Last updated: 04/12/2019
Author: Addictions.com Medical Review
Reading Time: 8 minutes
Addiction support groups are a convenient, helpful, recovery resource for individuals coping with substance use disorders or behavioral addictions. They are a place where you can receive encouragement and assistance and offer the same to others within a welcoming community that understands one another through experience. Addiction support groups have been proven in many studies, and through the many years, they have been part of the addiction recovery world, to help individuals navigate their newfound sobriety and rebuild their lives.
These support groups can be a part of your treatment process and are commonly continued, or started, once a person leaves treatment as a form of aftercare. Almost always free, and available in most places all over the world, these groups are a vital resource that can help you maintain and enrich your addiction recovery.
What Are Addiction Support Groups?
Support groups, also called mutual-help, mutual aid, peer support, or self-help groups, are organizations of people who share the same kind of addiction, trauma, or mental health issue, and who meet to connect, discuss, and assist each other in recovery and growth. These groups can help with many different problems, including drug or alcohol addiction, grief and loss, post-traumatic stress, eating disorders, and so on.
Addiction support groups are specifically focused on substance abuse and behavioral addictions and the issues associated with recovery from addictions. Support groups are normally focused on a specific type of addiction that separates one group from another. This makes it easier for members to focus and feel as if their particular issues are being addressed by others who share their same experiences. However, many experts advise people in recovery to occasionally visit a group that is not specific to their primary addiction, as doing so can offer unexpected insights and helps prevent the act of attending meetings from becoming too routine.
Do Addiction Support Groups Use the 12 Steps?
Most addiction support groups follow the 12-step program used in Alcoholics Anonymous (AA). SMART Recovery and LifeRing are programs that do not use the 12-step approach. The 12-step program has been effective for many individuals for over eighty years, which is why most support groups use it. However, some individuals in recovery hesitate to take part because they believe these groups are religious, which is a common misunderstanding.
While the 12-steps does refer to a “higher power,” this can be seen as whatever makes the most sense for the individual. For some, it means God, but for most, a higher power refers to anything outside the self that you can turn to as a source of strength. Furthermore, the “spiritual awakening” also referred to in AA literature is simply a way to talk about the process of transformation and growth that everyone is succeeding in recovery experiences—whether they be atheist, agnostic, or religious.
What are the Benefits of Addiction Support Groups?
Many studies have been conducted about the effectiveness of support groups for those in addiction recovery. Sustained attendance at self-help groups (SHGs) is associated with a higher likelihood of abstinence and better substance use outcomes. For this reason, many experts in the field recommend that individuals leaving inpatient or outpatient treatment programs dedicate themselves to attending 90 meetings in 90 days.
Most of the studies that examined the benefits of addiction support groups found individuals who continued to attend these groups in recovery often seemed to accrue more benefits (such as sustained abstinence, better employment prospects, improved relationships, and family stability, reduced criminal activity, etc.) than those who stopped attending. In addition, a change in attendance could often be a clue of an impending crisis or relapse that would derail an individual’s recovery progress.
Generally, addiction support groups are effective for people in recovery. However, not everyone will readily respond to the support group environment. While some people feel like they’ve come home from their very first meeting, many others may need time to adjust to the support group experience. There are also some guidelines that can help increase the benefits of attending peer support meetings, and improve your experience.
- Consider all options and choose a program that best benefits your needs.
- Challenge yourself to open up and share with others. The self-acceptance and connection you experience as a result will be worth overcoming whatever might be holding you back from speaking up.
- Reach out and try to help others when you feel ready.
- Listen! While sharing is important, really listening is the most important thing you can do in a support group. This means listening without judgment, with an open mind, and without planning out what you are going to say in response. Not only are there a thousand lessons you can learn from absorbing other people’s experiences in this way, but you will also be able to reach out and help others much better if you really hear what they are saying.
- Don’t rely on support groups to take the place of professional addiction treatment. Peer support is important, but for most individuals, it is only part of the overall picture of successful addiction recovery. Professional treatment options such as behavioral therapy, medication, inpatient and outpatient programs, psychotherapy, and more may be necessary. Support groups are usually a supplement to treatment or a part of aftercare following professional treatment.
How Do Addiction Support Groups Work?
Addiction support groups usually work by several principles that are, for the most part, unchanging.
- Group meetings are run by members, not professionals. This means no one in the group is conducting professional therapy or treatment of any kind. The meetings are usually run by a moderator who has also experienced a history of addiction but is not a licensed counselor.
- Meetings are safe spaces to share openly, without fear of judgment. Being able to open up out loud in this way helps free you from denial while encouraging self-acceptance.
- Members can ask for and offer one another advice, but many times, the greatest lessons come from listening to people’s personal stories and learning from their experience.
- There are no penalties for missing meetings, although it is recommended, especially at first, that individuals attend regular meetings to get the program’s full effect.
- Members do not need insurance approval or a clinician’s consent to attend an addiction support group. These programs are not based on any benefits program and, in most cases, are free for members to join and attend as often as necessary.
- Members are encouraged to support one another and help each other by bonding over their mutual histories and current recoveries. Support groups are not a place to be judged or to judge others.
- Members are encouraged to help one another outside of meetings, usually by asking someone who has been in the program longer than they have to become their sponsor. In times of trouble, you can turn to your sponsor—not as a friend who’ll try to cheer you up, but as a trusted person who’s been where you are, who will listen, and who will tell you what you really need to hear.
- Every meeting you attend reminds you that you are not alone, and there is a larger recovery community that is rooting for your recovery success.
- Although there are addiction-specific groups, such as Alcoholics Anonymous or Cocaine Anonymous, anyone in recovery can benefit from attending any 12-step group. The basic philosophies in each are the same.
When addicted individuals feel that there are others who also understand what they have been through, it can be easier for them to share and avoid isolating themselves. Recovery is not a solitary process; it needs to be supported by relationships and social networks. While family and friendships are a large part of this, connecting with others who have gone through the same things as you is a crucial part of that support as well.
When and Where Do Support Groups Meet?
In most areas, the larger support groups (like Alcoholics Anonymous, Narcotics Anonymous, etc.) meet somewhere within driving distance at least once a day. These meetings may take place in churches, outreach centers, libraries, on school campuses, and in other public and private meeting spaces that are easily accessible to everyone. Some meetings take place in outpatient or inpatient rehab facilities, and these are often open to the public.
In the beginning, certain individuals may choose to attend meetings every day while others may go once a week. In contrast to professional treatments, people typically have access to support groups at times when they are at higher risk of relapses, such as evenings and weekends. These are often also the most convenient times for people to attend.
If you don’t have the kind of support group you need close by, or if you feel the need for more meeting times that are available near you, you are welcome to start your own group. All you need is two or more interested people in recovery, a place to meet, and some 12-step literature.
Who Should Attend Addiction Support Groups?
There are actually many types of addiction support groups focused on many different types of compulsive behavior. Because addiction does not merely apply to drugs or alcohol, different associations focus on different subjects. For example, one group may focus on recovery from narcotics addiction while another focuses on gambling. For this reason, many types of addiction support groups exist all across the country.
In addition, certain self-help groups exist where individuals can discuss more than one type of addiction. Smart Recovery, a non-12-step based group, allows individuals with all different types of addictions to come together and learn coping skills while Narcotics Anonymous does not exclusively focus on opioid-based drugs. LifeRing is another non-12-step organization that supports abstinence for both alcohol and drug addicts.
Other groups even offer help to family members of addicts. Nar-Anon and Al-Anon specifically focus on helping those whose loved ones are dependent on drugs and alcohol, respectively, find better ways to cope with their feelings and problems associated with their loved one’s substance abuse.
Because there are so many types of support groups available, it is likely that someone suffering from addiction (or the effects of addiction) will be able to find an appropriate support group for their needs. Furthermore, as stated earlier, individuals can find support at any meeting regardless of their specific addiction, and many treatment professionals recommend people in recovery attend different meetings from time to time. The variety and perspective shift this can bring will add a new layer of healing to the support group experience.
Where Can I Find Addiction Support Groups?
By choosing one of the groups listed above and visiting their website, you can often find a meeting near you that will be held sometime within the next 24 hours. There are also directories online with listings for different support group meetings. Usually, it is very easy to find some beneficial group that will meet in a place close to you by searching online or asking an addiction treatment professional.
You can also ask your personal physician or someone at one of these local facilities about possible nearby support group meetings:
- Outreach center/community center
- Free clinic
- City government office