ARC Blog

Anxiety Groups: Getting the Support You Need

Have you been thinking about joining an anxiety group but aren’t sure what it is or what to expect? Perhaps you’re already in a group and are reading this to understand better why the ARC is dedicated to keeping groups running weekly all year long.

My aim is to give you knowledge about our support groups through the perspective of a facilitator. I’m hoping to share what I have gleaned over the years, having been a part of so many people’s journeys as they try to navigate life while struggling with anxiety.

I joined the ARC in 2014 as I was searching for programs in our community that would benefit my clients since I had just started a private practice. I remember sitting in as a guest with curiosity and a bit of trepidation as anything new is a cause for anxiety to “visit me.” In fact, anxiety was not something new to me. I had a point in my life where it was seriously interfering with my level of functioning and satisfaction with life, and I sought counseling to help me through some difficult years. What I didn’t have back then, however, was a place I could go and share my experiences, feelings, and frustrations while trying to manage and have a healthier relationship with my anxiety. It became “a guiding force” rather than a threat. It reminded me to attend to what was perhaps making me feel out of control in various parts of my life.

Support groups vs. therapy groups

The group began as they always do, with an introduction about the ARC’s services (lending library, outings, future guest speakers, confidentiality, and purpose of our meeting. “You are in a support group, not a therapy group” is the highlighted message. The difference being a therapy group is designed to help you reach a specific goal that you have set for yourself and is then shared with the group members and the professional counselor (therapist, psychologist, psychiatrist, whoever is facilitating). Therapy, by definition, is “treatment intended to relieve or heal a disorder.” By treatment, we mean a process by which a therapist helps the client resolve problematic behaviors, beliefs, feelings that interfere with their overall functioning. Depending on the type of therapy used (Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, Dialectical Behavior Therapy, Solution Focused Therapy, to name a few), one would expect to get specific guidance on one’s specific issue. Let’s compare “therapy” to “support.” In terms of our support groups, we are there to provide comfort, encouragement, insight, and some psycho-education while helping one feel a sense of belonging and connecting with others. We often hear, “I come here because this is the place where I feel I’m not alone, they get me.” That is perhaps the most poignant reason for why the ARC provides these groups.

As I sat quietly listening to each individual speak about their latest struggles and successes dealing with their anxiety, I became more relaxed knowing that I was in a safe place where I wouldn’t be judged or worse, misunderstood. Truth be told, I was entering a space that, even though I had been free of debilitating anxiety for years, it still challenged me. There was a little voice inside my head that said, “But you remember those days,” and it sure hit me by surprise that I could quickly go right back to that frame of mind where anxiety wins. Listening and watching these courageous individuals share out loud their personal stories was refreshing and alluring.

Addressing anxiety head-on

When it was my turn to introduce myself, I knew I had to be honest. I was there professionally to observe an anxiety group. Still, I was also there to see how it felt to “be” in a group that was dedicated to addressing anxiety head-on. My first disclosure, as it is with all visiting guests (usually students earning credit or doing research for their psychology or nursing class), was to explain my reason for being there. I revealed my profession and intentions but then decided to share my personal journey with anxiety. I told the group about my first recollection of when I first noticed I was experiencing debilitating anxiety. For me, it started as a medical condition (which is often true for many) in that my benign heart condition led to occasional tachycardia (abnormally high rapid heartbeat); this one landing me in the hospital. When I returned to work, however, I was not the same. The thought that “It could happen again” terrified me and led me into a psychological downward spiral where suddenly many things were causing me anxiety. It was as if some “anxiety wire” had been tripped, and now the flood gates were open! I briefly shared my recovery process (therapy, medication, exposures, enlisting my supports) and then rattled off some stats that I hoped would be comforting.

Anxiety disorders lead the pack when it comes to treatable disorders. Not only is 18% of the U.S. population diagnosed with having anxiety, but only one-third of those individuals will receive treatment. There is still such a stigma with having a mental disorder, and sharing with others that you have anxiety sounds a bit, well, trivial (that is for someone who hasn’t had it in the clinical sense). Having anxiety is… “debilitating, frustrating, humiliating, isolating, confusing, mystifying.” These are just a few of the ways I’ve heard anxiety described. I’m sure you could come up with your own!

Photo by Dan Meyers on Unsplash

We all experience anxiety

It’s part of what keeps us on track and motivated to “do something.” If you have a big test or presentation coming up, anxiety will remind you to start preparing. If you sense there is a situation that could lead to distress (going to a party, having a meeting with your boss, confronting a friend, etc.), your radar is on alert, telling you something could go wrong. It usually revolves around the “What if’s,” causing one to be prepared for anything. Dr. David Carbonell, the author of The Worry Trick, calls anxiety, “The excessive need for self-preservation.” There is normalcy to this way of thinking. Let me briefly clarify when anxiety is not healthy and becomes a disorder. Anxiety is a state of apprehension, uneasiness, and tension. A disorder is a disturbance of normal functioning—it is something that can be corrected. When does anxiety become a disorder? When it is a chronic condition that can cause such distress that it interferes with a person’s ability to lead a normal life. An anxiety disorder is a serious mental illness. For people with anxiety disorders, worry and fear are constant and overwhelming and can be crippling.

I could offer hope

As I sat in that group, I looked around, not knowing who had an “official diagnosis,” but everyone there had expressed the classic signs of crippling anxiety. They were not functioning well, and their quality of life had decreased considerably. What I could offer at that moment when it was my turn to speak was hope. Not only do we know that anxiety is one of the most treatable disorders, but one can find relief rather quickly, just knowing that “You are not going crazy and these symptoms won’t kill you.” Unfortunately, not everyone has access to a quality therapist or a doctor who might prescribe psychiatric medication. Handling your anxiety on your own is not easy. Treatment requires psycho-education and a treatment plan based on your individual needs and the therapist’s chosen psychotherapy approach (as mentioned above). Though self-help books and articles on the internet can certainly provide a variety of useful information—and I do endorse becoming proactive in your recovery—I believe the key to successful long-term anxiety management requires enlisting some professional guidance. At the ARC, we have professional clinicians facilitate our groups for that very reason. We know it takes more than just a listening ear to help group members get the most from the support group experience.

My role as a therapist

We are there to help individuals reflect on their experiences and to help another chime in as they see relevant. We suggest phrases such as: “You seem to have handled that stressful situation well.” or “I can relate to what you’re saying because that is how I feel too.” “What’s worked for me is…” “Can you tell us more about that coping strategy you mentioned?”

What we try to stay away from is giving unsolicited advice unless you specifically ask the person speaking, “Would you like my opinion on that?” Often just reflecting back to the speaker is most helpful in that one gets to hear how someone else heard it. “So what I hear you saying is…Did I get that right?”

Remember, you are part of a group. The reason groups work is there is a conversation amongst each other. You don’t have to be an expert in anxiety disorders, you are an expert on YOU and have something to offer. Remember though, there is no obligation to speak. Some individuals are struggling just to stay seated, and simply staying “present” might be their sole goal this time around.

Setting goals

It can be beneficial to come to a group having thought of what you tried to accomplish that week as it relates to your anxiety. For example, if you suffer from social anxiety, you may have challenged yourself that week to engage in one social outing. Perhaps you were doing exposures (a form of therapy to help overcome phobias and OCD) and instead of succumbing to your compulsion to wash your hands 10 minutes before eating, you managed to cut back to five minutes. These small successes should be celebrated, and hearing others commit to and accomplish their goals is encouraging to everyone in the group. We also benefit from hearing why your goal was perhaps not achievable that week. The group can help you explore what barriers may have sabotaged your attempts.

Becoming a facilitator

A few months after that initial guest appearance, I was asked by the ARC if I would be one of their group facilitators. I accepted and can only say that it was the best decision I made. As a clinician, we are trained to learn a skillset. We have “textbook knowledge” and hundreds of hours of supervision while we advance our craft. But counseling is part art; it requires noticing the nuances, being creative in one’s responses and questions, conceptualizing ideas, and bringing awareness to our clients. There is no “script.” That is why I have benefited so from working with and hearing from individuals in our support groups. Here each individual is free to speak their truth and to share their experiences and realizations in a safe setting, often offering a wealth of knowledge and references that can be hidden gems of information for the other attendees.

As a new facilitator, I would take notes and listen to what was working for them. I’d research more on the strategies they were using, and I would write down impactful statements they’d made, some of which are quite poetic. After a couple of years, I compiled a list of “coping strategies” that were authored in part by each person who was willing to share. Together, the group is powerful beyond any one individual.

So if you are currently attending our support groups, we are glad you are part of this experience. If you are thinking of coming to a group, we look forward to having you. Our groups are “open,” meaning there is no commitment to the number of times you come or when you come. We benefit from having this fluidity and flexibility since new and old members are always in the mix. So come on down and see if we are a good fit for you. We encourage your support person to attend too. Being there for you is the reason for the ARC’s existence. Together we seek a path forward. Hope to see you soon!

Caroline Hall is a Licensed Professional Counselor practicing in Grand Rapids, Michigan. She facilitates support groups at the Anxiety Resource Center. You can learn more about Caroline and her work at her Psychology Today webpage.
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