Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is a complex condition arising from the experience of a traumatic event. After going through these events, people may feel isolated, lonely, or misunderstood. A healthy support group provides a safe place for people living with PTSD to receive support from others and find people who understand their experiences. Finding a support group that functions for you may help you cope with symptoms, help others, and make lifelong connections.
What Are PTSD Support Groups?
PTSD support groups are groups made up of three or more people with PTSD meeting to discuss symptoms, experiences, and coping. In some cases, the group facilitator may be a therapist. In other cases, they may be peers.
The group's facilitator may make a significant difference in the success of a PTSD support group. However, it can be beneficial to know the difference between a PTSD therapy group and a support group. A clinician leads a therapy group, and the goal of sessions may be to continue the mental health treatment someone receives individually. In these cases, sessions may have a structure and a pre-determined end date.
Are PTSD Support Groups For Veterans Effective?
If you are a veteran and require immediate assistance, call the Veterans Crisis Line at 1-800-273-8255 (and press 1) or text 838255. For support for the deaf and hard-of-hearing community, please use your preferred relay service or dial 711 then 1-800-273-8255.
In 2015, Oregon Health and Sciences University explored whether support groups were effective and helpful for veterans. Their study revolved around veterans attending support groups for over two years. Most of the attendees had been attending their groups consistently.
Why Did The Study Participants Seek Support Groups?
The study showed several reasons veterans were prompted to attend support groups. Overall, the veterans were experiencing severe alterations in mood and thought. They felt alone and that the world was a dangerous place. Some study participants indicated that they felt revealing their thoughts to others would cause them to think they were "crazy."
As a result of not feeling healthy, many veterans started to isolate themselves from others. They began to avoid social interactions whenever possible. Another issue that brought veterans to support groups was experiencing severe symptoms of hyperarousal or hypervigilance. They acknowledged being easily startled and feeling like they had to be "on guard" all the time.
The study participants reported that their therapist suggested they attend a support group. In some cases, veteran therapists ran the support groups, and veterans chose to attend a group because it provided an opportunity to see their provider as part of their treatment. Contrarily, some veterans gave a general reason for attending a PTSD support group, as it gave them an activity to participate in when bored.
What Made It Difficult For Some Veterans To Attend Groups?
When the veterans in the study were asked what made it difficult to attend groups, the participants cited traveling, a lack of motivation, not being physically able to attend, not liking that the support group was held at a Veteran's Administration facility, not liking other veterans in the group, or feeling that 90-minute meetings were too long. Some people may have also felt uncomfortable sharing their emotions about their traumatic events.
Did The Veterans Find The Group Effective?
Another study found that veterans preferred support groups separated according to trauma type, gender, and era of service. For example, some veterans felt they related to others from their military branch because they may have gone through similar events.
Are PTSD Groups For Non-Veterans Effective?
Another group that provides vast support for individuals living with PTSD is the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI). NAMI is the nation's largest grassroots mental health organization dedicated to supporting the millions of Americans affected by mental illness.
NAMI provides peer-led support groups for individuals living with mental health challenges. They also provide peer-led family support groups for family members of those with mental illness. NAMI has affiliates at the state and local levels. Local affiliates provide educational programs and support groups at no cost to participants. The availability of free educational programs and support groups can make PTSD support more accessible to various communities.
NAMI support groups encourage empathy, productive discussions, and a sense of community. In addition, all groups rely on the following 12 principles of support:
- We will see the individual first, not the illness.
- We recognize that mental illnesses are medical illnesses that may have environmental causes.
- We understand that mental illnesses are traumatic events.
- We aim for better coping skills.
- We find strength in sharing experiences.
- We reject stigma and do not tolerate discrimination.
- We won't judge anyone's pain as less than our own.
- We forgive ourselves and reject guilt.
- We embrace humor as healthy.
- We accept we cannot solve all problems.
- We realistically expect a better future.
- We will never give up hope.
Studies On PTSD Support Groups
For people living with PTSD, these types of support groups can be highly effective. People living with non-war-related trauma may also appreciate support groups focusing on their specific traumatic event, age group, or identity. For example, people who have experienced abuse might find more healing in talking to others who have experienced abuse than with veterans who may have significantly different experiences.
One study found that survivors of childhood abuse found group therapy significantly effective. Women in the groups reported decreased depression and trauma symptoms, alongside increased self-esteem. Group treatment was concluded to be more effective than individual treatment on its own.
If you are facing or witnessing abuse of any kind, the National Domestic Violence Hotline is available 24/7 for support. Call 1-800-799-SAFE (7233) or text "START" to 88788. You can also use the online chat.
Why Do People Attend Support Groups?
PTSD is an illness that alters a person's thinking. It can cause negative self-esteem, self-talk, and beliefs that one is alone in their experience. Having a place where people can talk about their feelings with those who understand can create a sense of community and social connection.
Individuals often attend support groups because they have something in common with others in the group. They can help and receive support from others who know what does and doesn't work regarding trauma. People with PTSD may receive unhelpful advice or face stigmas when reaching out to those who do not have the illness. Talking to other people diagnosed with PTSD may allow them to receive validation.
How To Be An Effective Facilitator Of A Support Group
A capable, experienced support group facilitator is often a critical part of whether a support group feels supportive of the participants. Facilitators often maintain and enforce guidelines for the group. NAMI's group guidelines involve the following:
- Start and stop on time.
- Limit opening stories to two to three minutes for each participant to share.
- Be respectful.
- Focus on the present.
- Empathize with each other's situations.
To keep the group on track, facilitators may address common topics positively and encourage group participation. Facilitators can keep the group in the present, encourage them to self-reflect, and challenge negative group dynamics. In wrapping up the support group session, a positive facilitator may find ways to end the group positively.
Finding Additional Support
While a PTSD support group can play a significant role in PTSD treatment, peer support groups do not replace professional support. Talk therapy is one option for those with PTSD, but some with this condition find other formats, like eye movement desensitization reprocessing (EMDR), more effective.
With EMDR, a therapist helps their client release traumatic or distressing life experiences by using eye movement to cause bilateral brain stimulation. This process allows clients to recall memories of triggering events using both sides of the brain. Clients using EMDR often report that processing the trauma in this way reduces the chances of re-traumatization and the impact the memories have.
If you face barriers to receiving treatment like EMDR, you might be able to find more accessible treatment online. New studies are finding that EMDR can be effectively administered by a trained therapist online through a platform like BetterHelp. Online platforms can increase the number of specialists available to a client and allow more control over the treatment process, which might benefit someone who feels out of control of their symptoms otherwise.
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