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How Social Connections Affect Recovery

We are social creatures. Having close, loving relationships and the support of others is crucial for our happiness, and this is especially true in recovery.

A 2013 study, reported in the journal Psychology of Addictive Behaviors, found that the development of a social identity that highlighted a “recovery identity” vs. an “addiction identity” was useful for reducing relapse among the study participants. Recovery groups, such as Alcoholics Anonymous (AA), Narcotics Anonymous (NA), and others, often provide the first step for people in recovery to help them develop a recovery identity. With such group support, people in recovery can begin to feel less stigmatized and have an opportunity to receive the emotional support, guidance, education, and nurturance they need to succeed.

In many ways, we define ourselves by the company we keep, and for those in recovery, building friendships and relationships that support different aspects of themselves and their lives is essential.-Rita Milios

To maintain a recovery identity over the long haul, ongoing support from others outside a recovery group is also necessary. In many ways, we define ourselves by the company we keep, and for those in recovery, building friendships and relationships that support different aspects of themselves and their lives is essential. “Recovery capital” is a term that was coined in 1999 by two researchers, Robert Granfield and William Cloud, to refer to the sum of resources that a recovering person has at their disposal to assist them in their recovery.

What Is “Recovery Capital?”

Recovery capital includes social skills such as:

  • Resilience: the ability to overcome difficulties.
  • Coping skills: skills that help us adapt and meet challenges.
  • Self-esteem: confidence in one’s own self-worth.

Recovery capital also includes social interactions that foster:

  • Intimacy: having connections to family, partners, and friends.
  • Validation of new, positive values: receiving reassurance, support, and acceptance as one’s values and morals are reassessed and updated.
  • Opportunities for learning: having mentors, advocates, and teachers.

For people in recovery, engaging in social interactions that can foster the development of friendships and relationships beyond those found in support group circles is often tough. Some former friends may be unwilling to renew friendships due to negative interactions that occurred while the recovering person was actively addicted. If the addiction started early in life, perhaps in the teen or young adulthood years, the recovering person may have missed out on important social learning opportunities, such as attending school or college, or networking via work or career connections.

Loneliness and isolation are risks for people in recovery who are dealing with feelings of shame, guilt, or emptiness. Social support can make the difference between relapse and recovery during this vulnerable time. So no matter how uncomfortable it may feel, recovering individuals need to reach out to others to build social support and recovery capital.

Psychiatrist David Sack, M.D., CEO of Elements Behavioral Health, a network of addiction treatment programs, has written about the connection between social interaction and psychological health in recovery. He offers advice for breaking through isolation and increasing social connections:

5 Tips for Increasing Social Connections

  • Join a support group. Group resources give the opportunity to de-stigmatize one’s identity and to receive honest feedback and guidance from people who know the challenges of being in recovery.
  • Make amends. Saying you are sorry to people you have wronged is not enough. They will likely need to see both your commitment to making things right and your commitment to your ongoing recovery before they will be willing to renew ties. But it is worth the price to bring these friendships back into your life.
  • Become comfortable with yourself. You may need to seek counseling to put to rest old emotional demons and develop self-esteem. Counseling can also be an excellent place to learn and practice social skills such as maintaining healthy boundaries, being honest, and being emotionally open and authentic.
  • Give back. Be a friend and you will get friends. Taking part in some type of volunteer project is an excellent way to give back and make new friends simultaneously.
  • Stay balanced. In recovery, self-development is crucial. And you do need to nurture all aspects of yourself–physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual. But you must also be careful not to let your focus on self-development completely overshadow your family life, work life, or other responsibilities. Keeping everything in proper balance is a challenge, but it is perhaps the best predictor of your long-term success.