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Paying it Forward/Altruism

Table of Contents

Why Altruism?

Entering, embracing, and completing a recovery program is simultaneously challenging and rewarding. Individuals work hard to overcome substance or alcohol use disorders and re-enter their lives, carrying with them all they’ve learned. They also return to many of the stressors and triggers that may have contributed to their use in the first place.

Post-treatment planning is vital to continued sobriety. You or your loved one must strategize ways to sustain and continue the new paradigm while returning to former familial, social, academic, and professional environments.

Researchers and clinicians have discovered that altruism, or the act of helping others without a tangible reward, is a powerful force for recovery. Paying it forward through volunteerism, charity work, and contributing to 12-step programs helps individuals sustain and extend their sobriety.

If we pull back, altruistic actions are necessary for a functioning society and are possibly woven into our DNA. Individuals making contributions to the greater good without immediate or apparent self-benefit helped our ancestors raise children, stay safe, and acquire resources.

Today, altruism helps marginalized groups and overlooked parts of society while rewarding the helpers with a sense of community and engagement. Integrating altruistic action and sharing your experiences to help others is an excellent way to support your own recovery.

Psychological Benefits

Both old emotions you addressed during treatment and new feelings that develop during your recovery can be significant triggers for use. Depression may discourage a person or anxiety may frighten them, leading to a return to former behaviors used as a coping mechanism. Maintaining your mental health is crucial during recovery.

Just like exercise, service-oriented activity is widely embraced by clinicians as a mood-boosting activity. According to behavioral health experts at the Mayo Clinic, volunteerism leads to significantly lower levels of depression and anxiety. Acts of service are widely reported to create a surge of positive emotion. Certain studies have even linked the satisfaction from helping others with increased dopamine levels. This makes sense because our brains want to reward cooperation to reinforce the behavior.

Additionally, multiple studies have found consistently lower levels of stress in those who volunteer. Effectively managing stress is vital for individuals at every stage of their recovery. While learning to properly respond to external and internal stressors is important, effectively reducing them is equally helpful. Lessening the amount of stress makes it more manageable overall.

Some may find charitable acts are a stress reliever. Whether it be volunteering at a soup kitchen or participating in a literacy program, service can be an excellent point of emphasis for individuals looking to relieve stress because it gives you an environment in which you’re performing tasks that require focus and care.

Physical Effects

Beyond the psychological and emotional benefits of stress reduction, consistent volunteers reap significant physical rewards. Remaining active and healthy is crucial for recovery. It’s good for your body and promotes overall brain health. Additionally, volunteering and assisting others keeps your mind active and sharp, focused on the present.

Stress is linked to many chronic physical illnesses as well as depression because it causes inflammation. Lower levels of inflammation can reduce the chances of everything from heart disease to digestive illness. Improved overall physical wellness helps you feel well emotionally, which fuels recovery and provides further motivation to continue the journey.

Creating Structure

Planning for life after inpatient or outpatient treatment concludes is one vital aspect of recovery that can be neglected. During active treatment, your recovery is front and center. You’re involved in a structured treatment plan that adds stability to life. Once you’re discharged and return to life and responsibilities, that structure goes away. You may be faced with the same stressors at work or home.

Without proper planning and establishing new routines, continuing your recovery can be even tougher. Individuals need to brainstorm how to remove themselves from risky situations, ways to address their feelings, and even where to be.

Service work is an excellent way to build scheduled time into your days and weeks. By committing to an organization, you account for the time that could be a pitfall in recovery. A structured schedule between work or school, home life, and volunteer activity keep you focused and engaged.

This combats idle time that may lead you to entertain thoughts about your former use. Keeping active and busy through volunteer work and participation in AA or NA meetings is an excellent way to maintain the consistency that fuels recovery.

Over time, your altruistic engagement will become part of established routines. Once service or 12-step becomes habitual, it gets easier and easier to adhere to. In time, new habits solidify into a foundation for your recovery. Reliable behaviors help you maintain your sobriety and create a natural support system when you experience challenges that could be a trigger for your use.

Builds a Sense of Community

A necessary part of recovery is avoiding relationships that were centered around your use and situations that may jeopardize your sobriety. While beneficial, avoiding certain friends or social functions may leave you feeling alone. Potentially, you may feel isolated and disengaged, which itself can trigger depression and drug use.

Volunteering will connect you to others. This engagement helps form new relationships that are not centered on your former use. Volunteers overwhelmingly feel a sense of camaraderie and share in what researchers term the “warm glow.” This helps recovering individuals establish new patterns and connections that enhance their well-being.

Paying it forward through 12-step programs also builds community. Immersing yourself among others with shared experience can be encouraging and gratifying. Actively participating in AA or NA by working the steps ties you to those communities throughout your recovery. Your comfort and place in your recovery can mean that you’re helping to set up the meeting room or taking a call to assist another person with their sobriety.

Those who actively assist fellow recovering individuals are much more likely to attend support groups. Mutually beneficial relationships with those you assist are themselves rewarding because you derive satisfaction from helping, but they also act as a motivator to keep sober in order to continue your altruistic role. Over time, service becomes second nature and another foundational habit.


Many times, substance use is triggered by issues with self-esteem. Navigating recovery means developing a positive self-image and the tools to endure adversity that may have previously rocked our confidence.

Depending on what form you choose to pay it forward, you’ll likely have to expand your horizons. Stepping out of your comfort zone to learn a new skill or sharpen an ability will activate your mind. Focusing your thoughts on something new will keep you occupied and engaged. Your mind will crave the critical thinking and creativity your new activity requires.

Your personal growth will feed into your confidence, underscoring your accomplishments during your sobriety. Over time, your comfort with your rising self-image will provide further fuel for your ongoing recovery.

In addition, the satisfaction of helping, whether through volunteering or service to others in recovery, is a boon for self-worth. Altruism creates a tangible source of the good you produce and achieve. This basis can help you endure moments of doubt that can negatively affect your confidence.

Shifting Focus

Throughout recovery, individuals may become entangled with preoccupations about themselves and their former use. Thoughts can cascade, leading to self-absorption in which the individual only focuses inwardly. Such behavior comes at the expense of others and your recovery. Narcissism and outward neglect jeopardize sobriety.

Numerous studies have seen the value in reaching out to others in recovery. Researchers assessed “service to others” as a metric for participants in AA. They found that those with high scores of service were more empathetic and less narcissistic. Thinking about and assisting others has a clear link to maintaining sobriety. Helping people keeps you grounded and cognizant of those around you. For many, feeling connected through service combats obsessive thoughts about themselves.

Learning Satisfaction

Understanding your part in society and the world at large helps recovery. Acting altruistically will help you understand other people. Gaining these new insights will help reframe the way you look at both your emotions and the tangible realities of your life.

Oftentimes, service will give you newfound contentment and appreciation for your place in recovery. Your volunteerism will ground you. Although you’re the one committing the service, altruistic activity breeds gratitude. This is yet another positive emotion that reinforces your commitment to sobriety and keeps carrying you forward day by day.

Sometimes, substance use is caused or exacerbated by a sense of emptiness. Individuals who feel lacking have sought to fill that hollowness with drugs or alcohol. Satisfaction and the “warm glow” of service lead to contentment. Volunteers often report a sense of “wholeness.” Service helps to manage and minimize yet another trigger that may hinder the recovery process.

Reach Out

If you or a loved one has concerns about your substance use or drinking, it’s important to find a trusted partner to begin a journey to address addiction. Granite Recovery Centers works with you on the best plan to suit your needs from intake to discharge to post-treatment strategy. Our experienced and caring team of counselors is here to help.