Health & Wellness

A Case for Experiential Support Groups

By Carmen Freeman, MS, CCHT
Stop and think for a moment about your support group. How does it serve the participants? Does it treat them as whole, integrated human beings living global lives, or merely as diseased individuals diminished by disability? How do members feel when it is time to leave? Are they energized or merely armed with information? Between meetings, do past activities continue to provide "food" for empowerment or expanded ideas about living a powerful, inspired, creative life, albeit with physical challenge? Is it based on a model of wellness enhancement, or merely on coping skills and shared information? As a support group facilitator for several years, a clinical hypnotherapist, workshop facilitator, and person dealing with MS for more than twenty-one years, I would like to make a case for experiential support groups.
The type of support group I am proposing is one that integrates knowledge and wisdom derived from exploratory experiences, facilitated phenomena of wellness, and the more traditional activities of socio-emotional support and information sharing. Some facilitator prerequisites for this support group model are:
  • A facilitator who is armed with numerous exploratory activities, designed to assist the participant in expanding their view of what is possible for them.
  • The ability to offer a variety of meditation, centering and/or relaxation techniques, which assist the participants in maintaining a sense of balance, both during the gatherings and in their daily lives.
  • The ability to create a sense of rapport and safety for the group.
  • An understanding of what it is like to live life as a physically challenged person-body, mind, and spirit.
  • The ability to facilitate guided experiences for the group.

Why are experiential support groups important? They provide a unique service for the participants by honoring each one as a whole, integrated human being, capable of accessing their own inner knowledge and wisdom. Each one is a student, experimenting within his or her own "inner laboratory" during exploratory experiences. Afterwards, by outwardly sharing with the group what was learned or decided during the experience, each one becomes a teacher. This phenomenon is often empowering for the physically challenged, who sometimes feel unseen or who did not previously realize that unfathomable wisdom and unbridled creativity exists within them. Additionally, and more specifically, these types of support groups provide the following benefits:
  • Group members are empowered through tools that are stress reducing and energy producing.
  • Through guided experiences, participants learn how they might react to certain situations before they arise, affording them the ability to respond with more clarity than they might normally consider possible.
  • Through guided experiences, participants can reframe negative past events, which often results in a reclaiming of energy that can now be used to enhance one's wellness.
  • Encouragement of a broader perspective about one's life and place in the world.
  • Acknowledgement of the wisdom, courage and power of each individual, irrespective of physical challenge.

A variety of activities can be utilized to create a lively atmosphere of self-exploration within the group. These activities can be intermingled with socio-emotional support and information sharing during the course of a meeting of more traditional activities. The group can be created with this type of flexibility built in. Within the scope of a unique group of this type, one might wonder what activities would be appropriate and empowering for its members. Following is a partial list, broadly categorized, of those that have consistently been used, with positive results:
  • Group meditation
  • Guided visualizations of inner journeys
  • Interactive group activities, followed by individual sharing
  • Artistic expression
  • MS conversation and sharing, based on keywords or concepts
  • A Significant Others meeting, where life partners or caregivers join the group and share experiential activities with group members

The bottom line is that illness is a journey, a path. Those who journey with multiple sclerosis have the choice of consciously gaining self-knowledge and developing tools for wellness and transformation along the way, or allowing themselves to be victimized by the enemy within. By providing experiential support groups, based on a holistic wellness model, we can facilitate the way of the conscious undertaking, which leads to empowerment. It might be interesting to note some comments from people with MS who have access to this type of group…
"I initially went to [this] group looking for an MS support group. What I found was much more…" DE.
"I think this group should be a prerequisite for life with [a physical challenge]…Carmen brings to the group tools, the information, and the love I need to help me learn to be a whole person who happens to have a disease. Through guided visualizations, I found an inner voice, with whom I would never have been in touch…" LB.
(Excerpted from Carmen Freeman's book, SUPPORT Experiential and Exploratory Activities for Not-so-ordinary Support Groups and Gatherings.)
Carmen Freeman MS, CCHT, is a certified clinical hypnotherapist (retired from private practice,) workshop facilitator, and writer, who has had MS since 1979. She has taught medical hypnosis, has facilitated several experiential workshops for the National MS Society and other organizations, and has received several awards for her work. She was also the founder of a national women's retreat, which existed for ten years.