Designing a Support System

August 21, 2023

Why do we need group support?

Your health is determined by how well you lived. How well you lived is meaningfully influenced by how well you love and how well you are loved.

The need for authentic connections and community is primal. People who feel lonely, depressed and isolated are three to ten times more likely to get sick and die prematurely from virtually all causes, compared to those who have strong feelings of love, connection, and community. There is an epidemic of isolation, loneliness, and alienation in our culture.

One third of people in industrialized countries are lonely. 40% of people in the US report that they are lonely.

Loneliness causes chronic emotional stress and overactivation of the sympathetic nervous system. Mediated via C reactive protein and interleukins, loneliness causes inflammation. It also upregulates gene expression for all chronic diseases. On the other hand, love and connection exert their healing influence by reversing these mechanisms.

Anything that brings us together is healing; romantic love or platonic intimacy found in friendship. It is sometimes referred to as horizontal intimacy. It can also be transcendent at times when we realize that we are not separate from each other or ourselves. We experience ourselves in different forms, manifesting in everyone and everything. This is sometimes referred to as vertical intimacy.

A randomized control trial showed that just 8 weeks of meditation decreases loneliness and markers of inflammation.

Love and group support are healing; loneliness and isolation are deadly.

Intimacy can also be transcendental; we realize that we are not separate from each other and from ourselves. Meditation enables us to directly experience a greater sense of connectedness with each other and with ourselves.

Remember the days of real-world social networks when people really used to know each other? There is something profoundly healing about being fully seen and received, warts and all. From Zulu greetings, “Sawubona” - I see you, and “Ngikhona” - I am here; that is authentic connection.

Whereas social media connections actually isolate us even further.

There is great benefit in being vulnerable and having a beginner’s mind, an attitude of openness, eagerness, and a lack of preconceptions.

What is group support and connection?

Group support is about authentically and deeply connecting with others, which is often a transformative and healing experience. It consists of a place that feels safe enough for you to talk intimately about what is really going on in your life, and to express your authentic feelings, without fear of being judged, abandoned, or criticized. Group support sessions are designed to enhance intimacy and to facilitate a strong community of people who are supporting each other as they go through life together. When that happens, healing often occurs.

We are creatures of community. We are hardwired to love and to be loved. Expressing your deepest truths and authentic feelings can be healing.

Listening to another with empathy also can be healing. You realize you are not alone. What goes on in the group, stays in the group. Empathy and sharing of feelings are required, instead of advice in fixing the problem.

Practicing skills that help us develop the ability to identify and express our feelings is a healthier way of processing our emotions. In reciprocity, we also practice listening to others with empathy and compassion as they share their feelings.

How do we know that our connection is authentic?

Differentiate your thoughts from your feelings. Pay attention to your feelings. Our thoughts, especially judgments, tend to isolate us. Use ‘I feel’ sentences. It's valuable to pay attention to your emotions, both the comfortable ones and the uncomfortable ones, because they hone your ability to meaningfully connect with others while navigating your life.

Close your eyes and bring your attention to your heart and simply notice the emotion that is present. First identify and then express your feelings.

When we put feelings into words, we are activating the prefrontal cortex and seeing a reduced response in the amygdala.

Expressing your true feelings is a learned skill that you don’t develop unless you practice. Practice empathic listening too. Respond by saying ‘I understand’ and ‘I hear you’. Rephrase back. No advice. Respond with your feelings. Keep it confidential.

How to get started:

  • Start or join a free support group.
  • Recruit members for a support group.
  • Set up goals of the group.
  • Select the size of the group.
  • Determine if it will be an open or closed group.
  • Determine how frequently should the group meet.
  • It can be virtual or in person.

Practices that connect and heal us:

  • Smile and laugh freely.
  • Express gratitude daily.
  • Let forgiveness free you.
  • Support and serve others.
  • Participate in a support group.