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The Critical Role of Addiction Support Groups in Recovery

Addiction support groups are often included in your treatment plan when recovering from a substance use disorder. Peer support has been found to be highly effective, and you can choose from many group types.

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What Is a Peer Addiction Support Group?

Addiction support groups, such as Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous, do not provide formal therapy, they provide peer support.

Peer support is when you, and others with similar conditions or circumstances as you, give nonprofessional help to one another, such as sharing about experiences in addiction and coping strategies.

Peer support is different from group therapy with a mental health professional. Group therapy involves a therapist who guides the group through therapeutic exercises based on their training in the field. Peer support groups do not have a licensed mental health professional as the group leader, though a senior member or trained individual may run the meeting.1

Peer support helps to remind you that you are not alone in your recovery process. Attending groups also helps to remove shame from your own experiences as you hear others share similar issues.

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What Are the Types of Peer Addiction Support Groups?

While most addiction support groups are similar, you will find a few differences. For example, there are secular support groups that do not include any spirituality in the group discussions, whereas other groups do incorporate ideas of spirituality and religion as part of their support.

Twelve-Step Groups

Some of the most common support groups are 12-step groups. These groups are based on the concept of spirituality in recovery and follow similarly written steps of recovery. Some of the most common 12-step groups are:

  • Alcoholics Anonymous (AA)
  • Narcotics Anonymous (NA)
  • Celebrate Recovery

Each of these groups asks members to connect with a higher power and ask that higher power for strength in their recovery process.

Secular Alternatives to 12-step Groups

Other peer support groups exist to offer similar therapeutic value but without spirituality. Some of these groups are:

  • Harm Reduction, Abstinence, and Moderation Support (HAMS)
  • Self-Management and Recovery Training (SMART)
  • Secular Organizations for Sobriety (SOS)
  • LifeRing Secular Society

Individual groups may also have different philosophies about recovery. For example, HAMS does not define “recovery” as complete abstinence from alcohol, while SMART does.

What Can I Expect at Addiction Support Group Meetings?

Each addiction support group has its own meeting structure that may vary slightly, such as between in-person and online support group meetings.

Alcoholics Anonymous

Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) is the most well-known 12-step programs. AA is free to attend and is founded on anonymity. You can visit their website to find a list of meetings near you.2

AA offers online and in-person meetings and follows a 12-step program that takes you through various stages of healing and alcohol use recovery. Meetings usually consist of readings from the 12 Steps curriculum and open discussions where attendees can speak voluntarily.

This peer support group also encourages you to find a sponsor—someone who is further along in recovery than you are—to act as a point of accountability in your attempts to remain sober.

AA has open meetings where anyone can attend and closed meetings that are reserved for those with an alcohol use disorder only.

Narcotics Anonymous

Narcotics Anonymous (NA) is also a free, anonymous 12-step program that follows the same steps as AA but is specifically designed to help you recover from addiction to a substance other than alcohol.

NA also utilizes spirituality, sponsors, and a similar meeting structure as AA. You can visit their website to find a meeting near you.3

Celebrate Recovery

Celebrate Recovery (CR) is another 12-step program similar to AA and NA, but it is grounded in Christianity as opposed to the more open spirituality of AA and NA. CR uses the 12 Steps along with some of their own additions that involve scripture from the Bible and Jesus Christ‘s teachings. The meeting format is one of open discussion and some instruction from a group leader.4

Harm Reduction, Abstinence, and Moderation Support

Harm Reduction, Abstinence, and Moderation Support (HAMS) is a free, anonymous peer support group that you can attend in person or online. HAMS is not a 12-step program and does not require abstinence as the only road to recovery. Instead, HAMS is based on 17 Elements that reduce the harm associated with substance use and support you in moderation if you choose to continue using your substance.

Another difference between HAMS and 12-step groups is that you will still be allowed into a HAMS meeting if you are intoxicated, as long as your behavior is not disruptive to the group.5

SMART Recovery

Self-Management and Recovery Training (SMART) Recovery groups are a popular alternative to 12-step programs. These groups are founded on the principles of cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) and based on a four-point program that focuses on:6

  1. Finding your motivation for change
  2. Learning how to cope with your urges to use
  3. Managing your thoughts and feelings without using
  4. Establishing a balanced, positive, and healthy lifestyle

SMART does not utilize spiritual aspects or sponsors like the 12-step programs, but they do offer in-person and online meetings. SMART is an abstinence-based program.

Secular Organizations for Sobriety

Secular Organizations for Sobriety (SOS) also offers a secular alternative to spiritually-based 12-step programs. SOS promotes sobriety from any substance through peer support groups and does not require you as an attendee to have any other affiliations with religion or group. SOS focuses on self-empowerment to remain abstinent.7

LifeRing Secular Society

LifeRing Secular Society is a secular group that focuses on your current life and goals as opposed to dealing with past hurts and actions. They encourage you to identify your own recovery goals and support you in whatever those goals may be. Religious beliefs do not normally get discussed in these meetings since secularity is one of the key philosophies of LifeRing.8

Which Addiction Support Groups Are Most Effective?

Research supports the different impacts that each of these groups has on recovery.

One study showed that all peer support groups provided the following benefits:1

  • Reduced substance use
  • Better engagement in formal treatment programs
  • Improved behaviors related to cravings and self-control

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Spiritual Versus Secular Addiction Support Groups

Recent studies have looked into how spiritual practices and beliefs impact the recovery process. Many of these studies look at the definition of spirituality as a connection to a higher power like God, nature, or the universe in which they can feel inspired, loved, hopeful, enlightened, and a sense of purpose through that connection.

Spiritual

Some of the findings from such studies are:9

  • Spirituality can be an integral part of prevention and recovery from alcohol use disorder
  • Those who attend spiritual addiction support groups consistently, such as AA, have a lower risk of relapse
  • 82% of clients who integrated spiritual practices into their recovery process reported being completely abstinent at a 1-year follow-up compared with 55% of clients who did not engage in spiritual practices

When you have spiritual resources that you can use in your recovery, they are referred to as positive religious coping tools. These tools may include activities like prayer and meditation but also spiritual beliefs. Studies show that if you effectively use positive religious coping tools you have a better chance at positive recovery outcomes.9

Secular

Other studies find what seems to be contradictory results, showing that members of secular programs showed the same level of involvement in treatment activities and higher levels of satisfaction and cohesion, compared to members in a 12-step program that utilizes spirituality.10

Your success in a spiritual or secular program may depend on many variables, but research suggests you will find effective treatment in either category. Research suggests your relative success may be based on your personal beliefs.

Abstinence Versus Harm Reduction

Most of the peer support groups work from an abstinence standpoint. The effectiveness of 12-step programs and their alternatives have been proven in various studies, but not as much research has been done on harm reduction programs like HAMS.

Part of the difficulty in identifying if abstinence-based programs provide better results than harm reduction programs is that they define success differently. For example, if a participant in the study were drinking 10 drinks every day, and then after attending a harm reduction group they started consuming 5 drinks a day, that would be a therapeutic success according to the philosophy of HAMS. However, this would not be a success in an abstinence-only program.

One study found that harm reduction was effective for alcohol and substance misuse in many settings and with many populations, specifically in homeless populations that the traditional programs rarely reach.11

Are There Family Support Groups?

Many peer support groups offer family support groups as well. A family support group allows you to join other people who have a loved one in recovery from substance use disorder. These groups include:

  • Al-Anon for loved ones of alcohol misusers
  • Alateen for loved ones of teens who use alcohol
  • Families Anonymous for loved ones with alcohol and other substance misuse disorders
  • GRASP grief recovery for loved ones who have lost someone to substance use
  • NAMI for loved ones of those who have a mental health condition
  • Nar-Anon for loved ones of those who have a substance use disorder
  • PAL Group for parents of addicted loved ones
  • SMART Recovery Family and Friends for family and friends of someone with a substance use disorder

How Are Addiction Support Groups Part of Treatment?

Most professional treatment plans for addiction recovery involve engagement in a peer support group. The peer-based accountability helps you to remain committed to your recovery goals and feel less isolated in the process. Some of the treatment programs that include peer support groups are:

  • Many inpatient programs have peer support groups onsite for you to attend as part of your recovery process
  • Outpatient programs usually encourage you to find a peer support group near you to attend regularly as part of your ongoing treatment after leaving rehab
  • If you have completed a rehab program and are living in transitional housing, you may be required to attend a peer support group to remain in the program

If you or someone you know struggles with addiction, please call 800-838-1752 (Who Answers?) to speak to a specialist about addiction treatment options.

Resources

  1. Tracy, K., & Wallace, S. P. (2016). Benefits of peer support groups in the treatment of addictionSubstance abuse and rehabilitation, 7, 143-154.
  2. Alcoholics Anonymous World Services, Inc. (2022). Find A.A. Near You.
  3. Narcotics Anonymous. (2022). Find Meetings.
  4. Celebrate Recovery. (2018). Is CR for Me?
  5. Harm Reduction, Abstinence, and Moderation Support. (2019). HAMS Seventeen Elements.
  6. SMART Recovery. (2022). Our Approach – SMART Recovery.
  7. Secular Organizations for Sobriety. SOS.
  8. LifeRing Secular Recovery. (2022). LifeRing Secular Recovery.
  9. Grim, B. J., & Grim, M. E. (2019). Belief, Behavior, and Belonging: How Faith is Indispensable in Preventing and Recovering from Substance AbuseJournal of Religion and Health58(5), 1713-1750.
  10. Zemore, S. E., Kaskutas, L. A., Mericle, A., & Hemberg, J. (2017). Comparison of 12-step Groups to Mutual Help Alternatives for AUD in a Large, National Study: Differences in Membership Characteristics and Group Participation, Cohesion, and SatisfactionJournal of Substance Abuse Treatment, 73, 16-26.
  11. Logan, D. E., & Marlatt, G. A. (2010). Harm Reduction Therapy: A Practice-Friendly Review of Research. Journal of Clinical Psychology, 66(2), 201-214.

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