Seven years ago I was sat in a pub beer garden. Sitting opposite me was my girlfriend. Tears were streaming down her face.
I had just told her that I couldn’t visit her because my anxiety wouldn’t let me get on a plane, or travel to another country, or do anything fun or exciting. She was heartbroken. I felt like crap. At that moment, I knew I had to do something.
I had already done one round of cognitive behavioral therapy, and it had not produced great results for me. But I gave it another go. This time it was better. I was more engaged; I did more of the homework. It helped a lot that I knew what to expect.
It was a lonely journey, though. I had nobody to compare notes with or pick me up when I was down. To fix this, I started looking around for a peer support group. Somewhere I could go to talk about my experiences and listen to the experiences of others. I wanted to be able to share ideas and ask questions.
I searched online for such a group. There was nothing. A city of a million people and yet there was no anxiety support group. There was one at the next city over: but that was an hour’s drive each way.
So I did what I always did when there was no relevant group for my current interest: I set one up.
Interest was immediate. Both of the major local radio stations phoned me up and asked me to come in and do an interview. That was terrifying. I don’t think there is as much stigma about mental health as people think. But still, going live on the radio and talking about your anxiety was a stomach-churning experience!
Getting the group established was tough. While there was a lot of interest, getting people through the door was a challenge. Asking people with anxiety, often social anxiety, to come to a hospital, enter a room full of strangers and talk about their innermost fears is no small ask.
We tried to do everything we could to make it more welcoming. Providing detailed instructions on how to find the room. Offering to meet people at the entrance to the hospital. Reassurance that if they came to the hospital and didn’t dare go in the door the first time, they were no the first, nor would they be the last, to do so.
Slowly, but surely, numbers built. These days, we rarely have any empty seats.
As the group grew, people asked more and more questions. And I answered them. I taught them about how cognitive behavior therapy worked. I told them what the research said about anxiety. I told them about my personal experience, and what the evidence said. And people found it useful.
But our group members were not the only people benefiting from this process. I noticed that it was helping me, too.
The more I taught, the more I found it easier to take my own advice. Explaining exposure therapy helped me break down challenges in my life. Explaining the benefits of exercise gave me more motivation to go out and do it. Helping people spot common thinking distortions made it easier for me to spot my own.
Running my anxiety support group did not just provide a valuable service for the people attending it. It offered double the benefit for myself and the other volunteers. By helping others, I was also helping myself.
These days, I highly recommend anyone struggling with anxiety to attend a support group. But more than that, I recommend that they take a leadership role. Even if they feel anxious about doing so. After all, of course someone with anxiety is going to feel anxious about it!
Doing so gives you the chance to give back to your community. This in itself is beneficial for your mental health. But it also gives you the chance to reinforce your knowledge, making it easier to apply to your own struggles.