In Recovery? Try These Tips to Bolster Your Support System

Photo: Cristina Nixau / Shutterstock
Successful recovery from a stressful or traumatic life event can truly take a village. As studies show, the bigger and more developed your support system, the better your outcome. My own anecdotal experience as an addiction clinician has revealed something similar—I have found, for example, that clients with strong family support are generally more motivated to be in treatment.
I’ve also seen the other side—persons in recovery who struggle when someone important to their support is lost.

When Navigating Life’s Crises, Social Support is Critical

Addiction is not very different from other life crises in the way that it challenges our self-sufficiency and requires us to seek help outside ourselves. Whether it’s a terminal diagnosis, a traumatic event, or a chronic disease like addiction, most of us at some point or another will face a crisis that reveals our need for others who can offer support and a helping hand.
People who have coped with addiction probably understand this truth better than anyone. Sometimes making it through just one day sober may require calling your program sponsor, getting a pep talk from your home group, or scheduling an emergency session with your therapist.
Trying to white-knuckle recovery on your own rarely works. For example, a 2003 Virginia Commonwealth University study found that women’s perceptions of low social support when recovering from cocaine addiction were predictive of higher rates of relapse and depression (which often triggers relapse).

You Can Rebuild Your Support System When It Dwindles

Various life circumstances can deplete a support network that once was strong... seemingly overnight:
  • A close friend or neighbor who has always been there for you may move away
  • A beloved spouse may get sick or die
  • An unforeseen conflict may leave you estranged from family in whom you once confided
  • A job or other extenuating life circumstance may uproot you from a trauma support group on which you have come to depend
Changes like this have the potential to send the best of us reeling if we don’t have the right tools in place. These are just a few proven tips, based on insights from my work in addiction and recovery, that can help you rebuild your support system.

1. Identify what kind of support you need most—physical, emotional, experiential—and prioritize.

If you’ve lost a key member of your support system, and you’re feeling the heaviness of that loss, take some time to get in touch with your grief or disappointment. The truth does set you free, so give yourself permission to feel the way you feel, and explore why you feel that way.
More than missing that person’s presence in your life, you probably miss the specific ways in which they provided you with support. Maybe they were there just to listen and offer emotional encouragement, or they helped you in more tangible ways, like lending you their car or picking up your prescriptions. If that person had gone through or was going through the same kind of experience as you, this kindred journey is referred to as “experiential support.”
A 2010 study found that experiential support is a key factor in treatment outcomes among young women with breast cancer. Similarly, the opportunity to connect with others who share the same struggle is one reason 12-step groups remain such a source of strength and positive transformation for many people in recovery from addiction.
Say, for example, that you’ve just returned home from active military duty with a diagnosis of post-traumatic stress disorder. You’ve been seeing a psychiatrist or therapist, and your family has been patient and supportive. What you most miss and need, though, is the company of fellow veterans who know what you’re going through. Your next step might then be to connect with a trauma recovery group for veterans.
On the other hand, if you’re in the process of exiting an abusive relationship, your biggest need in the moment may be finding a safe place to live. Experiential support may prove helpful once you’ve connected with the people or agencies that can help you find the physical shelter and safety that you need.

2. Make use of apps and social media to connect with others in similar circumstances. 

Start by searching online for support groups in your area. The options will be endless, from parenting to divorce support groups, to professional outlets like Women in Business and Chamber of Commerce community peer groups.
You can also use Google to identify helpful apps like Meetup, which can put you in touch with others nearby. For example, there are Meetups for trauma survivors who practice yoga. (Yoga has shown promising results in alleviating the symptoms of PTSD).
Explore the options that resonate most with you, and when you have time, visit multiple groups to see which ones will best broaden your network of relationships.

3. Find your “third place” and spend regular time there.

The term comes from the world of community building, and it refers to a place that is not your home or your place of work. A third place might be the gym, your local coffee shop, the dog park or your kids’ soccer games. If faith is important to you, a third place might be the church, temple, spiritual center or mosque.
Ideally, a third place is an outlet for striking up conversations and building relationships with people outside of your family and colleagues, and ideally, you’ll spend time there at least once a week.

4. Start a blog!

Writing can be a cathartic and therapeutic process of self-discovery and healing. Blogging can be a profound vehicle to share what you’re learning with others who, just like you, are looking for tips, companionship and encouragement.
Blogs are also effective online icebreakers. They dig down through that thick layer of polite pleasantries, quick first impressions and superficial details of a typical first acquaintance, to the deeper questions and experiences that have made us who we are. Don’t forget to check out other people’s blogs as well.

5. Summon the courage to be vulnerable.

Sharing your own experiences in a blog takes some vulnerability. So does speaking up in a support group or inviting someone you just met at the coffee shop to sit at your table and chat. Vulnerability can be scary, but it’s also a pathway to deeper connection with others. There’s nothing like the sense of encouragement, reward and confidence that comes from taking a risk and seeing it pay off.
One of the clearest demonstrations of vulnerability is being real about what you’re going through and asking for help. If you’re not used to being vulnerable, try it out in a context that feels safe, and see what happens.
You may find it helpful to list the various kinds of support you need, and then brainstorm where you can find sources of more than one of those kinds of support. For example, if you want to find someone who is interested in walking to meetings for exercise, this would mean finding someone who lived near you, which would help narrow down your search. Once you have identified your biggest outstanding needs, you’ll have a better idea of where to go for support, and how to forge new relationships of support.
About the Author
Micah Robbins is a community substance use prevention leader, and a recovery and treatment advocate for the Beach House Center for Recovery. He has over 23 years of experience working with similar organizations from Maine to Florida. He also works with Palm Beach Country Substance Awareness Coalition, facilitating teen leadership development and advocating for the recovery community with the Recovery Awareness Partnership.
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About the Author

“Every individual on this earth deserves to be treated with compassion, understanding, and the right to keep their dignity intact. This can be difficult to honor at times when someone loses control of their behavior, but that’s where Rational Detachment and not taking it personally really kicks in. What has helped me be able to do this well goes back to the first day I was introduced to Nonviolent Crisis Intervention® training. I was a participant before becoming a Certified Instructor (and before working for CPI), and over the years I have had so many opportunities to use what I learned way back then. Today, I live the skills automatically. It’s an honor to have been given those skills to live the philosophy of treating others the way I want to be treated.”