Alcoholism is a complex disease that impacts brain circuitry, thereby disrupting thoughts, emotions, impulse control, and memory formation. Addiction treatment can help to manage the emotional, physical, social, and behavioral components of a person’s life that are impacted due to the disease of chronic alcohol abuse. Alcohol addiction rehab programs use behavioral therapies, individual and group counseling sessions, medical and mental health support, adjunctive and complementary methods, and support groups to foster recovery.
Support groups come in many different formats. These groups can be made up of just a few people meeting in a rehab facility, a small group that attends meetings at a community center, or they may be part of a larger organization. Groups can be made up of only men or only women, people of a specific religion, individuals who battle co-occurring mental health disorders, or those who are of a certain age (e.g., teens or elderly individuals).
Support groups are generally free to join, keep their membership anonymous, and open to anyone wishing to remain abstinent and sober. Individuals may attend one of these self-help recovery support groups on their own or as part of a complete addiction treatment program. Meetings are often offered in a variety of settings, at various times, and in several different formats. Support groups are made up of other people who have experience with alcohol abuse and addiction, peers who can offer encouragement and hope for sustaining recovery.
NCADD reports that a recovery support group can greatly enhance recovery and help individuals maintain sobriety. The shared experiences of members can help people to take responsibility for their actions and develop coping strategies for moving forward without alcohol. A group of like minded people can foster a sense of community, which can be highly beneficial for long-term recovery. As a result, support groups are often an integral part of alcohol addiction recovery.
Understanding Recovery Support Groups
Addiction is classified as a chronic disease, meaning that it takes ongoing effort to maintain sobriety, and individuals must take an active role in their recovery. The National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) publishes that relapse rates for addiction mirror those of other chronic disease, such as type II diabetes, asthma, and hypertension with rates of 40-60 percent. Relapse is therefore often a common aspect of addiction.
Support groups in recovery can help to minimize and reduce relapse. These mutual help, or self-help, groups aid in further solidifying coping skills and tools learned in rehab as members share personal stories and things that have worked for them specifically. Members of a support group can empathize with each person’s situation in a way that others who haven’t struggled with addiction cannot.
Support groups are generally made up of people in all stages of recovery. Those who have been sober for longer can offer support, encouragement, and hope to those who are newly abstinent. Many support groups will match up a person fresh in recovery with someone who has been sober for a longer period of time, to function as a kind of mentor. A mentor, or sponsor, offers around-the-clock support for the person if a crisis moment arises. In addition to a sponsor or mentor who is generally available by phone 27/7, in-person support group meetings generally take place at least once a week.
Support group meetings can be held in many different formats; however, in general, meetings usually last about 90 minutes. Meetings may be “open” or “closed.” Open meetings are open to anyone who supports others in recovery while closed meetings ask that only those who struggle with addiction attend.
A meeting will usually begin with a welcome by a group leader, chosen speaker, or member, and may then segue into a moment of silence followed by a prayer. Recovery support groups are often spiritual in nature, although usually nondenominational and open to all people of any race or religion. There are also several groups that cater to those who wish to avoid any inclusion of spirituality into their recovery.
Opening comments of a support group detail the expectations of the group and an explanation of how the group functions. A donation or collection tin is often passed around; while these groups are free, they are self-sustaining and depend on funds from members in order to run. Newcomers may be asked to introduce themselves and receive a welcome from the group. The meeting may have a speaker, or members may go around the room and share experiences, or the meeting may work through one of the 12 Steps.
After the meeting closes, there is typically fellowship time where members are encouraged to talk to each other; coffee and refreshments are often provided. These meetings offer a safe place for people in recovery to open up, providing a healthy outlet and sober social circle.
Types of Support Groups
There are many different kinds of support groups and recovery programs available. Many people begin participating as part of a structured addiction treatment program and then continue attending the same groups after treatment concludes. Some of the most common recovery support groups include:
One of the most well-known recovery support groups, AA is a self-help peer support organization open to anyone who battles alcohol abuse concerns and wishes to remain abstinent. AA follows a 12-Step format that asks its members to admit that alcohol has been in control of their lives and to turn themselves over to a higher power. When working through the 12 Steps, members will list their faults and apologize to those who they may have wronged on their path to redemption. After working through the 12 Steps, members are then encouraged to share their journey, offering their service to others in recovery, potentially as a sponsor for someone else who is new to the program.
Complete abstinence is the only requirement for membership in AA. The group accepts all people of all religions, genders, races, and ages, and is open to all who wish to remain sober. AA is highly spiritual, although it is nondenominational and nonprofessional. Membership is free, and privacy is protected; all groups are anonymous and do not share membership information with others.
With over 2 million members and more than 100,000 groups meeting in 181 countries, AA is a massive organization with various different groups, meeting formats, and options available to support recovery.
A non-12-Step program, SMART Recovery focuses on a Four-Point Program that helps individuals to build motivation; manage cravings, emotions, and behaviors; and learn how to live a well-balanced life. This program helps people to become self-reliant and uses researched-based techniques to foster and sustain recovery.
Participants can join a local group and attend face-to-face meetings as well as receive online and virtual support. A nonspiritual alternative to AA, SMART Recovery programs help individuals learn and develop skills for positive lifestyle changes to aid in sustaining recovery and sobriety.
MM takes a different approach to recovery than many support groups as it does not expect full abstinence. Instead, members are able to continue to drink alcohol in moderation. MM focuses on eliminating problematic drinking and negative behaviors associated with them through the Steps of Change. Members are asked to keep a drinking diary at first and then to undergo a 30-day period of complete abstinence from alcohol. After that time, individuals are then able to reintroduce alcohol in a responsible manner.
Moderation Management accepts that not drinking at all may not be practical for everyone and holds that drinking in moderation may be acceptable. MM teaches tools for managing problem drinking and how to control it. MM offers both virtual and face-to-face meetings as well.
A nonprofit organization, SOS hosts both online and in-person recovery support group meetings for individuals seeking sobriety and those in recovery. Membership is free and anonymous with the sole goal being for members to support each other in sustaining sobriety.
SOS groups are autonomous, free, and open to anyone who wishes to achieve and/or maintain abstinence. SOS groups are secular in nature and therefore not attached to any religion or spiritual group. These recovery support groups are not governed or connected to any outside groups or organizations.
A nonprofit organization focused specifically on the needs of women in recovery, WFS hosts a New Life Program that uses 13 acceptance statements to help women modify self-destructive thoughts and behaviors for a full and healthy life free from alcohol and drugs. Women are to spend time each morning and each evening thinking about the 13 acceptance statements and how they apply to their lives. These statements help women to think more positively about themselves and take ownership of their own lives and recovery.
WFS meetings provide peer support and aid in changing negative thoughts to more positive ones, thus helping to make changes for the better. By providing a better understanding of the self, a person can then have a more full and balanced life. Coping skills and stress management are also covered through a WFS recovery support group program.
Al-Anon, on the other hand, is a support group for family members of alcoholics. Alcoholism often results in emotionally destructive behavior, and spouses and children often endure the bulk of these outbursts. Even in the absence of abuse, it can be extremely difficult to watch a loved one spiral out of control. Al-Anon offers a supportive environment to discuss and share feelings about this painful disease.
Recovery programs and support groups can be highly beneficial in sustaining sobriety and helping to minimize relapse. Per the Journal of Addictive Disorders, studies show that actively participating in AA makes a person twice as likely to remain abstinent.
Since recovery support groups come in many forms, people can choose one that fits them best. Participation can provide a sense of belonging to help dispel the isolation that addiction can often instill. Being a part of a sober community is important in recovery, and it can be very helpful to surround oneself with others who share similar experiences and goals for the future. Ultimately, recovery support groups provide a nonjudgmental environment for fellowship and healing.