The Importance of Healthy Connections for Mental Well-being and Substance Use Recovery

“We cannot live only for ourselves. A thousand fibers connect us with our fellow men; and among those fibers, as sympathetic threads, our actions run as causes, and they come back to us as effects.” – Herman Melville

Recovery takes bravery because, although it is ultimately the most rewarding thing we can do for ourselves, it is often not the easiest option and can initially be isolating. Support from the right people is crucial for substance users, who will almost certainly need to walk away from existing relationships if they are to succeed in their goal of finding a healthier, more balanced life. Connections are also key for general mental health and well-being.

For as far back as we can ascertain, humans have hunted, lived, and loved in groups because that is how we are designed to prosper. Animals also co-exist in groups or packs because it’s integral to their safety and well-being. The plight of an injured animal who can’t keep up or a younger one who can’t make a river crossing without the help of adults is distressing to most of us, and we’re always thankful for a happy outcome. We humans in distress are also statistically more likely to make it with the help of the group or, at the very least, a few indispensable connections.

All Connections are not Created Equal

Aside from the substantial physical challenges of breaking the cycle of substance use, the mental and emotional aspects can, in many cases, be even more long-lasting and isolating. Users may have left behind or alienated their family and old friendship groups as a result of their new lifestyle and behaviors. Particularly important to the earlier stages of recovery, positive connections can form a lifeline to making good decisions and staying on track well into sobriety. Some connections forged in recovery (especially in recovery groups, which are mostly held in person), no matter what the cause, can last a lifetime because there will always be a shared experience to bond the parties. Studies have shown that in-person or face-to-face connections help calm the nervous system, which can circumvent the need for self-medication or other unhelpful distractions.[1]

As touched on previously, substance users’ existing networks may have been broken or severely compromised and replaced with co-dependent and less advisable ones. The void left by severing unhealthy ties and relationships damaged earlier (which may in time be healed), can be filled by supportive counselors, health care workers, and a vast number of options available within the recovery community. They can help with forming new, more positive habits and keep people on track when it looks like they’re veering away from goals. In many cases, they’ve been there themselves so they know what they’re talking about and, most importantly, how those in recovery are feeling. Knowing your triggers and helping you manage unhelpful feelings is their reason for being.

One is the Loneliest Number

Though not always the case, Substance Use Disorder is often a result of existing feelings of isolation and not being understood, which can emanate from existing disorders or mistreatment at the hands of others.

The recoverer has found (what they think to be) solace in their substance(s) of choice, which takes the place of functional, traditional relationships. Perhaps it was a perceived inability to connect with others that drew them to substance use in the first place. Unfortunately, the benefits of this relationship are short lived and limited. Unlike having a solid group of friends and supporters around you, your substance of choice will be nowhere to be seen when you’re down on your luck, won’t make you a hot chocolate when you’re cold, and won’t give you good advice when you don’t know which way to turn. Only people who understand, relate to, and care for you can do that. Community 1 – Substances 0!

Friends are the Best Medicine

People who enjoy social connection are also more likely to enjoy better health because they feel supported and are often busy playing sports or hanging out with friends, shooting the breeze, or talking about problems and concerns.

Conversely, the types of health problems seen in substance users are often similar to those seen in the chronically lonely (eating disorders, obesity, blood pressure issues, cardiac conditions etc.). These feed off each other in an unhelpful feedback loop, especially in times of recovery when it is important to feel supported and able to collaborate, when you lack the general sense that someone’s got your back.

Diving for Pearls

Dealing with co-occurring disorders feels like a lot for one person to have to take on, but there are so many people and resources to help sufferers today and a lot less of the stigma that used to compound issues. Substance Use Disorder is not the sole preserve of down and outs and criminals; mothers, lawyers, students, teachers, small business owners, CEOs, that man down the street – anyone – can have substance use and/or mental health issues. The difference is that in today’s environment, problems don’t need to be swept under the carpet, and help from highly-trained professionals can be readily accessed pretty much wherever you are.

It is important to deal with underlying issues such as anxiety, depression, or bipolar disorder, because unless treatment is sought, relapse is much more likely in this chicken and egg scenario.[2] Deep diving to unearth pearls of wisdom, especially from those who are trained specialists, is the key to lasting recovery.

Some sufferers may not even be aware that they have an underlying mental health condition, but with a network of new connections who may be able to recognize issues on their behalf, they will find appropriate support. The treatment for each issue is different but shares the commonality of group counseling, support, and peer support because being able to relate to others’ experience in the context of your own is what makes us human.

Hope Springs Eternal

When you’re feeling lost and alone it’s pretty easy to feel hopeless, but with meaningful connections in your life to help you feel understood and stay focused, the challenge can feel a little less daunting.

Your chances of recovery are far greater with the help of personal connections and/or group therapy.[3] It’s not impossible, but it’s unlikely that you’d be able to successfully achieve all of this on your own and, even if you could, wouldn’t it be a lot more pleasant to share the journey with people who can help with the heavy lifting?

A problem shared is a problem halved and having access to ears and shoulders in times of stress, sadness, or temptation can quash feelings of helplessness and replace them with hope.

Keep Busy, Stay Connected

You’re in this for the long haul. Connections can help break the cycle of unhealthy patterns, keep you focused in times of low motivation, and help with the decision-making process, goal setting, and finding strategies for coping.

Keeping busy and staying connected go hand-in-hand. Joining an exercise or hobby-related class or volunteering to help others are just two of the ways to make new friends, give back, learn something new, keep busy, and, most of all, continue on the path to a healthier and more rewarding life that is rich with connections and support.

If you are concerned about any issues discussed in this blog, please contact Heather R. Hayes & Associates – call 800-335-0316 or email today.

[1] Porges, Stephen W. “The Polyvagal Theory: New Insights into Adaptive Reactions of the Autonomic Nervous System”. Cleveland Clinic Journal of Medicine, vol 76, no. 4 suppl 2, 2009, pp. S86-S90. Cleveland Clinic Journal of Medicine, doi:10.3949/ccjm.76.s2.17. Accessed 22 June 2021.

[2] Subica, Andrew M. et al. “PTSD’s Mediation of the Relationships Between Trauma, Depression, Substance Abuse, Mental Health, and Physical Health in Individuals with Severe Mental Illness: Evaluating a Comprehensive Model”. Schizophrenia Research, vol 136, no. 1-3, 2012, pp. 104-109. Elsevier BV, doi:10.1016/j.schres.2011.10.018. Accessed 22 June 2021.

[3] Pettersen, Henning et al. “How Social Relationships Influence Substance Use Disorder Recovery: A Collaborative Narrative Study”. Substance Abuse: Research and Treatment, vol 13, 2019, p. 117822181983337. SAGE Publications, doi:10.1177/1178221819833379. Accessed 22 June 2021.

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