mental health issue with how many patients actually use support groups as a therapeutic tool, the numbers are surprisingly low. And given the effectiveness of group therapy in social impairment, demystifying the contrary beliefs attached to it is one of the first steps towards increasing peer groups as a primary form of psychotherapy, instead of just considering it an auxiliary second choice.

Patients should know:

  • That there's a wide range of options when it comes to choosing a group that fits their needs — virtual versus face-to-face, with professional guidance versus independent, one for each specific type of anxiety disorder, and more.
  • There's no obligation to share if they don't want to get involved in the first few sessions, and that by joining a patient gains a stable support chain that is vital in long-term treatment.  

  • Photo courtesy of SteadyHealth

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