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The Pros and Cons of Support Groups for Trauma Survivors

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Updated November 24, 2003

Survivors of trauma and abuse have banded together in support groups for years. Groups allow survivors to experience others who went through similar experiences and have similar problems. The feeling (sometimes for the first time) that "I am not alone" can have a powerful healing effect. Psychotherapy groups have been used with this population as well, but some therapists have warned of problems.

One thing that happens frequently in these groups is that members tell the story of their trauma or abuse. Telling their story can be an important part of healing, but hearing someone else's story can be traumatic. Memory is very complex. Hearing a graphic story of someone's trauma can trigger memories, thoughts, and feelings of one's own trauma. This can be quite upsetting, in a context which is intended to be supportive.

This is compounded by the fact that many abuse survivors are high in hypnotic ability and therefore relatively suggestible. This high hypnotic ability was once a natural defense. When overwhelmed by trauma we do whatever we can to cope. Most children have a great deal of ability to pretend. This ability helps them "go somewhere else" while being abused. Under extreme trauma it sometimes results in a dissociative disorder where the personality splits into "parts."

There is some research proving that it is possible to create "memories" by suggesting that certain events took place. A percentage of people later report that event having actually occurred (even though immediate family members deny that it ever happened). This raises the possibility that support groups may contaminate the memories of members. It is not uncommon for a support group member to hear a story of abuse from another member, and to discover a few weeks later that they had the same thing happened to them. Did the story trigger a repressed or dissociated memory? Did the story serve as a seed for mental activity that resulted in a "false memory" emerging?

When a traumatic memory is not processed at the time, it may not be coherently stored in long term memory. People often do not process trauma at the time because they do not want to think about the horrible event. Such traumatic memories seem to sometimes stay stuck as sensory fragments (sights, sounds, smells, emotions, sensations). They are associated together; and a similar sight, sound, or smell in the present can trigger a flashback of the trauma. In such a flashback the survivor feels as if they are reliving the event.

Previous features have highlighted online support groups on Usenet. These are settings where persons with problems can interact with others with similar problems and with professionals. It is possible to contribute to these groups with relative anonymity. Other support groups have been formed on the World Wide Web associated with websites aimed at trauma survivors. Some of these sites offer increased security and less chance that your contribution will be seen by the whold world. One particularly ambitious attempt is the Voices of Kind discussion Forums which were the focus of TimePassages - a website developed by Lisa Varhola (no longer Online).

TimePassages was a site with beautiful graphics which focuses on abuse survivors. Many of the participants had a dissociative disorder, and there were discussion areas designed specifically for this population. In order to have access to the discussion areas you had to apply for free membership. This complex site allowed a high degree of interaction. Navigating the site could be difficult. A completely new site was in the works, but the site no longer seems to be reachable as this article is updated.

A follow-up article includes an interview with Lisa Varhola about her experiences with this site.

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