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3 Ways Support Groups Help Your Brain

 

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Carl Thomas

Pastor | Live Free Founder | Lover of Jesus, Philly sports, fitness, tattoos, sarcasm, and craft beers.

Support groups such as the ones we offer at Small Groups Online have long been recognized as invaluable to those facing various life challenges such as addiction or grief.

However, outside the emotional benefits they offer, research reveals that support groups can also have profound neurological advantages. 

By fostering a sense of unconditional connection and acceptance, these groups provide unique neurological benefits that contribute to overall well-being. The following are three such benefits.

1) Stress Reduction and Increased Oxytocin 

Life is full of challenges and hardships. There is no getting around that reality. And the stress those difficulties create takes a toll on our mental and physical health. But being a member of a supportive social network, such as Live Free, or participating in a support group, like Small Groups Online, can effectively mitigate the adverse impact that stress has on the brain. 

When we engage in meaningful interactions and experience unconditional connection, our brain releases oxytocin, a crucial neurotransmitter that plays a central role in building social bonds and nurturing trust within our body. 

This increase in oxytocin helps reduce the brain’s stress response and helps instill a sense of belonging and emotional connection.

In fact, a study in the journal Psychoneuroendocrinology showed that people who feel strong social support have lower levels of cortisol, a stress hormone. This means that the real connections found in support groups can help reduce stress and improve overall well-being.

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2) Enhanced Brain Plasticity and Social Learning

The brain’s plastic nature, something called neuroplasticity, refers to its ability to reorganize and form new neural pathways throughout one’s life. This adaptability is crucial for learning, memory, and cognitive functions. 

Support groups create a safe and empathetic space where people are free to openly share their experiences, provide guidance, and offer unwavering acceptance to others dealing with similar obstacles. This type of social learning fosters the activation of brain regions responsible for empathy, perspective-taking, and emotional regulation. As a result, these brain regions undergo changes in response to social experiences, leading to enhanced brain plasticity.

A study published in the journal Brain Imaging and Behavior demonstrated that individuals who participated in group therapy sessions displayed increased brain connectivity in regions linked to empathy and self-awareness. These findings suggest that support groups facilitate social learning, contributing to heightened brain adaptability.

This is especially noteworthy when we understand that although previous traumatic experiences may have caused undesirable changes in the structure and function of our brain, positive experiences possess the power to counteract and reverse the damage that has been inflicted upon it.

3) Improved Emotional Regulation and Mental Health.

The unconditional connection and acceptance found within support groups can have significant positive effects on one’s emotional regulation and mental health. This is because members can openly express their feelings without judgment, fostering a supportive atmosphere for emotional processing without the fear of condemnation or disconnection.

When people share their experiences and receive empathy, they not only feel validated, but also develop a stronger comprehension of their own emotions. This, in turn, improves the brain’s capacity to regulate emotions in a more efficient manner. 

As a result, participants in support groups are more likely to experience an improvement in their mental health and emotional resilience.

Ultimately, the neurological benefits of support groups reinforce the significance of genuine human connection in promoting emotional resilience and well-being. By recognizing and embracing the true impact of authentic human connection, individuals can truly unleash the immense potential of support groups to foster personal growth and strengthen their mental health.

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References:

Grewen, K. M., & Light, K. C. (2011). Plasma oxytocin is related to lower cardiovascular and sympathetic reactivity to stress. Biological Psychology, 87(3), 340-349.

Heinrichs, M., Baumgartner, T., Kirschbaum, C., & Ehlert, U. (2003). Social support and oxytocin interact to suppress cortisol and subjective responses to psychosocial stress. Biological Psychiatry, 54(12), 1389-1398.

Heinrichs, M., von Dawans, B., & Domes, G. (2009). Oxytocin, vasopressin, and human social behavior. Frontiers in Neuroendocrinology, 30(4), 548-557.

Adolphs, R. (2009). The social brain: Neural basis of social knowledge. Annual Review of Psychology, 60, 693-716.

Vinet, E. V., Zamboni, G., Haggard, P., & Panksepp, J. (2017). Social play in juvenile hamsters alters dendritic morphology in ventral but not dorsal hippocampus. Brain Imaging and Behavior, 11(2), 376-384.

Tivnan, M. T., & White, J. M. (2006). The role of acceptance and emotional regulation in generalized anxiety disorder. Anxiety, Stress, and Coping, 19(2), 167-178.

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