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Whether you’re grappling with a chronic medical condition, a life-threatening illness or simply a rocky emotional issue, it’s easy to feel alone, even in the midst of family and friends. A support group can be just what the doctor orders to banish that sense of isolation—and to garner practical information and valuable coping strategies.

Strength in Numbers

Valerie Keim, M.F.T., who leads support groups at John Muir Health, notes that people facing a physical or emotional issue are often suffering from isolation without realizing it. “Americans are rugged individualists,” Keim observes. “We think we’re supposed to be able to figure things out on our own—and that can be very crippling.” Once you connect with others, she says, stress goes down. “Connection makes a chronic condition more bearable, a crisis less overwhelming.”

Carol Scarborough, M.F.T., another John Muir Health support-group leader, knows firsthand the benefits of forming such connections. As a two-time cancer survivor, she’s participated in groups herself. “Friends are wonderful, important support,” Scarborough says, “but they haven’t been there. It’s really different when you’re with five or eight other people sharing the same experience.”

Besides the camaraderie, of course, a group provides access to a wealth of resources, both from the group leader and from fellow participants. And you’re getting all the information at a pace you can digest, Keim points out. “A visit to the doctor’s office can be overwhelming. But in a group, you have time to process the information. You can mull things over, ask questions.”

Finding a Fit

If you’re thinking of joining a support group, John Muir Health has several to choose from. When you’re ready to give it a trial run, keep in mind these questions:

  • What are the leader’s qualifications? It’s important to ask about his or her education, training and experience. Scarborough points out that with a seasoned leader, you not only have the benefit of input from your fellow group members, you have access to the leader’s accrued wisdom from past groups.
  • Does the leader make everyone in the group feel safe and comfortable? A good leader sets out ground rules, fosters respectful listening and helps participants take responsibility for what they’re sharing.
  • Is the energy positive and solution-oriented? “Stay away from complaint sessions,” advises Keim. Of course, people should be allowed to express negativity, but a skillful leader will keep things moving forward and help the exchanges stay on track.
  • What’s the makeup of the group? Ideally, says Keim, it will include some old-timers in addition to new members. “They have walked that path and are coming out the other side.”

If after trying a few sessions, you’re not getting what you need, don’t give up. Ask the leader to steer you toward another group that might be a better match. There are abundant choices out there, both within John Muir Health and beyond. “Find your tribe,” Keim says. “Take charge of your own well-being.”

Not a Joiner?

If you’re just not the kind of person who is comfortable in a group setting, there are plenty of other ways to get help.

You might prefer to meet with someone individually, receive support over the phone or even join an online group. Carol Scarborough, for instance, found an international Yahoo group to be invaluable when she was battling a rare form of cancer. Ask your doctor or practitioner for a referral, and just as with an in-person group, be sure to check the credentials of whoever is providing the support.

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