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By: Rick Fannin
I Can’t but We Can: The Power of Social Support in Recovery
Addiction is a biological, psychological, and social impairment. Much scientific focus has been on addiction’s biological and psychological aspects, but the social aspect is equally important. Social Connection Theory proposes that addiction is about isolation, and recovery is about connection. Attachment Theory helps us to understand how early relationships in childhood and early trauma contribute to attachment insecurity, decrease trust, increases fear, and contributes to substance abuse problems as adults. There are multiple pathways to recovery, but the most difficult path is the one that is traveled alone.
Decades of research have shown that social support has substantial benefits, and the lack of social support contributes to psychological distress and the onset of drug or alcohol problems. The relationship between drug or alcohol use symptoms and psychological distress such as anxiety or depression is bi-directional in nature. For example, elevated depression or anxiety symptoms predict an increased likelihood of developing an alcohol-related problem, and alcohol abuse predicts future depressive or anxious symptoms.
Research on this relationship found that individuals with higher levels of psychological distress often use drugs or alcohol to self-medicate as a means of coping with the distress. However, as the biological changes occur within the brain and body because of continued substance use, the once solution to the distress now becomes the source for additional distress.
Social support can be a powerful and beneficial force in the recovery process. The benefits of social support include:
- Improved physical health
- Greater resilience to stress
- Improved self-esteem
- Feeling of security
- Improved mental well-being
- Greater life satisfaction
- Sense of belonging and inclusion
- Decreased isolation and loneliness
- Enhanced sense of meaning and purpose
- Counteract shame, isolation, and secrecy
- Hope and optimism about the future
Social support includes the provision of various forms of help. These types of social support include:
- Emotional Support: Emotional support helps managing emotions, such as stress, anger, or depression. This support might include listening to problems and showing empathy.
- Tangible Support: Help with practical problems, such as financial assistance, providing a ride to work, or help with childcare.
- Informational Support: Providing information that helps solve a problem or overcome a challenge. This might include advice or information about helpful resources.
- Social Needs: This type of support helps with the fulfillment of basic social needs, such as love, belonging, and connectedness. This helps provide a feeling of security and contentment.
In 1939, Bill W and Dr. Bob, the early pioneers of Alcoholics Anonymous, recognized the power of “We” and social support. The wording of the Twelve Steps omits “I” and amplifies the importance of “We”, as illustrated in:
1. We admitted we were powerless over alcohol—that our lives had become unmanageable.
2. Came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.
3. Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood Him.
4. Made a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves.
5. Admitted to God, to us, and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs.
6. Were entirely ready to have God remove all these defects of character.
7. Humbly asked Him to remove our shortcomings.
8. Made a list of all persons we had harmed and became willing to make amends to them all.
9. Made direct amends to such people wherever possible, except when to do so would injure them or others.
10. Continued to take personal inventory and when we were wrong promptly admitted it.
11. Sought through prayer and meditation to improve our conscious contact with God as we understood Him, praying only for knowledge of His will for us and the power to carry that out.
12. Having had a spiritual awakening as the result of these steps, we tried to carry this message to alcoholics and to practice these principles in all our affairs.
A significant amount of research has shown that involvement with 12-step support groups, such as Alcoholics Anonymous or Narcotics Anonymous, is associated with improvements in recovery rates from drugs or alcohol and reduces the risk of relapse (3). Many who walk into recovery rooms find these support groups’ members become significant sources of emotional support, tangible support, and fulfill social needs. With the new member being recognized as “The most important person in the room,” new members quickly feel the love, care, and support from the other members. As the new member continues to return to more and more meetings, the once empty social vessel begins to fill with belonging, connectedness, security, and contentment.
Having someone genuinely and actively listen as we share our problems, provide an empathetic understanding, and providing us with unconditional positive regard are the pillars of these helping relationships. These support group members may even offer tangible support, such as a ride to a meeting, a couch to sleep on, or some side work to help with finances. Those that have recovered are also excellent sources of informational support by sharing information on helpful resources and personal accounts of how they solved problems they faced along their own recovery journey.
Finally, as members begin to work these steps with a sponsor, much progress is gained in attending to existing relationships by making amends for the damage that was done while in addiction.
Examine Your Existing Social Support Network
If you are interested in recovery, it might be helpful to evaluate the quality of your existing social network. Ask yourself the following questions:
- Does your social network help you to experience yourself as a worthwhile and valuable human being?
- Do you feel you are a respected and appreciated member of that group?
- Do you feel a sense of belonging, attachment, and commitment to your social group?
- Do members of your social group share a sense of responsibility and respect for each other?
- When the group makes a decision, does the decision-making process accept input from all its members?
- Do members of the group provide help and support for each other?
- Does the help provide by the social group enhance your feelings of connection, competence, and well-being?
- Does this social group treat you with dignity and respect, even when you are struggling?
- Do you feel confident that this help would be available to you from your social group if you really needed help?
If you answered no to any of the above questions, it might indicate that lack of social support makes be a barrier to your recovery efforts. You may want to make a plan on developing a stronger support system for your recovery. If you answered no to most of these questions, it might indicate that your social support network needs a complete overhaul.
Tips on Building Social Support for Your Recovery:
- Prune Harmful Social Networks. Some social circles may create more harm than good. Interactions with others that are still in active addiction create a significant risk of relapse. Likewise, continuing involvement with toxins and chaos generating social circles also creates a substantial risk of relapse. Here is an excellent rule to follow: A group is likely to lead you back to addictive behavior if they helped you get there in the first place!
- Increase community involvement. Participate in hobby groups, volunteering, or religious groups. This is a great way to meet like-minded people and build a new support system.
- Attend support groups. Connect with others who are dealing with similar problems or life experiences. It can be rewarding to share your own story and support others.
- Attend to your existing relationships. Reach out to friends and family. Make it a priority to maintain your most important relationships, even when other areas of your life are busy.
- Use professional support. Doctors, therapists, social workers, and other professionals can help you solve more complicated problems or too challenging to tackle alone.
We understand the importance of establishing trusting and supportive relationships to aid recovery efforts. These relationships often become some of the greatest gifts found along the road to recovery, and many find there is much to be grateful for in recovery.
For many, addiction has contributed to significant amounts of shame, secrecy, and isolation. It is healthy to gradually share your shame, secrets, and insecurities with others. One of the phrases often heard in the recovery rooms are “Your secrets keep you sick.” In fact, making these disclosures is often crucial to establishing a successful recovery. However, in some situations, it may be safer and wiser to share these things with a professional counselor., like our program. Unlike well-meaning friends and family members, the law requires professional counselors to maintain your confidentiality.
Another benefit of a professional counselor is an assurance of acceptance, which is not always the case with a friend or family member. The counselor can help formulate a plan and strategy on safely and gradually disclosing some of these very private things to select trusting members of your social group.
As we change and grow in recovery, so do our support systems. However, one thing does not change: We benefit significantly from these essential connections with other people.