Why Groups Work and How They Help Participants

Research now shows that any group participation is as valuable as AA 12 Step participation. Treatment centers, counselors, and courts routinely require people to attend AA 12 Step groups as part of their treatment plans or conditions of probation. Fortunately, the researchers at Harvard’s Recovery Research Institute (RRI) published this article:

“It works, but why does it work? Perspectives on change in 12-step and non-12-step mutual-help groups”

  • Findings: Non-12 Step Groups seem to be as effective in supporting change as 12 Step Groups.

WOW — great news!

Self-help groups include SMART Recovery, LifeRing, Women for Sobriety, All Recovery Meetings, Recovery Dharma/Refuge Recovery and all manner of less informal groups.

Remember AA and the 12 Steps are simply one of many behavior change models. This report reviews studies that show any group process is as effective as attending AA and other 12 Step Groups in effecting behavior change.

Now – based on this study – people can respond by finding groups that fit their needs and interests. In particular, attending groups led by a counselor is a valid alternative to attending 12 Step groups.

Participant-Described Benefits of Self-Help Groups[1]

1. Perspective: Listening to other members describe how they dealt with problems promoted self-awareness and an ability to adopt new perspectives.

2. Being Connected to Others: The importance of friendship and bonds among group members; being accepted despite their past; stability and safety provided by the group; and the importance of giving and accepting support.

3. Developing Skills: Learning tools that they can transfer to other areas of their lives, including avoiding triggers, setting goals, self-monitoring, and other coping skills.

4. The Value of Group Activities: These activities allowed participants to develop new interests and promoted a sense of achievement. Participants said new activities were a substitute for time previously spent using.

5. A Change in Self:  Recovery groups provided the hope many individuals needed to be able to change. Many individuals attributed their recovery entirely to group involvement, the change in self allowing them to recover.

Most people trying to quit or in early recovery are told to attend groups, but not the reasons why to attend groups. The attitude is “Yours is not to reason why, yours is to do and try.” This authoritarian approach is no longer effective or appropriate (if it ever was). The RRI information as quoted here is excellent information to give to people considering attending a group or recommended to attend a group. It explains the benefits from group attendance.

Psychological Theories Underlying Beneficial Effects of Groups[2]

According to RRI, groups reflect four psychological theories:

1. Social Control Change: Bonding between group members, goals set by the group, and structure.

2. Social Learning Theory: Learning group norms and emulating role models.

3. Behavioral Choice Theory: Rewarding activities other than substance use.

4. Stress and Coping Theory:  Building coping skills and self-efficacy to manage the stressors that lead to use.

These theories explain why group participation is such an important component of a recovery program or plan.  But it can be any group, not just a 12 Step group.

The bullet point summary of the benefits includes the following:

  • Bonding and support
  • Goal direction
  • Structure to follow
  • Available role models
  • Expectations of positive and negative behavior
  • Involvement in protective activities
  • Effective rewards
  • Identifying high-risk situations
  • Building self-confidence
  • Developing coping skills
  • Giving back
  • Presence of like-minded individuals
  • Developing self-awareness and reflection skills

What a great list for counselors and professionals assisting the family in managing the recovery process and for evaluations of progress from that last drink. 

The Importance of Group Participation for Substance Users

Many years ago, I read a book on groups with a specific emphasis on the benefits of groups for substance users. The author noted that for alcoholics and addicts, groups were more important to achieving sustained recovery than individual therapy. I believe this is an accurate statement if the group is a safe place for participants and participants can identify with their group members. This is one reason why specialized groups can be much more powerful generators of recovery than generic groups. Business executives, LGBT, women, minorities, pilots, doctors, lawyers, the affluent and prominent, etc. all benefit from feeling comfortable with others from a common background.

Problems With 12 Step Groups, Including AA

Many people refuse to attend or quit after several meetings for many different reasons:

  • Reference to God and recitation of the Lord’s Prayer
  • Concept of Powerless – minority groups and women reject this idea
  • Exploitation of new participants by group members (13th stepping women, a common problem)
  • Dictatorial direction by sponsors and other long-time members
  • Misinformation and downright bunk presented at meetings
  • Uneven and variable meeting content
  • Ineffective/inaccurate, dangerous or punitive advice regarding relapse and family relationships

The latter comments highlight the downside of self-led volunteer groups with required or recommended attendance. People in early recovery or trying to quit are thrown into what can often be an antitherapeutic, exploitative environment.

Here is the problem with 12 Steps groups for the affluent, well-known and women:

We normally have our guard up.

However, in attending AA, we are told to be more open, trusting, and honest about who we are in order to benefit from group interactions and sponsorship. Unfortunately, there are people in meetings to take advantage of newcomers – sell them drugs and otherwise exploit sexually or financially. There are also participants who appear to be sincere, but have dual agendas – gain a client, find a sexual partner, tout their relationship with a famous person, borrow money, etc. It is a minefield, particularly for young people who have fewer skills in identifying potential victimizers. Fortunately, the RRI Report supports attendance at non-12 Step groups run by a qualified professional, which should reduce potential for exploitation.

Professionally-Led Groups Preferred

In my experience, groups led by professionals are far better than self-led groups because the professional can keep the group on track, identify members in crisis, make sure boundaries are maintained, provide guidance on issues, and assess progress. It is also far better to pay out of pocket for groups than try and go through insurance. Finally, professionally led groups can help preserve the privacy and anonymity of group members – a particular problem for the affluent, well-off and well-known.

Why do I say to avoid insurance? Insurance requires ongoing documentation for the reasons for attending group, and you want to avoid creating an insurance record that will follow you forever. Plus, insurance limits the number of sessions.  Finally, the quality of health care provider therapists is said to be lower due to high case load demands from health care companies. Upshot: Go private therapist and pay out of pocket for your group experience.

My AA Experience

I attended AA meetings regularly for five years because it was a safe place to gather my thoughts and hear from other people about their experiences. However, it seemed like a tough recovery environment for many attendees – lots of mixed advice and long-winded repetition. I stopped attending when members I knew from treatment expressed their resentment at my five-year medallion ceremony because I was affluent.

My experience in attending AA is that meetings are not, in fact, anonymous. People probe to try and figure out who you are, where you live, etc. It is said that treatment center personnel leak names, as do group members. My most beneficial experiences were attending groups led by a counselor and volunteering with group members at a local homeless shelter.

To reiterate, I would not recommend 12 Step recovery groups to the well-off and well-known – the pitfalls outweigh the benefits. Find a good group led by a counselor and start your own group. I have been in a men’s group with friends for over 30 years, and that has been helpful.

The Recovery Research Institute (RRI) out of Harvard publishes a monthly newsletter reviewing research on effective approaches in treating substance use disorders.

Each month I will select several impactful topics of interest to family, friends, and users in recovery or considering quitting or cutting back.

  • RRI has really good information that often contradicts or significantly modifies current recommendations from treatment centers, professionals, and amateurs offering advice as “interventionists.”

RRI is a non-profit. I hope readers who find their research beneficial will consider donating to RRI.  See There is an incredible amount of misinformation about addiction and recovery that is downright dangerous, given the lethal nature of SUDs. Time to turn to science from reliable institutions.

Personal Insight Note: Addiction Field Lacks Intellectual Firepower

Fifteen years ago, I was lying on a hospital table waiting for a cortisone injection into my hip by a doctor trained at Harvard and MIT. It dawned on me that the addiction field lacked the intellectual firepower prevalent in treating other diseases.

  • People involved in addiction services tend to be a self-selected group in recovery representing one percent of the population.

The math on this group, using some general assumptions is: 10% of the population is addicted. 10% of this 10% is in recovery – 1% (10% of 10%) is the pool drawn to working in the addiction field. This is a tiny group to draw from, and many lack the skills and innate talent to be effective counselors and services providers, let alone the professional ethics and boundaries to work with people in distress.

The advent of academic research from respected universities is a welcome and much needed addition to the field.

[1] RRI Bulletin, p. 8 May 2021

[2] RRI Bulletin, p. 10 May 2021


In the event your partner expresses an interest in quitting, you can say:

“Funny you say that, I recently came across information from Harvard Medical School about their recommendations for quitting.”

Or perhaps you are wanting to quit. 

The five-step action plan from Harvard Health looks like a good one. It treats drinking and drugging as a pleasurable habit gone awry.  Now you need to learn a new habit — abstention.  No judgement involved.  Let’s solve this problem.

I wish it were so easy!

But before reviewing the action steps, first heed this warning: Withdrawal from alcohol can be life threatening.  Same for benzos (e.g., Xanax, Valium, Ativan, etc.).  Keep in mind that if your loved one has been secretly drinking more than you know and quits, s/he may be in withdrawal, so you need to know the symptoms. More on this important topic at the end of the five-step action plan.  

Five Action Steps Suggested From Harvard Medical School

Harvard Health Beat recently sent out an e-mail advertising their “5 action steps for quitting an addiction.”  Not to be confused with the 12 steps of AA, the five steps are from a larger pamphlet the medical school offers online or as a hardcopy pamphlet, “Overcoming addiction with 30 proven strategies for conquering addiction and sustaining recovery.”

Their tag line is: Learn how to effectively address – and end – dependence on alcohol, stimulants, nicotine, opioids, and more.

Harvard also hosts The Recovery Research Institute.  The Institute publishes valuable information on what seems to work to improve recovery outcomes at

In my view, the SUD treatment field has lacked critical brain power in the past, and it’s one of the reasons recovery rates have not improved much. But this is now changing with institutes at academic institutions around the country investing in behavioral and neurological research. 

Five Action Steps for Quitting an Addiction (Italics From Harvard Health Beat)

Because change is so difficult, it is useful to have a guide when attempting to kick an addiction to drugs, alcohol or behavior.  Research shows that the following steps can help you move toward your recovery goals. You have the greatest chance of success if you adopt all five steps.

1.  Set a quit date

It might be helpful to choose a meaningful date like a special event, birthday or anniversary. 

My comment: No need to call yourself an alcoholic or addict. Simply say, “I am not drinking today,” or “I am a non-drinker at the moment.”  

Consider a month-long period of non-drinking, like Dryuary for January.  See how you feel and note the challenges you encounter during your dry days. 

2.  Change your environment

Remove any reminders of your addiction from your home and workplace. For example, separate from those who would encourage you to be involved with the object of your addiction (drug, alcohol, or behavior).  If you are trying to quit drinking, get rid of any alcohol, bottle openers, wine glasses, and corkscrews.  If you’re trying to quit gambling, remove any playing cards, scratch tickets, or poker chips.  Also, don’t let other people use or bring reminders of addiction related substances or behavior into your home.

Excellent advice. But caution: Note that some treatment centers and AA members say doing the above is unnecessary for people truly committed to abstinence.  They advise family members and friends to do nothing to accommodate their loved one who is now abstinent and in early recovery.  For example, if having alcohol in the house leads to relapse, then, in their view, it shows the alcoholic needs to spend more time suffering before s/he develops the willingness needed to recover.  This position is absolute BS. 

Family members listening to this nonsense have contributed to many relapses.  Examples:  

  • Tech exec with giant wine cellar unwilling to store it offsite when wife is in early recovery.  
  • Parents insisting children should attend alcohol-soaked family events or resume country club socializing shortly after leaving treatment.  
  • Business exec insisting spouse go from treatment to annual meeting in Hawaii.

Listen to the experts from Harvard.  Their advice is based on research and facts.  

3. Distract yourself

Instead of giving in to an urge to use, come up with alternative activities, such as going for a walk or calling a friend or family member to talk, so that you can keep busy until the urge passes.  Be prepared to deal with things that trigger your cravings.

  • Urges pass – but they can seem overwhelming.  

This is one reason why liquor and pills must not be in the house – to increase the amount of time and space between the urge and acquiring the substance so the urge passes.  By prolonging action based on impulse, your loved one can think through the consequences of picking up again. 

4.  Review your past attempts at quitting

Think about what worked and what did not.  Consider what might have contributed to relapse and make changes accordingly.

Do more than think. Write it down an “Action Plan” and diary your thoughts.  Review with counselor or other support person(s). 

5.  Create a support network

Talk to your family and friends and ask for their encouragement and support.  Let them know you are quitting. If they use your object of addiction, ask them not to do so in front of you.  If you buy drugs, you should consider telling your dealer that you are quitting; ask your dealer not to call you or and not to sell you drugs.  

My comment: Change your phone number.  

Also, you might want to consider talking to your health care provider about the method of quitting that is best for you.  There may be medications that can ease the process for you and to increase your chances of success.

My comment:  Definitely see your doctor before quitting due to concern about withdrawal risk.

Also, because we have so much shame and frustration over our use, it is better to find a good counselor or friend in recovery, because interacting with family is often very triggering due to their anger and advice-offering.

Withdrawal Dangers

Because our body’s tolerance to alcohol and drugs increases over time, stopping suddenly can lead to withdrawal, which can be life threatening.  Same for benzodiazepines (e.g., Xanax, Valium, Ativan, etc.)  The severity of withdrawal symptoms varies by individual, meaning people who drink relatively small amounts of alcohol may have severe withdrawal side effects.  

  • When your loved one decides to stop, s/he is very likely to be underreporting their alcohol or drug use, thereby being vulnerable to withdrawal symptoms, without you knowing it. 

People with problems always underreport to family members the extent and severity of their drinking and drugging.  “I am only drinking, and smoking weed.” But when we talk to them privately regarding their use or see their drug tests, invariably the number substances and quantities are off the charts.  

Signs of withdrawal include:

  • Increased heart rate and/or blood pressure
  • Sweating and tremors
  • Confusion
  • Seizures
  • Cramps
  • Body aches and pains
  • Hallucinations

Advice and request:  See your doctor when you decide to quit.  Your physician can prescribe withdrawal medications to reduce cravings.  


Liver disease up 300% …
Worried discussions with physicians …
What to do?

Being active in the SUD recovery field means I hear a lot about trends from health care providers:

  • OBGYN – Many more patients discuss concerns about drinking too much.
  • Liver Specialist – 300% increase in liver disease since 2019, many in their early 30s.

As for me? Calls and e-mails coming in from families and friends worried about excessive alcohol and drug use by the men and women in their lives.  Apparently, the one or two glasses of wine at the end the day is now morphing into three or four (or maybe more – it’s hard to keep track).  And the corkscrew is being activated earlier in the day.

Reports that women are drinking 30% to 40% more alcohol compared to last year confirm the anecdotal information from callers and colleagues.  One response, when concerns are raised, is “What’s the big deal? Wine is my stress reliever; I’ll cut back when COVID’s over!

But the question is: Can you? And, what are the risks in continuing on?

While it may be a great relief to relax and numb out a bit as the day drags on or winds down, persistent use can take you to the edge of losing control.  For most people, loss of control over how much to drink or when to drink is crossing the line from recreation and relaxation to dependence. 

Regaining mastery over that bottle is a familiar struggle for all us alcoholics.  “Damn, why can’t I drink like I used to?  Too bad, that horse is out of the barn.”

Rather than engage in this frustrating struggle, better to face facts (unpleasant as they may be).

Fact #1: Different Bodies – Variable Impact

Not everyone processes alcohol or is affected by alcohol the same way. As reported in the LA Times*, hospitals are reporting a significant increase in liver disease in 40-year-olds who are unexpectedly susceptible to the toxins in alcohol processed in this vital organ.  (Yes, alcohol is a poison.)  

  • Some people deteriorate rapidly; some go on seemingly forever. 

Why risk drawing the short straw?

Fact #2: Alcohol Kicks our Butts as we Age

As we age, we are less able to process alcohol through our system, meaning at age 40 we can’t drink as much as in our younger years. 

Fact #3: Check out These Signs of Excessive Alcohol Consumption

  • Having trouble caring for your children and being present for them
  • Feeling tired, irritable, and unmotivated
  • Experiencing headaches and noise sensitivity
  • Being depressed and anxious
  • Increasing conflict in relationships
  • Hiding alcohol use from loved ones

(The two-by-four of reality can no longer be disregarded so easily.)

Fact #4: Jeopardizing Children’s Safety

  • Common Complaint:  Drinking and driving with the kids in the car.

Are you dropping your kids off at practice and then attending Parent Practice at your local pub while you wait to pick them up???  (AKA drinking and driving?) If you are caught, you will face a DWI and a possible child protection referral.

  • Another problem:  Spouse out of town for work.  Stay-at-home drinking parent is unable to respond to child’s request for help or other nighttime emergency.

And sometimes there is a medical emergency.  (Being a CD counselor means I hear a lot of horror stories.) Children do remember not being able to wake you.

Fact #5: Good Times Around the Corner

COVID downtime may be an excuse to drink, but what happens when we can all go out and party like it’s 1999?  We will celebrate by going to restaurants, bars and friends’ houses.  No way you are going to cut back. ‘

  • Now is the time to limit yourself to one glass a day and see what happens.

If you have trouble doing so, watch for my blog post later this week, “Five Steps to Stopping On Your Own,” based on suggestions from Harvard Health.

Five percent or so of American’s suffer from liver disease.  You don’t want to join this club, face a DWI, suffer an accident with your kids in the car, or be the stereotypical wasted parent!

*”As Alcohol Abuse Rises Amid Pandemic, Hospitals See a Wave of Deadly Liver Disease,” LA Times, Feb. 8, 2021