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Recovery from Addiction: Social Support

A. Tom Horvath, Ph.D., ABPP, Kaushik Misra, Ph.D., Amy K. Epner, Ph.D., and Galen Morgan Cooper, Ph.D.

Social support can be a very powerful and beneficial force in the recovery process. The benefits of social support are many.

  • a sense of belongingness and inclusion,
  • a sense of safety and security,
  • reduced stress, decreased isolation and loneliness,
  • an enhanced sense of meaning and purpose,
  • hope and optimism about the future,
  • the opportunity to escape the narrow world of one's own concerns
  • social support can counteract shame, isolation and secrecy.

friends eating in restaurantWhat exactly is social support? Social support includes the provision of various forms of help:

a) Providing valuable information: e.g., telling someone about a helpful website about addiction; describing personal recovery experiences; sharing a helpful technique to manage cravings.

b) Providing necessary or desirable resources: e.g., loaning someone a necktie or necklace for a job interview; giving someone a book about recovery; loaning a car.

c) Providing concrete assistance: e.g., driving someone to the doctor's office; taking care of someone's children; helping someone find affordable housing

d) Providing emotional support: e.g., empathic listening; encouragement; understanding; compassion; shared problem-solving

Undoubtedly, some individuals recover from addiction without social support. However, research determined that attendance in a recovery support group is associated with recovery (Atkins & Hawdon, 2007; Humphreys, 2011). In fact, social support is so crucial that several approaches to addiction treatment focus on the reorganization of social support (Miller, Forchimes & Zweben, 2011). However, social support is likely a powerful factor for natural recoveries as well.

If you are interested in recovery, it will be helpful to evaluate the quality of your social network(s). Ask yourself the following questions:

1. Does your social network help you to experience yourself as a worthwhile and valuable human being?
2. Do you feel you are a respected and appreciated member of that group?
3. Do you feel a sense of belonging, attachment, and commitment to your social group(s)?
4. Do the members of your social group share a sense of responsibility for each other?
5. When the group makes decisions, does the decision-making process accept input from all its members?
6. Do you provide help to each other? Does the provision of this help enhance your feelings of connection, competence, and well-being?
7. Do your social groups offer varied opportunities for sharing creativity, recreation, laughter, and joy?
8. Do you feel confident that if you really needed some help, this help would be available to you from your social group?

If you answered no to any of these questions, your answer may indicate a possible weakness in your social support network. You may want to work on developing that particular area of social support. If you answered no to many of those questions then it's probably time to take a hard look at this. You may decide your social support network needs a complete overhaul! Take this is stride. Gradually work toward building a new network that includes these positive qualities. However, if you regularly feel criticized, demeaned, and treated with contempt, then depart that situation as soon as possible!

Social support has many benefits. It shines the light on things that may have contributed to the addiction developing in the first place: shame, secrecy, and isolation. It is healthy to gradually share your shame, secrets and insecurities with select members of your social group. 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 psychotherapist. Unlike well-meaning friends and family members, the law requires professional therapists to maintain your confidentiality. A friend today may become an adversary tomorrow. A professional therapist is like a vault: sealed shut. If you should decide to consult with a therapist, ask at the onset if there are any legal exceptions to confidentiality. This information will vary from state to state.

Another benefit of a professional therapist is an assurance of acceptance. This is not always the case with friends and family. Furthermore, you may be more likely to open up to a therapist. You may feel reluctant to admit certain things to the people you care about the most. This is because we usually cannot afford to have these close intimates reject or abandon us. Depending upon your situation, your therapist may recommend gradually disclosing some of these very private things to select people in your social network.

A recovery support group offers the positive qualities of social support that we've reviewed. There are other ways to receive the benefits of social support. Some groups to consider are: family; co-workers; group psychotherapy; a church or other religious community; neighbors; a community or civic group; a long-standing group of friends; a sports team; volunteer organizations; or any group that tends to be supportive. A successful recovery plan will include improving your social network. This is especially important if your current support is inadequate. Here's a good guideline to follow: A group is likely to lead you back to addictive behavior if they helped you get there the first place!

We have specifically focused on the social support as it relates to the recovery process. As we change and grow, so does our support system. One thing does not change: We benefit greatly from these important connections with other people.

 

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