The addiction recovery process is sometimes described in mystical terms. People who get sober often say that they “hit bottom,” “change their lives” and make connections with “something bigger.” They do more than simply put down the bottle or throw away the pills. They come to a new understanding about how life should be lived, and what role they should play in a life that’s both healthy and happy.
While therapy plays a big role in helping people to both understand and transform their lives, support group work is also considered vital.
Support groups can help people to build on the lessons of therapy, and these peer communities can help to reduce the sense of isolation people often feel when they’re trapped in a life filled with alcohol and drugs.
Support Group Options
There are a number of different types of support groups people could access in order to deal with an addiction, including:
- SMART Recovery
- Secular Organizations for Sobriety
- Life Ring
- Women for Sobriety
- 12-Step support groups
According to research quoted in an article published in the Journal of Substance Abuse Treatment, there’s little difference in terms of recovery rates between these groups. In fact, it’s safe to say that just the act of participating in a support group, no matter what format it might use, is associated with a stronger recovery while skipping support groups is associated with relapse.
However, the 12-Step model remains the dominant player in the field of addiction and recovery.
The number of studies that have been done on this model and the amount of information widely available about how this model works is vast and that makes explaining the 12-Step model really easy. As a result, this article will focus almost exclusively on 12-Step support groups, but readers should know that there are other formats available to them, should this particular model be unappealing for some reason. If these readers do choose another model, the same sorts of lessons and takeaway points might apply.
The 12-Step Model
Support groups that follow the 12-Step model end with the word “anonymous,” and begin with the substance or action that the group struggles to control. Alcoholics Anonymous, Narcotics Anonymous and Overeaters Anonymous are just a few of the types of support groups that follow this particular model, and people are encouraged to find the support group that’s made for their specific addiction. For example, information produced by Alcoholics Anonymous says that people who have addictions to other substances aren’t allowed to come to some types of AA meetings at all, and if they come to the meetings in which they are welcome, they can only observe and not participate.
This relentless focus can seem a little unusual, but it’s designed to ensure that everyone who comes to these meetings has the same kind of addiction and the same kinds of struggles. The lives of those who abuse alcohol might be different than those who abuse heroin, in terms of where they get drugs and how they use them. Splitting people up by their addictions just make sense, if connectedness is the key.
There are a number of different meeting types within the 12-Step model, including:
- Meetings with speakers
- Discussion meetings regarding one person’s addiction lesson
- Discussion meetings regarding a specific part of the healing process
- Informational meetings
The act of attending meetings is considered vital to a person’s success in sobriety. In fact, people who participate in the 12-Step movement are encouraged to go to a meeting at least once per week, if not more frequently. Studies seem to suggest that this level of engagement is associated with a greater amount of sobriety success. For example, a study in the American Journal of Drug and Alcohol Abuse found that less-than-weekly participation was associated with a return to drug and alcohol abuse. The lessons learned in these meetings seem to provide people with the tools they need to both get and stay sober.
But people who participate in support groups like this are also expected to do work outside of the context of a meeting. They might meet with other members for lunch or coffee, either accepting or giving advice. They might read literature produced by the group and think about how they could apply the lessons of the literature in their lives. They might also volunteer, go to church, or otherwise attempt to make a connection with a higher power or a larger cause. Sometimes these acts are seen as more important in helping a person to develop a lasting sobriety.
A study in the journal Addiction Research and Theory suggests that AA and support groups like it help people to recover because they help them develop a sense of self-efficacy. They pick up coping skills to deal with cravings, and they develop social networks and a connection to something bigger, and this allows them to feel at least a modicum of control over their addictions and their lives. The more they learn and the more they grow, the more they feel transformed and able to handle a sober life.
A Complementary Level of Assistance
It’s important to note that support groups like this aren’t considered a form of professional therapy for addiction. There is no clinical oversight in a program like this, and no doctor is providing notes or monitoring progress. There are no medications given, no therapy sessions conducted and no treatments are provided. All of that work happens in a formal treatment program for addiction, and support group work could never replace that kind of targeted, medical help.
Rather than thinking of support groups as a form of addiction treatment, it’s best to think of them as additional therapy that’s often part of the treatment mix for people who have addictions. The support group work can support the healing of a formal rehab program, but it can never replace the kind of assistance that’s provided in a formal rehab program.
That being said, most people who have addictions are encouraged to take part in the support group movement. No matter what type of addiction a person might have, and no matter how the person might feel about sharing with others in recovery, it’s considered a vital part of the healing process for people who have addictions, and there are very few people who might not benefit from participation.
It’s not surprising then that a remarkable
number of people have participated in support groups like this. For example, a study in the journal Addiction found that nine percent of American adults had been to an AA meeting at one point or another. People may not discuss their meetings openly, as indicated by the “anonymous” factor of these groups limits discussions, but it’s clear that many people take advantage of this kind of help in the United States. For those who have addictions, it can be remarkably helpful.
Since support groups are associated with a robust level of recovery, most Foundations Recovery Network facilities will help connect patients with this resource. Each patient might be best suited for a slightly different type of meeting, depending on his or her needs, and some clients might be excused from meetings if therapists think that the work won’t be beneficial for one reason or another. But the resource is often too powerful to ignore for people who have addictions, and it remains a vital part of the care we provide to people in need. If you’d like to know more about the support groups that might be available in a facility you’re considering for someone you love, please call us. Our admissions coordinators can describe those meetings and answer any questions you might have.
David W. Newton is a board certified pharmacist and also has been a board member for boards of examiners for the National Association of Boards of Pharmacy since 1983. His areas of expertise are primarily pharmaceuticals as well as cannabinoids. You can read an article about his expertise in CBD on the National Library of Medicine.
Reviewed by: Kim Chin and Marian Newton