This article was written by Christopher Kosseff and Theresa Miskimen

If you are experiencing increased levels of stress and anxiety, aren’t sleeping or eating well, and are worried over how the economic meltdown may be impacting you and your family, you may benefit from the local support groups conducted by mental health organizations throughout the state.

Professionally-run support groups can play a huge role in helping us feel better physically and about how to cope with our immediate situation. Support groups are designed to accomplish this by teaching relaxation techniques and by helping you establish a plan of action to manage better through a difficult period.

Support groups are free and you can attend these group sessions anonymously if you wish; no registration is required. While it may be difficult to accept, there is no stigma attached to attending. In fact, one of the immediate benefits is that we learn that we are not alone, that so many others are facing similar circumstances.

It’s important that we try to address these issues troubling us as soon as we recognize them. Feelings of despair and anxiety can interfere with daily functions and interactions. For example, they can impact one’s performance at work, perhaps putting your job in jeopardy, or take its toll on your relationships with family members, friends and colleagues.

Fortunately, when these symptoms are not combined with out-of-character behavior, they generally do not suggest a psychiatric disorder. However, it still may be difficult to determine on your own that “you’re off your game” and could benefit from joining a support group. The key is agreeing that help would be beneficial before the symptoms begin intensifying.

Because it’s often difficult to recognize that you need help, it may take the urging of a spouse, close friend or member of the clergy to encourage you to seek support group assistance. They may recognize a change in your behavior before you do.

Support groups benefit the participants by first helping them to identify and cope with the circumstances causing them stress, and then illustrating ways people can minimize those stress-provoking encounters. The intent is to avoid fretting over things out of your control and to concentrate on managing the things you can control.

Often times, some solutions are fairly simple to achieve. For example, participants feeling particularly worried over the economic news, should avoid constantly watching the news and instead seek more opportunities for recreation or other forms of relaxation. People out of work might focus on ways in which they can enhance their skills and education to make them more attractive to employers.

The support group dynamic can often trigger new ways participants can help each other in developing a plan of action. Once they are comfortable with each other, they will become more open about sharing individual stories and will seek assistance from their colleagues. Members of the group may be able to provide leads for new or part-time employment opportunities. They may exchange successful experiences about how they re-financed to achieve a lower monthly mortgage payment.

That type of exercise has subtle benefits for everyone. The individual receiving the help feels better because he or she is making progress, and the individuals offering the input feel better because they’ve contributed in a positive way toward improving one’s situation.

We urge people stressed out by the impact of the economic crisis to turn to the mental health assistance programs run by professionals and available in your communities or in communities nearby. Many of these programs have existed throughout New Jersey for many years, sponsored by a local mental health organization. Some have een strengthened to deal with the increased need during the economic downturn.

Besides helping people to cope with their own difficult situations, support groups provide another invaluable benefit. The professionals leading them are trained to notice signs of serious depression or other conditions that might require other types of interventions. This is not a frequent occurrence in support groups, but when it does happen the group leaders will privately explain their assessment and suggest treatment options to avert more serious consequences.

If you feel a support group or another type of assistance may help you, please take advantage of the professionals who want to make a positive difference in your life. If you know a friend or relative who may need help, urge them to get help Call UMDNJ’s University Behavioral HealthCare at 1-800-969-5300. We will help you find a suitable referral location.

Kosseff is president and CEO, and Miskimen is vice president, medical services, for University Behavioral HealthCare, the mental health and addiction services network of the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey.

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