In the fight against addiction, a counselor has a key role to play. This is the person that provides the addict with information about the addiction, and helps the addict come up with new ways to fight back against the disease. Some counselors work with doctors who prescribe medications that can help the addict deal with cravings for drugs. The relationship between the addict and the counselor might be incredibly strong, and it’s certainly helpful, but that relationship might also come to a close at some point. The addict will need to learn how to deal with the addiction in the “real world,” away from the counselor’s office.
Support groups may have a key role to play as the addict begins to integrate into the community once more. Support groups are often affiliated with a treatment center or a nonprofit agency, and meetings are held in a variety of locations. Support groups have become an important part of care for a variety of chronic conditions, but as a study in the journal American Psychologist indicates, they commonly spring up around conditions that are considered stigmatizing or somehow unpleasant. Addiction certainly fits this mold, and therefore, addiction support groups are remarkably common.
Benefits of Support Groups
Addiction support groups come in a variety of formats, but they all have one thing in common: The participants are all struggling with their own addictions. It can be awkward to think about spending time in the company of other addicts, as the person in treatment might be accustomed to thinking that he/she needs to steer clear of people who have a history of substance abuse, but the fact is that an addiction support group can provide a significant number of benefits. According to the Mayo Clinic, the benefits of participation in a support group include:
- A reduction in feelings of loneliness and isolation
- An increase in a sense of empowerment
- Improved ability to cope
- A reduction in feelings of anxiety
- A clearer understanding of how the condition works, and how it is typically handled
- An opportunity to learn about new medical research
- An opportunity to gain practical advice or information
People who participate in support groups might understand the condition well, because they’re dealing with the condition on their own. It’s a bit like finding two people who hold the same job. These two people might be able to share horror stories, explain the techniques they use to succeed, and outline tips and tricks they’ve used as they strive for success. As the talk moves forward, both people might feel as though they’ve found someone who really understands the issue and provides valuable advice. And, both people might feel good about the help they’ve provided in turn. People in support groups often form partnerships, providing a sort of crisis lifeline for one another. If a person feels a need to use, right now, the person can call a member of the support group instead, and together, they can help the crisis to pass without resorting to a relapse to drug use.
Participating in an addiction support group may also help people to reduce their cravings to abuse substances. For example, a study in the journal Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research found that even participating in a few support group sessions was associated with increased abstinence from alcohol. The more sessions the people participated in, however, the more likely it was that they’d be able to achieve long-term abstinence. Multiple studies have replicated this result, indicating that support groups really can help people to control their substance use and abuse. By attending meetings, they gain lasting control.
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In-Person Support Groups
Some support groups hold in-person meetings. Alcoholics Anonymous is the most instantly recognizable support group that follows this model. Here, members are asked to follow 12 specific steps that are associated with recovery. Some of these steps are practical, encouraging participants to think about the harm their addictions have caused and come up with ways they can atone for those injuries, but other steps are a bit metaphysical. For example, users are asked to appeal to a higher power, and they’re asked to pray in the meetings they attend. Some people may find these ideas appealing, but others may not. In addition, Alcoholics Anonymous also asks users to admit that the addiction is outside of the addict’s control, and some people balk at the idea that they cannot control their own destiny.
For people who prefer a different form of support group in which there is no emphasis on spirituality and there is no requirement to pray or submit to the inevitability of addiction, there are many other models available. For example, some hospitals and churches conduct support groups for members of the community. These meetings might be structured, or they might be informal in nature. Some people form their own groups, pulled together from their family members and friends who are also struggling with addiction. These meetings can be just as beneficial as meetings that are pulled together and sanctioned by some outside authority.
People who do prefer a more formal support group have many options to choose from. According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, these choices include:
- Women for Sobriety. Which accepts women participants and follows a standardized format for meetings. Meditation is encouraged, but there is no emphasis on god or a higher power in this group.
- SMART Recovery. Which is a secular group that encourages people to take control of their addictions and use specific techniques to conquer cravings.
- Secular Organization for Sobriety. Which uses the power of thought to change behavior. Lifelong abstinence is the goal of this secular group.
- LifeRing. Which encourages people to develop their own unique path to abstinence. Meetings are relatively unstructured, based on the events the attendees have endured in the previous week.
Any of these models can be effective, and many of these groups hold meetings in major metropolitan areas. People who live in smaller communities, however, may find it difficult to find a meeting that uses one of these models.
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Online Support Groups
Some people find that attending a meeting in person is difficult. There may not be any meetings held at times that synch with their schedules, or they may be terrified of the thought of walking into a room and talking directly with strangers about something that is intensely personal. Online support groups may be extremely helpful for people like this.
Several of the groups mentioned above hold online meetings. For example, SMART Recovery and LifeRing use online formats of their meetings to augment the services they provide in their in-person meetings. But, there are other online support groups that are not affiliated with any organization at all. Some websites contain addiction forums, in which anyone can start a discussion topic and other members can join in. These sites can allow users to quickly share information and experiences. Other sites use a chat format, allowing members to talk with one another on an informal basis in a live setting. These can be good touchup tools for people who are in a crisis and need to talk with someone about it right now.
According to the non-profit agency Addiction Survivors, online support groups have special benefits for users. For example, most support groups encourage members to share information about therapies they’ve used or treatments they’ve tried. In an in-person meeting, it can be hard to verify if that information is true, or if it’s been distorted in some way. In an online meeting, it can be easy to simply click on a reputable research site and find out more about a claim tossed out. Online support groups might also be beneficial as they represent help 24 hours per day. There’s no need to wait for a meeting to begin or a call to be returned. The sites are always up and running, and chances are, there’s always someone online that’s ready to talk. The sites are also completely anonymous, so people don’t need to worry that their substance abuse history will be exposed due to their participation.
Online support groups do come with some concerns, however. Since the sites are anonymous, it’s difficult to measure the reliability and honesty of the other members. Unfortunately, some people might not be as reliable or as truthful as they claim to be, and they could transmit faulty or even hurtful information. In addition, some sites encourage members to “meet” one another in real life, and this could lead to safety concerns. It’s best to treat all the information received as suspicious and discuss it with a doctor or therapist, and avoid meeting people in real time until you are certain they are what they say they are.
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It’s worth repeating that support groups can be extremely helpful for people who are in recovery from addiction. A study in the journal Addiction found that people who had higher levels of social support had lower scores of addiction severity six months after they’d completed their formal treatment programs for addiction. They were also more likely to complete their addiction treatment programs in the first place. Participating in a support group allows people to connect with others who understand the problem and are willing to provide needed help. It’s a valuable part of any addiction treatment program.
At Axis, we encourage all of our clients to attend support group meetings while they’re under our care, and we expect them to continue to attend meetings once they return to their own communities. We can even help our clients find meetings in their own communities, or we can provide suggestions on online groups our clients might enjoy. Please contact us to find out more about how we incorporate these support groups into the care we provide.
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