HealthOpen support groups can help with anxiety

Open support groups can help with anxiety

Graduating college, beginning a career, starting a new relationship – these are just some of the milestones that young adults will inevitably encounter. These milestones can be exciting, challenging, and rewarding. However, what happens when these same individuals are also struggling with an anxiety disorder? For many, this transitional life stage—one of new adventures and a time of self-exploration—becomes more complicated, less enjoyable, and potentially isolating. Utilizing my specialized training in Cognitive Behavior Therapy (CBT), exposure, and response prevention, I started the Anxiety Network, a support group to help connect and support individuals in this challenging stage of life.

The Anxiety Network Supports Young People with Anxiety

The Anxiety Network is a psycho-educational support group geared toward young adults (18 to mid-30s) who are struggling with anxiety disorders and Obsessive-compulsive Disorder (OCD).

When I initially started the group, it was targeted toward young adults with OCD and was originally called “Got OCD?” I chose to focus on OCD, because, in specializing in the disorder, I found that many of my young adult clients lacked peer support and reported feeling isolated and alone in their struggles. Although there are support groups for OCD in the Chicago area, there were not any groups that are specific to this phase in life. As a result, I wanted to fill that void and give these individuals a place that they could connect with others close to their age. After about six months, I realized that many of the young adults that were coming to the group also struggled with anxiety disorders, such as Generalized Anxiety Disorder, panic disorder, and social anxiety. However, by limiting our discussions to just OCD-specific topics, we were doing a disservice to our members. As a result, after a discussion with the group, I decided to expand it to include young adults that were struggling with OCD and/or anxiety disorders and, in turn, renamed the group “The Anxiety Network.” I have found that this change has made the group feel more relevant to individuals, has increased the number of participants, and has resulted in additional referrals from therapists in the community.

The goal of the group is to bring individuals together to discuss issues specific to their anxiety, such as how to manage symptoms, medication concerns, and topics relevant to this transitional life stage (e.g., if/how to tell your friends about your anxiety and how to manage your symptoms when you are living on your own for the first time). Although I facilitate the bi-weekly meetings, the group is truly self-led. Individuals come in with issues they want to discuss and get the group’s input. Many of the members also self-assign homework and then spend the session brainstorming future exposure ideas and problem solving anxiety-provoking situations. It is important to note, however, that this group is NOT a replacement for therapy. Most of the group members are in CBT and exposure therapy and use the group as a place to continue to push themselves, challenge their anxiety, and help others.

Creating an Open Space

Despite the new found success, I constantly struggle with the fact that this is an open support group, as opposed to a closed group. One of the first decisions I made when starting the group was that I wanted individuals to feel that they were not bound to come to each group session. Young adults are busy with school, work, and social commitments, so I didn’t want to make this one more thing that they felt like they “had” to do. As a result, I made it an open group with the stipulation that everything that was said in the group stayed in the group. This is something I reiterate each group session. The advantage of this open-door policy is that it allows people to come and go as they please and that it brings fresh faces and new opinions to the group.

The disadvantage is that the group often lacks stability. It is challenging in and of itself for individuals to open up about their anxiety and OCD, and it can become even harder when it is not always the same faces session to session. I have contemplated changing the group to a closed format, but when I asked members what they thought, they voted to keep the group open. For now, the group will remain open. However, to facilitate a sense of safety and security in the meetings, at the beginning of each session, I always review the group rules:

  • Everything is confidential
  • Participants do not have to speak and can choose to just listen
  • Individuals will show each other respect
  • If individuals happen to run into each other outside of The Family Institute confines, they will respect that same confidentiality by not acknowledging each other (unless discussed beforehand).

Start Your Own Support Group

I was fortunate that when I saw a need, The Family Institute enabled me to start my own group and truly gave me free reign. However, I recognize that not every clinician has that luxury. That being said, if you are thinking of starting a support group, I encourage you to identify a need in the community and build a group around that need. However, one shouldn’t be afraid to make changes or modifications. Additionally, always listen to the group members. This is their group and they are good barometers of what is and isn’t working. The beauty of support groups is that individuals learn not only by listening to each other but also by helping each other. As a result, it’s imperative to let the participants be the voice of the group. By doing so, they learn how to challenge anxiety-provoking thoughts and situations, and how to be not only their own but each other’s cognitive behavior therapists.

Licensed Professional Counselor at Northwestern Universtiy

Jennifer Welbel is a highly trained cognitive-behavioral therapist specializing in treating obsessive-compulsive, anxiety, and depression-related disorders using CBT and exposure therapies. With a background in Psychology and Counseling Psychology, she works at Northwestern University's Panic and Depression Treatment Programs. Ms. Welbel's compassionate yet direct approach aims to empower her clients to modify irrational thoughts, challenge fears, and gain control over anxiety and depression. Her ultimate goal is to equip clients with the necessary skills to be their own therapists.


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