Positive Recovery – The Best of Both Worlds

The recovery movement—Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) and all the groups that have subsequently adopted AA’s model—has been helping people get sober since the 1930s. Positive psychology, while a young field within psychology, has been highly influential in treating substance addictions as well as many other illnesses since the late 1990s. Finding ways to blend the best of what the recovery movement has to offer with the insights and techniques from positive psychology yields “positive recovery”—a breakthrough in healing from addictions. AA’s plan for getting sober involves working your way through the 12 steps—12 powerful personal challenges to integrate into your life as a way to fundamentally change how you see yourself and the world around you. While in some ways a spiritual program, the 12 steps are also a very practical program—a “how to” for making changes so that you can go beyond sobriety to enjoy a healthy, vibrant and fulfilling lifestyle. Positive psychology is a branch of psychology that focuses on the good stuff: happiness, resiliency, positive emotions and so on. Instead of looking at mental illnesses and trying to understand and address what has gone wrong, positive psychology practitioners focus on people’s strengths, and harnessing those strengths to increase happiness.

Resisting the Positive?

It might sound crazy, but some people do resist embracing positivity, especially in recovery. Why? Well, for some people, embracing feeling good in any way might feel almost like they’re betraying friends and family who suffered while they were using. If treatment somehow contains an element of punishment, or is at least harsh or unpleasant, it can help ease the guilt and shame many people have about what they may have done or put others through while using. In addition, there is a tradition among some addiction treatment centers and experts to focus on the “addictive personality.” It is believed that confronting people with their shortcomings or negative behaviors—such as lying when they were using or engaging in dangerous or illegal activities—is an important piece of the recovery process, and that doing so as bluntly and harshly as possible helps to “break through” any defenses the addict may have built up.

Research on Positive Recovery

While there hasn’t been extensive research on using positive recovery methods, studies have looked at specific aspects of positive psychology and its use in addiction treatment, and the results have been, well, positive! One recent study described using positive psychology in a group setting with adolescents who had been drinking. The focus of the group was to build upon their personal strengths rather than the negative consequences of drinking. The teens participated in group sessions in which they learned about relaxation techniques, nutrition, exercise and other positive ways to enjoy healthy living. The results of this intervention were impressive: most adolescent participants reduced their drinking after completing the group activities and reported feeling better about themselves. Another study relevant to this approach to recovery explored the notion of service, or giving back to others, in recovery. Service can involve sponsoring others, telling your story, or becoming more involved in the AA community. This study involved following participants for 10 years, and exploring the long-term results of being involved in AA and specifically being involved in helping others in AA. Again, the results indicated that the greater one’s involvement in service, the better the outcome, with the level of participation in AA’s helping activities being a reasonably good predictor of relapse risk. Staying positive isn’t always easy. Sometimes it might seem like an act of treason when everyone around you wants to vent his or her anger and frustration at all you did while you were using. Addiction is tough on everyone involved and anger and blame are common in early recovery. Acknowledge and honor what your family is experiencing, and trust that it will get easier. Work your program, listen to your therapist and forgive yourself as you move forward. And move forward you will.

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