Support groups have been around for decades. They gained popularity in the 1970s as a mental health treatment and have broadened their scope to support people dealing with all kinds of issues or situations.
Support groups leverage the powerful phenomenon of community by bringing together people who are in a similar circumstance. This common ground has been proven to be a very potent bonding force among people, which leads to support through the sense of camaraderie and information sharing. This can ultimately help you find relief from chronic pain.
Types of Support Groups
It’s important to understand that support groups are typically led by a lay person who has volunteered to take on the role. This is not group therapy where a licensed therapist leads the discussion and offers treatment. Support groups come in all shapes and sizes, from very specific to more general. Most are dedicated to a single group of people, like chronic pain support groups or fibromyalgia support groups.
The two main types of support groups are in-person or online. In-person groups mean you would go to an actual meeting. These groups usually meet in churches, libraries, or other public spaces. Deep bonds can form between members through the personal connections they forge at the meetings. However, leaving the house can be difficult for some people, and the in-person contact can also be daunting.
Online options alleviate the need to leave the house and can improve access for people who don’t have transportation or are too ill to get out. Online groups also offer an additional layer of anonymity, which can make it easier for some people to engage in the group. Adding to their flexibility, online groups never have to worry about finding a meeting space. Forming personal connections are more challenging in this type of group, and the sense of camaraderie is often not as intense.
Benefits of Support Groups
Camaraderie: The sense of belonging can have a profound effect on managing a difficult condition, like chronic pain. When struggling through hard times, people feel alone and isolated. Support groups offer people the chance to connect with others in similar situations with powerful results.
Information: While support groups are not a substitute for medical treatment, group members often share tips and information they have learned through their journey. These insights from someone who is walking the same road as you can be invaluable. A simple comment can resonate with you and give you an idea of how to improve your situation.
Perspective: During a trying circumstance, it’s often hard to keep the proper perspective on your situation. It’s so easy to sink into negative thoughts. When you attend a support group, you’ll hear other people’s stories, and it will help you remember you’re not the only one struggling. Sometimes, it shows you how much worse it can be. A little dose of perspective goes a long way in motivating you to put a positive spin on your situation.
Downside of Support Groups
Overcoming social anxiety: Support groups work best when the members are active and engaged, including you. They are inherently social, which is one of their strengths, but can also lead to a roadblock for people who are not comfortable in group settings.
The people part of the equation: Sometimes in the group, there is that one person who either has to be the center of attention, always has it worse than the next guy, or maybe just rubs you the wrong way. One person like this can ruin the whole support group experience for you. If the person’s behavior is out of line, speak to the leader about addressing it. In some cases, you might be better off seeking a different group.
Unsolicited or Inaccurate Advice: Remember, support groups are not a substitute for medical advice, though some participants are quick to offer their “expert” opinions. You must evaluate any information from support group members with your own research and a discussion with your medical provider.
Components of a Strong Support Group
There are some critical components to a successful support group. If the group meets these criteria, it is likely a strong group that will benefit you.
Good leadership: A confident, well-informed leader is a must for a successful support group. The leader should be able to manage the group without condescension or confrontation. They should be upbeat and positive. If the leader of the group doesn’t put you at ease or doesn’t take the role seriously, the group will not function correctly. It’s important to remember this person isn’t typically a trained professional. Give them some grace when managing a group. It might be a little outside of their comfort zone!
Supportive atmosphere: This might seem obvious, but there are times that first impressions don’t hold true. Don’t be afraid to leave a group if the atmosphere slips into a gripe session or develops a negative air. Remember, the group is there to uplift you and leave you feeling better than when you started. If that isn’t happening, try a different group.
Confidentiality: What is said in the group should stay in the group. A lot of support groups have a code of conduct that members must uphold. It should include a confidentiality statement. If you can’t be sure that what you share will be held in confidence, you won’t be willing to participate fully, and the whole point of the support group is defeated. When considering a group, be sure to ask about their expectations for confidentiality.
Steer clear of groups that:
Promise a cure: You should speak about the medical management of your condition with a trained medical professional. Support groups are not meant to ‘fix’ your condition. They are there to aid you as you live with it.
Trying to sell a product: Support groups shouldn’t require you to buy a product or pay an exorbitant membership fee. Most groups rely on donations to cover their nominal overhead costs. Any group asking for money upfront or pushes a product at you has an agenda that isn’t necessarily the best interest of its members.
Request for personal information: One of the key points of support groups is anonymity. People feel more at ease discussing personal struggles if they don’t have to worry about it following them after they leave the meeting. Most groups operate on a first name only basis and discourage the sharing of any kind of identifying information. This goes double for online groups.
An internet search for support groups in your area is an obvious place to start. You can also ask your doctor if they have any suggestions. Don’t feel like you need to bare your soul at your first meeting. It’s ok to simply listen and leave. You should also try a few different groups to see which one fits your personality and situation the best.
Support groups can be a powerful tool in your pain management toolkit. The Pathways app (download links below) also offers loads of support and information on how to get the upper hand on your chronic pain. Chronic pain doesn’t have to be endured alone! Tap into the power of community and see if a support group is the right thing for you.
Please note: This article is made available for educational purposes only, not to provide personal medical advice.