Why is Human Connection So Important in Recovery?

Why is Human Connection So Important in Recovery?

Fellowships and other mutual aid groups and meetings are literally a lifeline for someone with an addiction. They offer valuable tools that make it easier for individuals to maintain their sobriety or stay clean. But it is not just the “step work” of Alcoholics Anonymous and other fellowships that can help those on a recovery path remain abstinent — the human connection with others on the same path is important, too.

Fellowships and Sharing Stories

At fellowship meetings, there is usually a chair or speaker, someone in recovery with a certain amount of clean time, who tells the story of their addiction and subsequent recovery. Sharing stories has always been part of human nature – we identify with them, learn from them, and use them to gain insight into our own condition. Reflecting on the words of others who share the same struggles can lead to epiphanies or greater spiritual wisdom.

Most meetings include a sharing time, when those who have listened to the chair’s story will respond with comparisons from their own life or character. Hearing from other people who have had similar experiences or thoughts allows those with addiction to feel less alone. In addition, those struggling with addiction often feel they are separate from everyone else, or different or defective in some way, and this can perpetuate addiction. Having their feelings validated and identifying with another person can lead to greater self-esteem and well-being, lowering the risk of relapse.

Sometimes the people sharing will discuss a point the original speaker made, rather than directly identifying with events in their story. Through this type of interaction, recovering addicts may offer practical or emotional solutions that have been helpful for them.

Human Connection Keeps Us Healthy

It is not just recovering addicts who need connection with other human beings. Human contact is very important for both physical and emotional health throughout our entire lives. Children who are not held as babies fail to thrive, and adults without meaningful friendships are more prone to mental illness or addiction.

Connecting in many different ways is important to humans, including being able to communicate, being understood, sharing cultures, and even having access to comforting or friendly touch. A simple, warm hug releases Oxytocin in the brain. This is a powerful hormone and neurotransmitter, which can ward off depression and anxiety, and help people bond. In mutual aid meetings, friendly handshakes and hugs are common and help attendees feel cared for and connected.

Isolation Makes Relapse More Likely

Recovering addicts are encouraged not to isolate or let themselves fall prey to loneliness. This is one of the reasons why fellowship members often attend many meetings and sometimes go for coffee or a meal together afterwards. Most fellowship members swap telephone numbers and will often text or call each other just to see how they are doing. Science backs up this behavior as a positive one for those in recovery.

Psychologist Bruce K. Alexander’s famous “rat park” experiment found that the rats in their study that were isolated in cages consumed much more morphine than the rats which had been housed in a special colony with other rats, toys and good food.

Professor Alexander turned to history to find a human equivalent of “rat park” situations, since he could not devise an equivalent ethical experiment using people. He looked at the effect of British colonization on native people in Western Canada in the 18th and 19th centuries, which displaced hundreds of groups of natives onto tiny reserves.

Prior to the colonization, which also involved removing native children from their parents and sending them to boarding schools to be taught British culture and language, there was barely any history of addiction in any of the colonies. Post-colonization, records show that alcoholism, gambling and drug addiction were rife on the reserves.

In his book, The Globalisation of Addiction: A Study in Poverty of the Spirit, Professor Alexander concluded that, just like the rats, humans who experience social and cultural isolation are likely to turn to addictive substances and behaviors to alleviate the pain of their existence.

The Special Connection Between Those in Recovery

Although most forms of positive social connection can help recovering addicts, there is a special affinity between those with addiction that can aid recovery. Numerous studies have shown that trauma and difficult childhood experiences, which can cause feelings of isolation and depression, are strong factors in the development of an addiction.

Sharing life stories in meetings can be cathartic, and since many individuals will have had similar experiences, mutual aid groups offer the added benefit of people who won’t judge. In fact, many feel more comfortable with people who have shared histories and problems, because these people tend to be more understanding.

The brain of someone with addiction also experiences changes. Many people in recovery suffer from delusions, such as believing that having just one drink might be okay. Staying close to others who have “been there” and know the score helps addicts to curb delusional addictive thoughts.

Those in recovery also tend to enjoy encouraging and supporting others’ sobriety: first, because they genuinely know how horrible addiction is; second, because they understand positive ways of supporting someone to stay clean; and third, because helping other people releases brain chemicals that increase well-being.


It seems that most animals, human or not, thrive when they have companionship, a healthy atmosphere and a pleasant community. This is why good treatment centers encourage group sessions, attendance at meetings, and social interaction between those with addiction in a comfortable setting.

Written by Beth Burgess