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10 Ways to Make Your Illness Support Group Uplifting

by Lisa Copen  
5/26/2008 / Self Help

If you live with chronic pain or an illness, odds are that you have attended a support group at least once since you were diagnosed. Did it feel something like this?

You felt awful the entire day but you decided to get in the car and go to the support group anyway. You thought it would be good for you. It took forever to find the building at the hospital and then you ended up parking what seemed like a mile from the suite number. You found a chair that smelled like old sweat and smoke and hoped somehow you would find some encouragement. But an hour later you're ready to make dash for the door. Everyone seems to be so depressed! And too many people want to either sell you a juicer that is sure to cure your problems, or tell you about every surgery they've had since 1977.

Aren't support groups supposed to be beneficial in coping with illness?

Yes! David Spiegel, MD, has proven in his studies that support groups improve the quality of life for the participants. While recent studies have shown that the patient may not live longer due to the support groups themselves [See the Sept. issue of CANCER, the journal of the American Cancer Society,] there is no denying that having your feelings validated by those who understand will help you sleep better at night. So here are some icebreaker games for small groups to perk up the people!

You may attend a support group, or perhaps even lead one, but regardless of how long you have (or have not) participated in one, it's likely that you've seen the slippery slope of how quickly people can go from sharing honest, vulnerable feelings to a session of complaints and even quarreling. Looking for fresh and fun icebreaker games for small groups to perk things up?

Whether you lead a support group or just participate, chances are you've noticed how slippery the slope is when people start talking about their illness. These ideas will work for any groups, from an Aspergers support group in Dallas to a bipolar support group in Birmingham. Alabama. And they are excellent to have when you are creating a proposal for starting up a support group. Here are 10 ways to make your illness support group get some giggles back between the trials.

1. Before your meeting, cut out some smiley faces and sad faces and glue them on each side of a stick or a plastic knife. When everyone goes around the room to share about their experiences or emotions of the week, ask people to make sure they are able to hold up both "faces'. For example, Beth may say, "I'm not looking forward to my joint replacement surgery and all the rehab afterwards" while holding up the sad side of the stick. And then she flips it to think of something positive to say "I feel blessed though, that the insurance is covering a lot of the expenses and my friends have volunteered to help take care of my children."

2. Rethink your definition of what counts as indoor games for small groups. For example, ask everyone to bring an item to contribute to a JOY box and then pass it around during the meeting and let people choose everything to take home. The range of objects can be anything a silicone bracelet, a favorite poem, a funny DVD, an encouraging note or even a joke book. Have everyone return the item during the next meeting and occasionally have people bring fresh items.

3. Here's a unique icebreaker for small groups. Make a silly theme song that you use to start the meeting. You can pick a song and make up new lyrics too. Check out comedian Anita Renfroe for some good ideas about how to make a song your own at her web site.

4. Bring corny props that you use during meetings. Don't make anyone feel pressured to use them (some people may not come again if you make them put on a clown nose.) But have them available and encourage silliness before getting down to the nitty gritty of why you're really there. Oriental Trading Supply has thousands of fun items to use at a reasonable cost.

5. Though it can be a challenge, don't let your group tune into a platform for any member to talk continuously about his or her disease, the treatments, alternative treatments and even complaints. If someone tends to dominate the conversation, let your group know you are implementing the use of a timer to make sure everyone has equal opportunity to share. Set whatever guidelines you wish, for instance, you could allow people to vent for sixty seconds on any topic. Or they could share about an alternative treatment they've found useful, but when the timer rings, time is up!

6. Ask everyone to bring an item to include in a gift basket encouragement for someone else. It may be someone who cannot attend the group someone having surgery, or a friend of someone recently diagnosed. Put your ideas together about things people would like. Don't forget personal notes or even sticky notes on a small gift can mean the most.

7. Have a fun night out. You can act your age and go to a nice sit-down restaurant or head over to Chuck E. Cheese for some pin ball. It can definitely be a successful icebreaker for small groups because people who haven't opened up much in the group may feel relieved to have this environment to get to know others.

8. Have items on hand that will encourage people to thrive despite their illness. For example, National Invisible Chronic Illness Awareness week has fun things like bumper stickers, pins, mugs and stickers that have themes like "My illness is invisible but my hope shines through."

9. Listen to a recording of potential guest speakers before inviting them to speak if possible. Some can be quite depressing. Let guest speakers know that you'd like their presentation to be on the positive side despite the topic of illness. Tell them they are welcome to tell a joke, pass out props, or whatever will keep people listening and also encouraged.

10. Focus on things that your group can actually do that will change things, since they may feel so unable to control their illness. If you can't physically participate in the local walk for charity, could you work at a table handing out snacks or doing registration? Find events your group can participate in to feel like they are doing more than just complaining about their predicament. Take advantage of the energy that teens with chronic illness often have to motivate support groups to get involved in outside projects.

Support groups can be one of the most vital tickets to living successfully with chronic illness, but the atmosphere of the group can make or break its effectiveness. With these few simple steps, your group can be a place of refuge and relaxation, creating an environment for people to live their best lives, despite the existence of an illness.

If you lead a support group or are considering it, don't miss Lisa Copen's new book, for your ministry needs. Over 300 pages with step-by-step instructions on how to write a vision statement, promotion and attendance and much more!

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