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Joining a Support Group When You're Afraid to Speak

Support groups are scary for people with social anxiety.

Connecting with community has been shown to have healing effects on a variety of medical and psychological conditions. Many years ago, David Spiegel, a professor of psychiatry at Stanford University, conducted what has since become a landmark study demonstrating the power of social support.

His experiment looked at two groups of women with end-stage metastatic breast cancer. Both groups received the same medical interventions; however, one group met regularly with each other to share their thoughts and feelings - to commiserate.

You can probably guess the results. At the time, though, the fact that the group who met regularly for support lived significantly longer as the other group was surprising to people. Since then, however, many other studies have replicated these results.* We can say without a doubt that enjoying a sense of connectedness is good for your health.

It was within your first family, your "family-of-origin," that you initially experienced the joys and challenges of community life. You developed methods for solving problems; you learned how to express, or not express, your feelings; you celebrated together; you grieved together; and most importantly, you developed your understanding of what it means to belong.

Unfortunately, some of you didn't feel that you belonged. Because of your anxiety, your way of interpreting situations, and the way others reacted to you and your anxiety, you may have felt like a misfit in your own family. Or, perhaps you felt loved and accepted within your family but experienced the pain of not belonging when venturing out into the wider world.

For obvious reasons, the notion of "connecting with community" can be daunting for people with social anxiety. That's why it's extra impressive how Marla Genova, whom I introduced in a previous post, Shy Girl, Brave Woman, has not only started support groups for people with social anxiety disorder, but she's built them to the point where they are growing and thriving. I asked Marla to share some of her thoughts with me on her groups, and how others could start similar groups in their area.

Barb: I've tried to get groups going before and never had much success. There's an irony in trying to get people with social anxiety to attend a group. How have you done it?

Marla: The challenge of getting a socially anxious person to attend a group is a great feat, indeed! I think that promoting the group as a support group has helped, especially that I emphasize I also have had struggles with social anxiety and am still learning ways to cope with it. Although I'm a facilitator for these groups, I also take my turn in sharing my experiences and take part in the activities I ask them to do.

Barb: Do you have people that go to the groups who don't talk at all?

Marla: Yes, and I make it very clear that no one is required to speak at the meetings. They are welcome to join us to simply observe until they feel comfortable enough to participate. In my groups, there has been a mixture of people with varying degrees of social anxiety. Some don't say a word for months, yet they reliably attend each meeting. Others come in their first time, share their life story and everyone in the room cannot detect they have social anxiety. Some are so relieved to finally have an outlet, to share with a group of people that understand, that they become emotional when telling their story. Most meetings take on a life of their own with the members asking me, or others, questions. I have found many times that it is the quietest members in the beginning turn about to be the biggest talkers later on.

Barb: Besides sharing your stories, what else do you do in the groups?

Marla: One of the groups is quite structured. We follow a cognitive-behavioral protocol developed by Dr. Richard's Social Anxiety Institute. We review materials in a workbook, have a discussion, do behavioral activities, and give weekly updates to hold ourselves accountable for our progress. Another group is less formal. It is through and we meet 2-3 times a month a local libraries. This was extremely slow at first, but now we average about 10 people at each meeting. The beauty of this group is that there is an online component where people have a chance to get to know each other through their profiles and discussion boards before they meet in person. Sometimes we end up going out after these meetings and socializing, such as going bowling or playing miniature golf.

Barb: I know you're very excited about a new group you're offering. Tell us about that.

Marla: I am starting a group, along with Janet Esposito, based on her Getting Over Stage Fright program. I discovered her website in September of 2010, and couldn't believe that she was only a half an hour away from me! Despite all the work I was doing facilitating the social anxiety support groups, I still could not get over my fear of public speaking. I attended one of her workshops, and it's not an exaggeration to say it was life changing for me. You can view a short video of me talking about my experience with the workshop here. And all of the groups we've talked about are listed on my website.

Barb: So what suggestions do you have for people in other cities who might want to start a social anxiety support group?

Marla: I would recommend starting online through a website such as and getting the word out through social media. Here is another great resource with tips on starting a support group.

Barb: Any final words of wisdom?

Marla: It takes a lot of persistence and commitment to overcome social anxiety. You have to keep doing exposures (basically facing your fears) to progress, and maintain that progress. I am always challenging myself to try new things. And I think having the support from these groups has made all the difference in the world.

*Although beyond the scope of this post, there is also an interesting review of this research in Bright-Sided by Barbara Ehrenreich that gives a different perspective on Spiegel's results.

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Barb is also blogging about self-compassion. If you're interested, check out The Self-Compassion Project here and its Facebook page here.

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