Group psychotherapy is an excellent place to explore how anxiety, tension and depression work. These feeling are some of
the main moments in people’s lives that cause pain and suffering. A group helps people make sense of these feelings and
creates an opportunity for changing how we respond to the world.
Sometimes, when you find yourself in crisis—you’ve lost a job, or your relationships are in crisis, you become acutely aware
of these emotional states. Your life feels disrupted and you are preoccupied with anxiety, tension, depression and intrusive,
painful thoughts. These crises can last a few days, weeks or months, but usually resolve in time. If you take the opportunity,
life crises offer one of your best chances to open more fully to life. Group therapy is uniquely suited to help people begin that
process. You learn in a group that anxiety, tension and depression are ongoing events—often in the background,
underneath our radar, that constrict your satisfaction in life. You learn that these old patterns can change. You will recognize
that you are not alone.
In the groups I run, I take special care to do two things: first, I create a structure for the group that insures the support of all
members. I make sure that all members feel included and not personally subjected to the uncomfortable group pressures
that make many people steer clear of groups. Second, I create a learning environment so that people not only come to feel
safe, but learn the structure of how anxiety, tension and depression actually works.
For example, people in my groups learn a map of anxiety and the skills to get less anxious. This process often leads to an
awareness that people are more anxious in their lives than they previously understood. Once they learn the tools to undo
anxiety they are able to live more in the present moment.
The map of anxiety I teach is that there are three sources of anxiety, 1), scary thoughts (things we tell ourselves that scare
us), 2), scary feelings; sensations or feelings inside of us that feel to big or too fast for us to handle (If I start to cry I’ll cry
forever) and 3), being at the “edge of the unknown” which is the realization that we don’t know what will happen next and we
find the particular unknown we are facing scary. There are tools for each of these three kinds of anxiety, so that people
learn to get free of their anxiety over time.
Learning to live in the present. It’s worth highlighting what it can mean for you to become able to live more fully at the edge
of the unknown once you become less anxious. This means living more fully in the very present moment, and that’s where
the action really is. You’ve likely heard already about the power of living in the present, but how do you actually do it? I
teach very specific skills for learning how to do this- centering, grounding and learning to put your attention into your present
experience. When a group of people learn to be in the present and are able to work together—that is a special moment!
And people in my groups DO learn this.
Like anxiety, physical tension binds us and constricts us and keeps us from feeling fully alive. Once people get less anxious,
they often become more aware of how tense they often are. Learning to get less tense helps us to feel more relaxed and we
have more access to our underlying life energy. When someone in the group notices that they are tense, time is taken to
help them learn skills to release the tension. These tools are then useful in other situations, such as at work, in relationships,
in parenting and so on.
Depression, and its sister, “Outrage”, describe another layer of our way of binding energy. Once group members are less
anxious and tense, they have more access to their underlying life energy. Once we are more open to our underling energy
we often become more aware of frustration. One of the things we humans need help learning to manage is frustration. Life
is frustrating, and people can be extremely frustrating! What do we do with frustration? Without tools you either turn it back
on yourself (leading to a constriction and depression), or you can’t stand it any more and you go into an outrage. Outrage is
different from anger—the signature of outrage is that there are thoughts that fuel the heat of the outrage- thus insuring that
the outrage has no possibility of ending as long as those thoughts are present–there is no way to get out of the cycle. In fact
depression has a similar dynamic—thoughts that fuel it. Unfortunately depression or outrage don’t effectively deal with
external situations that are frustrating,
In the group setting, the goal is for the group to learn how to manage frustration as “pure energy”. If we make space for the
experience of frustration, as an inner exploration, we get unstuck and we don’t hurt ourselves or others. If we can make
space for the inner life energy we become free.
Once the group has these skills, of getting less anxious, less tense and less depressed or pulled toward outrage, there is a
freedom to explore other areas of our lives. We dig deeper into the sources of our getting stuck, particularly the old roles we
learned that are often the deeper sources for the symptoms of anxiety and depression.
Creating a safe group context takes strong, clear leadership. In the groups I run, I take an active stance toward creating and
holding the group structure so that all members are supported and safe. I train members early on in the norms of
communicating with each other that make a great group. All of us have unconsciously learned patterns of communication
that don’t work so well when it comes to building trust and expressing feelings. Fortunately, it’s possible to learn ways of
communicating that really work. A particularly important example of a way of talking to each other that all members learn is,
to join on similarities of experience and to hold back differences until there is a space for it. This is a basic method I teach
and it is highly effective for the group in exploring it’s experience.
Another important learning in my groups is to help members begin to learn to read what I call, “the secret life of groups”.
These are the dynamic energies in groups that manifest in quite specific ways, but are invisible until you learn to see them.
By coming to recognize the universal phases and tendencies in groups, people can come to read the relational dynamics in
their lives- in work, in relationships and even within themselves. This learning also helps members to not take things “just
personally”, something we can easily do if we do not understand the hidden forces in relational life. New insights from
psychology and from general systems theory have recently opened up deep understanding into these “system” forces.
Finding your inner authority. Once you have learned to master some of the old roles that have been binding you, and you
have freer access to your life energy and can manage frustration better, where you are not so triggered by relational or
group dynamics, you enter a new world, one in which we are able to find our own inner authority. You can take up
leadership within yourself and with others. You can focus better on your life goals and be more in what is real in your life.
If you are interested in joining a group, here’s what to do: after an inital contact, usually by phone, we have a face to face
interview of one or two meetings to explore if the group I run is the right place for you. I charge a special rate of $45.00 for a
50 minute interview. By the way, it’s normal to feel anxious starting something new and joining a group. Rest assured that I
enjoy talking to people about this work, even in it turns out that these groups are not for you (they aren’t for everyone!). I’m
happy to chat, give information, refer you to someone else, or whatever. I love groups and group work and my passion is to
help people find the right group for them.
Cost: Since most months have 4 meeting times the cost is usually $180.00. Some months have more and some times there
are breaks, so it is less. The usual way people pay is at the beginning of that month.
Peter Bernhardt, MA, MFT, group leader, teaches group psychotherapy at John F. Kennedy University and at California
Institute of Integral Studies. He has trained in group facilitation at Stanford University and is in ongoing advanced training in
systems oriented group work and organizational development. He has led groups for many years and is in private practice in
Albany, California where he sees individuals, couples and groups.