Helping with Support Groups


As a new Assistant Professor of Criminal Justice, my teaching experiences quickly became devoted to helping students learn the facets and details of this relatively new academic discipline. As time went on, a psychology colleague of mine and myself created a model to help us and clients to better understand people's experiences, both working on the job and off. Called "The Health Cycle" it was designed to help people to comprehend the role that stress plays in their behavior and lives in general.

So, the idea or concept behind the Health Cycle is to help individuals to understand that all of us experience sources of stress which come as part of our daily living including family, friends, work colleagues, and our reactions to day-to-day living. These experiences can be both universal in that virtually all of us experience the same or similar things or highly unique often as a result of our own personalities. These experiences create a very wide range of feelings in us that force us to behave in ways which allow us to cope, understand, or eliminate the feelings or the sources. The important point here is to understand that the behaviors we choose have either negative or positive consequences to and for us as individuals or as members of one type of group or another.

Even though we may not have thought of it as such, all of us have participated in groups that could be considered as support groups. When we were younger, these groups were our friends, our teammates, fellow classmates, dorm roommates, co-workers and colleagues, spouses and families, children especially as we age, sports buddies, neighbors, clubs or other recreational groups and/or religious organizations that we belong to. The idea here is that all of us have connections with other people and that these connections are sources of information about how to act with good or bad consequences. Learning how to act given a particular set of circumstances is fundamental to our human experience. And as we all know, the "how to act" of our behavior can be an additional source of stressors. So, our current understanding of behavior may well suggest that we "learn" behaviors that have positive or negative consequences for us. The idea here is that we have to be very careful with the behaviors that we use to cope with various sources of stress. This is to suggest that all behaviors have consequences, good or bad, positive or negative that will help us to cope. What we must avoid are coping behaviors which in and of themselves can become additional sources of stress and for obvious reasons.

In general, there are both formal and informal support groups. Informal groups come from our associations with friends, colleagues, neighbors and the like. They just sort of happen because of our relationship with the individuals involved. Formal groups are deliberate and people join because they wish to meet others with the same or similar interests, issues or problems to solve. And, in the process of meeting and interacting, we learn how others may also be experiencing similar situations and how they use coping behaviors to deal with their experiences. This simply means that there is a "reason" that you are drawn to the particular set of individuals. Commonly, this reason is based on the purpose of the group's existence that we find attractive or the process of meeting that the group uses and you find it acceptable. Finally, the known or assumed outcome of group belongingness that we feel could work for us.

Having been diagnosed with multiple myeloma more than five years ago, I decided that one of the things that I could do to remain engaged and stay active and positive was to help others in a similar situation. As one of the coordinators of the Blood Cancers Virtual Support Group, I have once again been reminded of the power of being a member of a peer support group with a focused, shared experience. At the start, we are attracted to certain groups because of a particular purpose of that group. Unlike recreational, cultural, or neighborly groups, peer moderated support groups are almost always problem focused. That is to say, since we are experiencing a particular issue in our life, we seek out others who are also experiencing the same or similar problems. Thus, there is a sense of "mutuality" that draws us to one group or another. And this mutuality is how a group can provide support to its members since both moderators and participants share a similar experience and can readily learn from one another. What we have all seen is the commonality of the life-work experience which draws us to others because of the commonality of like experience or set of experiences.

You are strongly urged to look for a support group. This is based on the very simple idea that these groups are a very rich source of information about how others deal with the same or similar sources of stress that you are experiencing. This is to say that we have a lot to learn about our own current and future behavior by learning how others cope. As you look for a support group you need to pay attention to several principals. First, your potential support group should be regularly coming together addressing the same or very similar problem(s) that you are experiencing. Second, you should seek support from a group of individuals who are dealing with the same or similar sources of stress that you are experiencing.

While the overriding issue of cancer does bind all cancer patients together, the richness and utility of the support group that is specifically aimed at the problem one is encountering is best seen when members have as many details in common as possible, keeping in mind that diseases often express themselves differently to patients, caregivers, and families. The second and exceptionally important element of the support group is that the process of members supporting each other are doing so utilizing processes that are in and of themselves not problematic or do not run the risk of creating additional issues for you.

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