A relationship with drugs or alcohol. It's a phrase you hear from doctors, from people reassessing their substance use and especially from people in recovery circles.
In substances, people find the illusion of comfort, protection, empowerment, exuberance and even a kind of companionship; they seem to offer the rewards of a healthy relationship with another human, especially when that seems unattainable.
By the time most people are ready for recovery, the relationship has turned sour and the love is gone. But we're human, and we still need that.
Few would disagree: Supportive, reciprocal relationships are essential to a successful recovery from addiction. And they provide much more than a distraction or a "replacement" for our old relationship with substances.
Having supportive and empowering connections has been shown to nurture a person's healing efforts. In overcoming an addiction or learning how to manage our emotions better, strong social connections make dealing with the new realities of life much easier.
Identifying and maintaining supportive and healthy relationships is a lifelong skill. There is great value in having the right people in your corner through the good, the bad and the challenging. Whether you're working through recovery or just seeking to improve your mental health in general, developing balanced and authentic connections is key.
What Is Healthy Social Connection?
You may have these kinds of connections in your life already, or you may have to start from scratch. Either way, it certainly never hurts to continue cultivating relationships.
There are, of course, all kinds of social connections that you can engage in. Some are more formal, others are more personal and genuine. Regardless, developing a healthy social connection takes time and intention from all parties involved.
Now that you're in the driver's seat, you can and should devote your energies to healthy connections. What do they look like, though? You're on the right path if you find …
- Mutual care and respect
- Support in individual and shared activities
- You feel safe
- You can express yourself and communicate about issues openly
At the core of these relationship values lies the potential for you to be seen, heard and supported. Engaging in equally nurturing relationships promotes harmony and well-being.
There are no perfect relationships—as you know, if you're in recovery from the disastrous one of addiction. But keeping these four criteria in mind can help you address any imbalances you may have in your relationships.
Friends With (Mental and Physical Health and Well-Being) Benefits
Not that you really need any kind of special incentive to enjoy friendships, romances and family bonds … but positive social interactions and connections have also been shown to improve mental health and wellness. According to Stanford University's School of Medicine and various studies, some of the benefits of healthy social connections include:
- Improved quality of life
- Decreased depression and anxiety
- Improved mood, perspective and emotional regulation skills
- Higher self-esteem and compassion
- Potential for increased longevity
- A more vigorous immune system, with higher chances of disease recovery (science says so!)
So, safe and healthy social connections improve our vitality and strength in basically every way, on physical, mental and emotional levels.
Having healthy connections makes it easier for our bodies to focus on creating optimal health by improving mood and decreasing the stress response. When you're stressed or when emotions and thoughts are chronically suppressed, the mind and body can develop physical symptoms and, eventually, disease.
But when you have healthy and supportive relationships, you've got someone to lean on during tough times.
Releasing and expressing your thoughts and feelings can free up some mental space too. You may gain new insights and solutions to problems you face when you can rely on a loved one or friend. If you're open to their feedback, this can improve your mood along with your perspective on challenges and setbacks.
Relationships can and will teach you a lot about compassion and confidence. Finding the balance between giving and receiving support and appreciation can empower you to be more understanding of yourself and others. Sounds elementary, maybe, but a lot of recovery is about going back to basics.
How Connections and Relationships Lift You Up in Addiction Recovery
Considering the physical and mental health benefits, healthy social connections strongly support a well-rounded addiction recovery plan. In recovery, having healthy connections can encourage:
- Improved stress management skills
- A strong support system
- Increased motivation
- Improved communication skills and relationships
Healthy connections and relationships can free you of some of the stressful feelings that come with this transitional phase in your life. That decrease in stress, in turn, can make navigating your sobriety much easier and make obstacles feel smaller. So often, stress is at the core of our poor choices and overwhelming feelings.
Studies have shown that traumatic responses to events are more likely to occur when a person goes through the experience in isolation. According to the National Institutes of Health, "it's important to have a coping strategy for getting through the bad feelings of a traumatic event. … A good coping strategy is finding somebody to talk with about your feelings. A bad coping strategy would be turning to alcohol or drugs."
It's a lot easier to get through hard times with the support of your friends and loved ones who understand and value you. That's part of why healing happens more naturally in a community than in isolation.
It's also worthwhile to have supportive people who can celebrate and inspire you as you accomplish personal and professional goals. After all, there will also be good times. Relationships with people who lift you up will boost your motivation and pride throughout recovery.
Healthy social connections and relationships are their own reward, but they're also part of a strong recovery plan. So be generous in showing appreciation for the people around you, and open yourself up to new connections. Valuing the people in your corner is an important part of healing.
If addiction is a twisted relationship, think of recovery as, in so many ways, the beginning of a beautiful friendship.