The Science Behind the Importance of Love and Connection to Recovery
“Love is all you need,” went the Beatles hit. Now, there’s scientific evidence to vouch for it. Discover why love and connection are an integral part of recovery from addiction, if not the only part:
The journey to recovery from addiction to substances or behaviors can be fraught with twists and turns, successes and missteps, one or more relapses, learning about the disease of addiction, how to cope, make appropriate choices, adopt a healthier lifestyle, embrace change, and much more. This can be a time of self-discovery as well as a hopeful beacon forward. Recovery can also be challenging, difficult, frustrating, confusing, lonely and uncertain. What makes a profound impact is being surrounded with others who care, loved ones, family and friends, therapists, medical practitioners, and a network of peers in 12-Step groups such as Alcoholics Anonymous. In contrast to the alienation of addiction, love and connection is not only important to recovery, it’s crucial – and science supports this.
RECOVERY AND RECOVERY SUPPORT
The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration’s (SAMHSA’s) working definition of recovery says recovery “is a process of change through which individuals improve their health and wellness, live self-directed lives and strive to reach their full potential.” The foundation for recovery also involves both access to evidence-based clinical treatment and services to support recovery.
Four major dimensions identified by SAMHSA to support recovery include:
- Community – Those in recovery are encouraged to develop relationships and social networks that provide, in addition to support, love, friendship and hope.
- Home – Key to effective recovery is having a stable, safe place to live.
- Health – While first learning to overcome and/or manage addiction and mental health conditions, the recovering addict also should put into place strategies and behaviors that allow him or her to make informed, healthy choices that are supportive of their well-being, both physically and emotionally.
- Purpose – Finding and pursuing meaningful goals, pursuing creative activities, learning how to be independent, getting and maintaining a job, taking care of family, going to school or volunteering, and feeling motivated and prepared to participate fully in society are other aspects that support effective recovery.
SAMHSA’S EIGHT DIMENSIONS OF WELLNESS
As part of SAMHSA’s Wellness Initiative, the organization promotes the concept of wellness, which means overall well-being and includes multiple aspects of the recovering person’s life, including “mental, emotional, physical, occupational, intellectual, and spiritual.” Going further, SAMHSA says that those in recovery can make progress toward achieving wellness by practicing what SAMHSA identifies as the Eight Dimensions of Wellness. These include:
Of these eight dimensions, notable to the importance of love and connection to recovery are the emotional and social aspects of wellness. Creating satisfying relationships and learning to cope effectively with life’s problems, issues and opportunities may be difficult for the newly sober individual, although a goal most strive to attain. The social aspect of wellness centers on finding and developing a sense of connection, a staunch support system, and cultivating a feeling of belonging.
FAMILY SUPPORT: CORE ELEMENT OF RECOVERY
There is no doubt that addiction wreaks havoc on the family dynamic. Indeed, addiction can tear families apart, cause seemingly irreparable rifts between loved ones and family members and the recovering addict. Addiction, experts say, is a family disease because it affects everyone in the family. In addition to the addict accepting treatment and learning about the disease of addiction, family members also benefit from becoming more informed about the addiction or addictions and potentially co-occurring mental illness their loved one is seeking to overcome. Participation in family therapy and self-help support groups such as Al-Anon and Nar-Anon offer the opportunity for family members to make connections with others who are going through a loved one’s recovery journey. For family members learning to cope with and support a loved one with a mental illness in recovery, the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) offers many helpful resources.
Communicating effectively with the recovering addict, creating a safe environment for all family members, including the recovering loved one, and gradually rebalancing the frayed family dynamic while providing ongoing support and encouragement to the one in recovery comprise a core element in his or her recovery – as well as contribute to an overall meaningful and purposeful life for all concerned.
WHY CONNECTING IS SO IMPORTANT
Johann Hari, author of Chasing the Scream: The First and Last Days of the War on Drugs, ignited a flurry of media buzz and some controversy a few years ago with his statement that “The opposite of addiction is not sobriety. The opposite of addiction is connection.” In addition to his book, Hari also delivered a TED talk on the subject. Simply stated, Hari maintains that the cause of all addictions is a lack of human connection.
This does not mean that Hari dismisses the objections to statements he made in his book and TED talk. In fact, in response to an article in The Fix, updated with his comments, Hari acknowledges that he corrected any errors in his book and TED talk by addressing them in interviews and on a dedicated section of his website. He then proceeds to respond to each of the criticisms levied in The Fix, including his insistence that sobriety is not always connection, although it can be a route to connection. Hari says that many recovering addicts discover connection through their participation in communities of other sober individuals also in the process of recovering from addiction and its associated problems.
THE ROLE OF SOCIAL CONNECTIONS IN RECOVERY
Getting clean and sober is not a one-and-done action. It requires commitment and an ongoing effort to maintain sobriety and move forward with meaningful goals that lead to a satisfying, purposeful and joyous life. Key to this recovery journey are family and fellow group members in the 12-Step rooms and other self-help groups, as well as the myriad social connections the recovering addict develops and stays in touch with. These social connections are an integral part of the newly-sober individual’s quest to live a better life, one that likely is much changed from his or her previous behavior and social environment.
Indeed, research shows that nearly 20% of relationships terminated by recovering addicts are because those unhealthy connections pose a risk of relapse. About 10% continue due to continued use of substances. Researchers found that the relationships least likely to end are with family and partners (roughly 20% over two years).
LOVE’S HEALING POWER
What is it about love that helps someone in recovery? Researchers at St. George’s, University of London found that oxytocin, a hormone naturally produced by the brain and often called the “love hormone,” for its anti-anxiety effect, could help opioid addicts avoid relapse and remain clean. The hormone is most closely associated with childbirth and breastfeeding. Oxytocin is also released through warmth, touch and affectionate connection.
Researchers at Duke University and the University of North Carolina administered oxytocin to male subjects to explore how the hormone might influence spirituality. They defined spirituality as personal affirmation of and relationship to a Higher Power or the sacred, adding further that spirituality typically implies “belief in a life infused with meaning and purpose, and the belief in relatedness and interconnectedness with the world and all living things.”
Meditation and exploration of spirituality are among the many therapies that are believed to be therapeutic both during and after treatment for addiction to alcohol and drug problems, alone or with co-occurring mental health disorder. Learning to trust lifestyle again, make healthier changes, working on communication skills, creating goals, becoming independent, self-confident, able to follow through with commitments and other proactive behaviors allow those in recovery to nurture, develop and maintain feelings of love and connection, key components of effective recovery.
Alcohol Treat Q., “The Role of Social Supports, Spirituality, Religiousness, Life Meaning and Affiliation with 12-Step Fellowships in Quality of Life Satisfaction Among Individuals in Recovery from Alcohol and Drug Problems.” National Center for Biotechnology Information (NCBI), U.S. National Library of Medicine, PubMed, retrieved September 20, 2017
American Psychological Association, “Supporting a family member with serious mental illness.” Retrieved September 18, 2017
“Chasing the Scream,” Johann Hari. Retrieved September 18, 2017
HuffPost, Politics, “The Opposite Of Addiction Is Not Sobriety. The Opposite Of Addiction Is Connection.” Retrieved September 18, 2017
Research Society on Alcoholism, “Substance user’s social connections: Family, friends, and the forsaken.” Science Daily, retrieved September 19, 2017
TED, Ideas Worth Spreading, “Johann Hari: Everything you think you know about addiction is wrong.” Retrieved September 18, 2017
The Fix, addiction and recovery, straight up, “4 Things Johann Hari Gets Wrong About Addiction—Updated With a Response From Hari.” Retrieved September 18, 2017
University of St. Georges London, “Could ‘love hormone’ help addicts stay clean?” Science Daily, retrieved September 19, 2017