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Self-Help Groups

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When treating an individual who is recovering from addiction or certain other conditions, a therapist generally meets with the client weekly. Often, the therapist determines that the patient will benefit from regularly attending a group of individuals who struggle with the same condition. This is often a very positive next step, as the individual can receive additional support and encouragement from people who understand exactly what he or she is dealing with. Many addicts and alcoholics know they cannot remain sober without going to regular meetings and “working a program.”

What is the Difference between Self-Help Groups and Group Therapy?

In conventional group therapy, a therapist runs the group and determines the parameters for how it functions. The therapist will charge for his or her services and determine who can be in the group and its focus. The therapist also puts limits on the number of participants, acts as a de facto enforcer for the group rules, as he or she alone will decide whether each participant is benefitting from meetings, and whether the group is on track toward achieving its goals.

Self-help groups function in an entirely different manner. While they do have leaders, those leaders don’t operate with authority, per se. They are members who have familiarity with how the group operates, and can steer the group toward consensus and foster healthy discussion. They purchase materials, manage donations, chair meetings, maintain phone lists, identify sponsors, and perform other support-related tasks. There is no trained or licensed therapist and this is not group therapy. Anyone can join the group and attend meetings, so long as they are committed to the group objectives. There is no maximum number of participants.

Self-help groups are normally free to attend. This is important, because most members are recovering from long-term conditions (e.g. addiction recovery) that require ongoing support. Participating over the long-term also provides participants with an opportunity to help other members, which is also beneficial for their own recovery. When members continue to attend groups and form healthy relationships with their peers, it is common to see sustained recovery that lasts many years. 

What kinds of Self-Help Groups are there?

There are many groups available for helping people in long-term recovery. These are a few of the more commonly known groups. Many of them have chapters in multiple states, and even other countries. This is good news for people who may need to relocate but wish to hold onto their recovery and continue their growth.

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Alcoholics Anonymous (AA)

This group is the most well-known self-help group, and the one that started the trend. Many self-help groups since have sought to copy their structure, or improve upon it. As the name implies, Alcoholics Anonymous is a support group of alcoholics that holds weekly structured meetings to help its members find encouragement and validation, free from the judgment of those unable to understand their craving for alcohol. Anonymity is agreed upon by all members, and is necessary to create a safe space to foster the vulnerability needed to facilitate change. 

AA has a 12-step program which members are encouraged to complete that helps them experience transformation and healing. For many, this program is a crucial component of recovery, and after completing it, the participant arrives at a new level of clarity and purpose. Although these individuals are still addicts, the 12-step program enables them to transcend their addiction and past, (ideally) arriving at a place where they can function as adults with less desire to drink. The 12-step program encourages each participant to seek out a sponsor, someone who has been sober for an extended period that can serve as a mentor while the participant moves through the 12 steps. Helping the individual access their Higher Power or spiritual source is elemental to 12-step programs.

Narcotics Anonymous (NA)

Narcotics Anonymous is similar to AA, except the focus is on the abuse of illegal drugs instead of alcohol. It also offers a 12-step program, and participants are encouraged to find a sponsor to get through it. NA is an excellent program for patients who have completed the acute withdrawal phase, and are determined not to relapse. 

Sexoholics Anonymous (SA) and Sex Addicts Anonymous (SAA)

 When people engage in sexual activity, or even when they are exposed to sexually explicit imagery or sound, the brain releases pleasure hormones such as dopamine, oxytocin, and norepinephrine, which cause them to feel pleasure. Most people learn to compartmentalize their lives in such a way that they access these powerful emotions only when they want to, or at least not when they don’t. However, while casual sex and/or pornography are a pleasant distraction for some people, for others they are a trap, and those people are unable to stop. For such people, lust is an addiction, and they use the body’s release of these hormones to get high.

Because the sex addict cannot stop his or her addictive behavior, Sex Addicts Anonymous (SAA) and Sexaholics Anonymous (SA) were formed. Like other similar programs, they are run by their members, who encourage new attendees to seek help from a sponsor and complete the “12 steps”. Those who attend continually and follow the program are able to curtail their addictive behavior, and thus gain the freedom necessary to function as a healthy adult in society.

Celebrate Recovery

Celebrate Recovery is a Christ-centered recovery program meant for people who are recovering from hurt, pain, or addiction of any kind. It started in Orange County, CA with the Saddleback Church, who wanted to form a group that could address the needs of its congregation, regardless of what kind of pain or trauma was underlying the individual’s dysfunctional behavior. By creating a specialized program of self-reflection and by encouraging participation in regular meetings, the group has enabled many to find healing and transformation.

Smart Recovery

Smart Recovery is a peer-support program for people recovering from any kind of addiction. It differs significantly from programs like AA and NA in that it does not encourage the members to admit that they are powerless over their addiction. Rather, it asks them to take a careful inventory of their problem and apply methods based on therapeutic methods known for their effectiveness in helping people gain control over their behavior. As the participant sharpens their skills in handling their emotions, they slowly gain power over their addiction, and find their way to freedom. Smart Recovery does not involve a Higher Power as in AA, and is a good choice for people who struggle with this aspect of recovery programs.

Refuge Recovery

 Refuge Recovery is an addiction recovery group that approaches the problem of addiction using the principles of Buddhism. In theory, by practicing mindfulness, one can become conscious of the forces that are at play in our lives which guide us toward things we don’t want to do. Once we become aware of their influence, we have solved half the problem of gaining control of our behavior, and will soon find peace.


 Wellbriety is a term that means “wellness and sobriety”. This program was founded on the principles of Native American spirituality, and was intended to serve the indiginous population of the United States. However, its mission is to promote wellbeing and sobriety by disseminating the values of Native American communities, and thus expand its ability to help people heal and develop a positive way of life.

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