Humans are social animals. Over millions of years, we’ve evolved to function as part of the whole; as members of families, tribes, societies, and civilizations.
Despite romantic notions about hermits and “lone wolves”, the majority of us can’t function well outside of the collective. Cooperation, community, and connection are deeply woven into our biological makeup. Unsurprisingly, the deprivation of these vital elements can have a devastating impact on our physical health and mental well-being.
It’s often the case that we don’t realize the value of something until it’s gone. The global pandemic emphasized how essential social interaction is—and we’re still recovering. A recent survey found loneliness has been on the rise since COVID-19 swept throughout the world.
However, for many dealing with addictions, feelings of loneliness and isolation aren’t just confined to the lockdowns. Their suffering tends to be of a type and degree most can’t relate to. In many cases, they’ve been ostracized by friends, family, or society at large, and this vital social need (the sense of love and belongingness crucial for well-being) can go unfulfilled.
Healing cannot take place in a social vacuum, which is part of the reason peer support is such an essential component of successful recovery. People with addictions need to feel seen and heard by those who truly understand what they’ve gone through; to be treated with compassion and kindness, not simply as a statistic, patient, or problem to be solved, but as a fellow human beings.
Addictions can be isolating
Despite the recent ground that’s been made, addiction is still widely stigmatized. Rather than framing substance use, alcoholism, or addictive behaviors as means to cope with trauma or other health issues, they are often viewed harshly and unfairly. Words like lazy, irresponsible, immature, and weak are often leveled at sufferers.
Indeed, society itself (with its questionable policies and unsuccessful “war on drugs”) often reinforces this stigmatization. Addictions would be isolating enough without this enormous pressure from society; one that’s subliminally drip-fed into family units.
However, there are other ways addictions can exacerbate these feelings of isolation and loneliness:
Prioritizing substance use
Becoming addicted to a substance can cause your focus and priority to shift entirely toward obtaining and using it. This can lead to neglecting other areas of your life, such as social relationships, work, and hobbies, resulting in withdrawal from social situations.
Fear of judgment or rejection
When you struggle with an addiction you may feel ashamed or embarrassed about your behavior, as well as experience fear of being judged or rejected by others. This fear can lead to avoidance of social connection as a way to protect yourself from potential negative interactions.
Changes in behavior
Addiction can temporarily alter your behavior and personality, making it difficult for you to maintain relationships with friends and family. You may become irritable, defensive, or secretive, which can put a strain on relationships and push people away.
Loss of interest
Being addicted to a substance can often result in a kind of monomania, where all your energy is focused on this source of pleasure and satisfaction. As a result, you may lose interest in other activities you used to find enjoyable, such as spending time with loved ones.
What is peer support?
In simple terms, peer support refers to the process of providing emotional and practical support to those in recovery. What separates it from treatments like psychotherapy, is that those offering the support have gone through similar experiences and some have made a successful recovery.
Through mutual respect, shared understanding, empowerment, and ultimately love, peer groups and support workers can help you stay engaged in the recovery process, reducing the likelihood of relapse.
Peer support can cover a wide spectrum and be provided in a variety of different settings, among which are:
One-on-one peer support
This is typically provided by someone who has experienced similar challenges and is also in recovery. It is focused on sharing experiences, providing empathy, and offering practical advice based on personal experiences. The relationship is typically informal and based on the mutual sharing of experiences and support.
This is where people come together in a group setting to share their experiences and support one another. Sharing in a safe, trusting space with many people who have had similar experiences can be incredibly powerful. It can make you feel like you’re far from alone in your struggle and is one of the most impactful ways to give you a sense of belonging.
Group support can be done in person or virtually through video conferencing or via online chat groups.
This is when an experienced individual, known as a mentor, supports and guides you through recovery. What separates mentoring from one-to-one peer support is the more goal-oriented, structured approach of the former.
The mentor – who has typically overcome similar challenges and achieved stability in their recovery – serves as a positive role model and source of inspiration. Along with emotional support and encouragement, they may offer learned practical advice on how to stay sober, develop coping skills to deal with triggers and cravings, and identify healthy ways to manage stress and emotions.
Ultimately, they help the person in recovery set and achieve realistic goals for their personal and professional life. Mentoring can take many forms, such as regular one-on-one meetings, phone or video calls, or participation in recovery support groups.
This is where peers advocate for each other’s rights and work together to create change in policies and systems that affect their lives. Among the ways advocates help is by assisting you in advocating for yourself, such as teaching you how to communicate your needs and preferences to healthcare providers, or helping you prepare for meetings with service providers or agencies.
Furthermore, advocates will help if you’re facing discrimination or other barriers to accessing the services or resources you need.
Why is peer support helpful in addiction recovery?
Whether it’s hobbies, history, or humor, we tend to feel more at ease in our social groups because of what we share. Ultimately, if we can relate to someone – whether it’s a blood relative, partner, or friend – we’re more likely to spend time with them.
So, what do people do when they need help with addictive behaviors?
Often, those tackling addictions either end up doing so alone or among fellow users with whom they share little beyond the addiction itself.
Thankfully, outright ostracism isn’t the norm and, if it does occur, is usually a last measure. In many cases, loved ones will go out of their way to express how much they care; they themselves may have gone through similar experiences and be well-placed to help. However, when those who don’t understand your struggle attempt to offer their support (no matter how well-meaning) it can feel isolating and demeaning. This could be because they don’t have the experience to understand you, lack the training to properly empathize, or could be too emotionally involved.
Chronic addiction can put a strain on family and friendships and, despite initial steps to try and help, they may end up becoming burnt out. Oftentimes, they simply don’t have the capacity or experience to assist you through the recovery process.
That’s why programs that enable you to connect with your peers, to receive the support you need, are so important. When facing adversity, it’s immensely helpful to be able to communicate with those who understand what you’re going through.
Rebuilding self-esteem and a sense of connection
Addiction can take a toll on your self-worth and feelings of shame are persistent among those in recovery. Through peer support, you can find a safe space to share your struggles, receive validation for your experiences, and, in turn, offer validation to others. This can help to rebuild the self-esteem and confidence needed to counteract shame and self-doubt.
There’s a good reason “love and belonging” is the third tier in Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. Those with addictions often struggle to find acceptance and understanding through mainstream society. By sharing stories and experiences with a community united in their commitment to recovery – those who accept each other without judgment or stigma – this sense of love and belonging can be rekindled and nurtured.
Keeping you on track
Peer support is an invaluable way to keep you committed to your treatment program and provide the ongoing support key to recovery.
This literature review found that peer support had enabled those with substance use disorders to experience improved relationships with social supports, reduced rates of relapse, improved satisfaction with overall treatment and increased treatment retention.
Overall, peer support offers a holistic and compassionate approach to recovery; one that recognizes the importance of human connection and the power of shared experience. It also serves as a valuable complement to other forms of treatment, fostering the hope, resilience, and empowerment needed to fuel your recovery efforts.
How Tikvah Lake Recovery can help
At Tikvah Lake, we understand how integral social connection and community are to recovery. Social support is one of our 10 relapse prevention rules and group sessions are a vital component of our treatment programs.
Tikvah Lake’s ethos is to treat the whole person, not just the addiction, and our bespoke treatment plans reflect this. Knowing that social and support needs are a key part of your recovery efforts, we always tailor our plans to include this essential element.
If you’d like to talk to us about our treatment programs or the role of peer support in recovery, please contact us.