While listening to clients over the years report their experiences with support groups for depression or anxiety I have made a decision that in many cases they are not as helpful as one might think. I am specifically talking about groups for these two difficulties and am not including those groups created for grief and loss support, chronic mental illness or physical illness, although some of the same negative features can apply.
In my teachings with clients who are looking for help with depression or anxiety I ask that they not focus on their current difficulty with one or both of these problems. Instead we start to focus on other things to take up brain space and provide something constructive, enlightening and motivating to look forward to and also activities around these better thoughts in which to participate. Every thought that we have brings with it a physiological response, if we are having depressed or anxious thoughts we are going to experience the physical counterpart. With depression this is going to be a lack of energy and feelings of fatigue, sleep difficulty and appetite changes to mention a few. With anxiety there is often the accompaniment of racing heart, hot and cold flashes, feelings of panic and also difficulty sleeping. The more of these thoughts we have the more of these feelings we bring about. Then we focus on these feelings and that brings about more of the same thoughts. It is a vicious cycle and not one that lends itself to feeling better.
So not only should we try to avoid having our own depressed and anxious thoughts, I believe that in an attempt to feel better we cannot focus on other’s depressed and anxious thoughts either. Not only then are we talking about and validating our own problems, we are taking in and validating others, and they are doing the same for us! Group support is a well meaning and popular activity for those suffering, but I believe there comes a point where it actually hinders treatment as opposed to enhancing it.
Group members often form close relationships, which although seems positive can also be detrimental to one or more of the parties involved. Not only then are they spending one or so hours a week in group, but talk to each other on the phone and socialize for many more, further embedding the depression talk and anxious/fear based thoughts in each other’s minds. We tend to like those with whom we have something in common and we believe and listen to each other’s thoughts on various topics. When taken in perspective of time spent, this is a lot of time focused on depression or anxiety or both and that is time taken away from focusing on the more constructive thoughts of how to take up time and use it to our best advantage to feel the best we can. As humans we like to feel good and being chronically wrapped up in problems of our own and other people’s can be draining.
The biggest benefit that client’s report from attending a support group is an improvement in mood for a period due to enjoying the social aspect of being with others. This is a normal need, social contact alleviates depression and loneliness and those with broad social circles and support exhibit less depression over their life spans. So why am I saying stay away from groups? Because I believe you can get the same enhanced social life mixing with people who are not necessarily depressed and who share your same hobbies or interests. You are then gaining the benefit of engaging in your interests, which is uplifting, and also spending time with others who enjoy the same things and talk about those things as opposed to how terrible or frightened they feel.
Another downside of group support is that it often attracts those with an invested interest in not getting well. They have an audience, they have support and this is rewarding enough, there is no real intent to move beyond their current difficulties. These individuals are often life suckers who love to see new people joining group as they burn through everyone with crisis after crisis and members feel obligated to respond and support one another. Again, that focus is off base if your goal is to feel better.
In practice I have stopped recommending group support to my clients although it is a common practice in the mental health world. I instead recommend finding a group that is engaging in something you like. Use your valuable time to do something fun or interesting, even if you feel like you couldn’t possibly drag yourself to an activity. This is a trick that depression and anxiety play, they often keep you from feeling like doing the very things you need to do to get well. Depression may zap your energy and anxiety may make you fear the act of engaging or going out at all. You have to trick them back by taking control of your life and not allowing them to stop you from having a full and rewarding life of your own design. Focus on what you want, not what you don’t want. If you don’t want to be depressed, don’t focus on depression.