Substance Abuse and the Power of Social Support in Recovery

Five friends giving Social Support in Recovery

An extremely important, yet often understated, element in a wide array of recovery programs and treatment options is social support. For the first time, an animal study has shed light on the dynamic influence of social support in recovery, even in rats who were dependent upon reinforcing drugs like heroin and methamphetamine.

Present study

The study was conducted by the members of NIDA’s Intramural Research Program, led by NIDA’s Dr. Marco Venniro. The research team, using rats, constructed an operational model of choice between drugs and social interaction that seemingly prevented the self-administration of the drug (heroin or methamphetamine).

The animals were observed, when presented with the choice, to consistently choose social interaction. This held true when the drug was first made accessible to them or when they were veteran drug takers.

The rats continued to choose social interaction over drug use even when they were accustomed to living with other rats and used to of a social environment. The only time addicted rats chose to access more drugs instead of social interaction was when access to other rats was considerably delayed or punished.

College friends showing Social Support in Recovery from addictionRats that regularly self-administered a drug depicted an increase in drug seeking after a period of, usually forced, abstinence.

This trend is similar to what most human drug users experience as well, following a withdrawal and often, is what leads to a relapse. Yet, the rats that became deliberately abstinent by consistently choosing social interaction did not demonstrate this incubation relapse effect.

Translating the results into humans

The results do need to be interpreted with caution because humans and their emotions are a lot more complicated than that of rats. It would not be right to assume that simple social interactions are not always enough to prevent drug cravings, especially in a deeper context of trauma, biological disturbances, stresses, and anxiety.

Furthermore, humans need a more meaningful and fulfilling connection with the community that could elicit a sense of belonging and empowerment. Hence, humans in addiction treatment need a sense of security and promise that they would be able to engage meaningfully in the community and society in the future.

Why is this important?

The study offers valuable insight into the importance of devising drug recovery programs that are based upon mutual aid and prioritize social reinforcement to help patients avoid relapse, attain a long-term recovery, and reintegrate back into society as a valuable member.

A recent report by the National Institutes of Health’s National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) further supports these findings as it concluded that individuals with substance use disorders residing in a collaborative housing setting were treated more effectively.

These findings emphasize social factors in neuroscience-based addiction research and support the implementation of socially-based addiction treatments.

Social support in your recovery

Teens facing substance use disorderResearch shows that feeling of connectedness can protect against SUDs and relapse.

Programs that focus upon the social element include:

  • Community Reinforcement Approach (CRA): A structured approach to inhibit stimuli for drug use and enhance positive reinforcers for sobriety by including significant others in the recovery process. This aspect also incorporates other approaches such as motivational interviewing and family therapy.
  • Cognitive Behavior Therapy (CBT): A psychological intervention focused upon rectifying destructive behaviors and relearning positive behaviors and how to deal with stimuli of drug use
  • Self-Help Programs: Programs like SMART Recovery, SOS, Life-Ring, Moderation Management and AA focus upon building a new social structure within which an individual can function.

If you are struggling with drugs and alcohol, carefully choose an addiction treatment recovery plan that best accommodates your personal needs. Getting involved in your community can provide a sense of belongingness, whether by acting in a community play or volunteering at a local shelter. Struggling with addiction on your own can be challenging and isolating. Reach out and connect with loved ones and/or support groups.

We are interdependent by nature and to ignore that during recovery, can be detrimental to your progress.



About the Author:

Sana Ahmed photoSana Ahmed is a journalist and social media savvy content writer with extensive research, print, and on-air interview skills. She has previously worked as staff writer for a renowned rehabilitation institute, a content writer for a marketing agency, an editor for a business magazine and been an on-air news broadcaster.

Sana graduated with a Bachelors in Economics and Management from the London School of Economics and began a career of research and writing right after. Her recent work has largely been focused upon mental health and addiction recovery.

The opinions and views of our guest contributors are shared to provide a broad perspective of addictions. These are not necessarily the views of Addiction Hope, but an effort to offer a discussion of various issues by different concerned individuals.

We at Addiction Hope understand that addictions result from multiple physical, emotional, environmental and genetic factors. If you or a loved one are suffering from an addiction, please know that there is hope for you, and seek immediate professional help.

Published on May 1, 2019
Reviewed by Jacquelyn Ekern, MS, LPC on May 1, 2019
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About Baxter Ekern

Baxter Ekern is the Vice President of Ekern Enterprises, Inc. He contributed and helped write a major portion of Addiction Hope and is responsible for the operations of the website.