Dr. Kimberly Riley
In life, we all have things that we struggle with one time or another, that causes us to feel alone. We often wonder if we are the only person who deals with whatever it is we are dealing with. Sometimes we really are suffering alone, but other times people are around us who could be helpful but we isolate ourselves.
In the lonely times, we think the most about various aspects of our life and how they will never change. Most people imagine what it would be like for them to have just one person stop and listen to their story and identify with them in a new way. Well, group counseling gives people the opportunity to see what that can be like.
A group counseling setting allows people to either share their stories freely or listen to the stories of others to gain healing. Groups are helpful for many different people and situations and coming together in a therapeutic setting has lots of lasting benefits.
Getting people together who are trying to understand and manage their anxiety is pretty amazing and unique because of the symptoms they may experience just thinking about the group and the courage it takes to come.
The word “anxiety” has many different meanings for people, especially those who experience anxious moments, so it is important that we allow people the chance to explain what they mean by it so that we are all using the same language.
The typical definition most people use when describing their anxiety includes the word “fear.” They talk about their mind and body are telling them that they should be afraid of something – either identified or not.
It is true that the English dictionary and the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) which is used to diagnose people with anxiety disorders, both mention the word “fear”. There are several anxiety-based disorders, but a few that are pretty commonly seen are Separation Anxiety, Social Anxiety, Generalized Anxiety, Phobias that are specific or Agoraphobia, and Panic Disorder.
All of these disorders have their own criteria that have to be met, but they are all based on the fear of something. The fear can be so strong that a person feels immobilized. This makes the presence of a person who is dealing with anxiety symptoms in a group where those symptoms could come up at any time, a real gift to themselves, the other group members, and the group leaders. The dynamics of an anxiety based group is powerful for everyone involved.
Understanding Group Counseling
Group counseling settings are intentionally different and have a unique desired outcome.
In an article I wrote last year, I detailed what therapeutic groups are and why they exist. You can find that article for an in depth look at groups here. You may be wondering what fits into the group category.
There are several types of therapeutic settings that include more than two people that may not be seen as group counseling, like a workshop on a specific topic. That is a space where you have several people who may be participating, but it wouldn’t be considered a group therapy session, even if it felt like that every time someone shared a thought.
An actual group therapy session will include some key elements such as the name or names of a clear leader of the group, specific topics to be discussed, start and stop time plus the location, population of people the group is trying to reach, cost, and disclosure forms with a space for participants to give consent.
Groups are set up so that many people can come together to discuss a topic and achieve shared healing through hearing and identifying with the experiences of others.
Understanding an Anxiety Group
So, now that you have a basic idea of what anxiety is and what a therapeutic group might look like, you may be curious about what an anxiety based group may include. A person who is dealing with anxiety symptoms may hesitate before they actually decide to attend a group and once they decide that they do want to be part of a group, they will go through many different emotions before they so much as enter the group’s meeting space. Because of the nature of the group, the group leader would take some extra steps to help everyone manage their fears before the group even starts.
In each group, there will be a set of rules or standards. In an anxiety group, a lot of the communication within the group may be presented in a way that is calming. The group leader may ask the group members to write out their thoughts about the group’s rules instead of verbally expressing their questions or concerns.
In the anxiety group, over time, the group members will be encouraged to share openly but will never be forced. The goal of the group at first may be to help group members become comfortable in their space before engaging in conversation with new people. That technique might be extremely helpful for the person who is struggling with social anxiety.
As the group moves through creating and understanding the rules of the group, depending on the group members and their specific needs, people may begin to share stories and hear stories that they find healing because of the increased self awareness and the awareness of others. Through this process, people will learn that they are not alone.
Although their situations may not be identical, other people struggle in ways that are similar. By hearing and sharing stories in this type of setting the possibility of hearing ways that people have tried or been successful at managing their anxiety symptoms is high. This process is freeing and builds up hope and confidence in people who may have lost hope or become so scared that they can’t imagine ever being different.
In a group that is specifically focused on anxiety, the group leader may encourage people to take risks once safety has been created within the group. People will start to feel comfortable and trust the group members, so they will likely try things within the group that they would not try outside of it, almost like the group becomes a secure family unit.
Thinking about risk taking can produce anxiety, so the group members and the leader will be a big part of a person’s decision to try it out. The risk in this group may be to just share something that no one in the group already knows, or sit next to someone new in the group that day, or maybe even to read something to the group. Whatever the risk is, everyone in the group will be reminded to be respectful and understand the challenges that others face when doing things that are difficult for them.
Once the group gets going and trust has been built, it may become the place where certain things happen that have been known to heighten anxiety symptoms. The group is a good space to try new things because the group members and leader can teach new coping skills in response to the behaviors.
Some of these new things may be simply the typical kinds of things that happen in a group but require a degree of intentionality such as giving or receiving feedback. These are things that would possibly be misunderstood in any other group, but in a group where people identify with their fears, which is the main reason they all have gathered together, the hardship behind these actions is understood and embraced.
If you are reading this and thinking you could benefit from group counseling centered around your anxiety symptoms, but there is no group offered near you or you would like to talk one-on-one with someone, there are counselors here at Seattle Christian Counseling who can help you with some of the goals you desire to work toward and assist you in finding a group that will meet your needs.
“Group Prayer”, Courtesy of Priscilla Du Preez, Unsplash.com, CC0 License; “Group Therapy”, Courtesy of Kylie Lugo, Unsplash.com, CC0 License; “Group Session”, Courtesy of Nicole Honeywill, Unsplash.com, CC0 License; “Therapy Office”, Courtesy of Mindy Jacobs, Unsplash.com, CC0 License