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The Power of Volunteering in Recovery

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Action precedes motivation. Fake it till you make it. Just do it.

These sayings all point to the power of action–of doing something–whether you feel like it or not. Have you ever had a project looming on the horizon that seemed insurmountable? Did you build it up into a huge thing in your head? Were you afraid to start? Once you did start, did you wonder why you had waited so long to do it?

Are you waiting for the motivation to start an exercise routine? Most fitness experts will tell you that if you wait until you are motivated to work out, you will wait a long, long time. Once you do begin working out, you may wonder why it took you so long to start.

How does this apply to recovering from addiction or coping with depression? Simple. Treatment plans for both issues encourage volunteering or doing service work, whether you feel ready or not.

Depression and Volunteering

An article published in Psychology Today in 2016 discussed the value of volunteering when you are depressed and described the benefits to you. When you are depressed, the last thing you want to do is get up and volunteer. Just getting out of bed can seem like an enormous effort. But if you get up, take a shower, dress in something presentable, and show up, you may very well feel better.

When you are volunteering, you are committing to be at a certain place at a certain time and perform a task, whether it is picking up trash on the beach, walking dogs at a shelter, or leading tours through a museum. You are accountable to the organization and they are depending on you.

When you volunteer, you will gain a sense of purpose and accomplishment. You will feel needed and appreciated, you can learn new skills, and develop new relationships with people. Volunteering gives you the opportunity to think about something other than your situation and someone other than yourself and can make your own problems seem more manageable. 

Being with people is also important when dealing with depression. When you are depressed, you may have a tendency to isolate yourself, which can make your depression worse. Being with other people can make you feel better.

Volunteering or Service Work and Addiction Recovery

Volunteering and being of service to others is a part of most recovery programs, including 12-Step programs. Being of service in Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) or Narcotics Anonymous (NA)–or any of the other groups patterned after these–can be something as simple as coming 15 minutes early to set up chairs, serving as a facilitator for your meeting, or serving in the larger organization. SMART Recovery also relies on volunteers to serve as meeting hosts and facilitators both in-person and online and uses volunteers to manage message boards and chat rooms.

There are many benefits to service work during your recovery. Performing acts of service for your AA group gives you a way to make amends. You may have hurt some people while you were drinking or using, and helping with your meeting gives you a practical way to be of service–not necessarily to the people you hurt, but to other people. It’s a way of “paying it forward.” Doing volunteer work forges bonds with other people in the group you are working for. If you are volunteering in your 12-Step or SMART Recovery meeting, serving as a volunteer means that you have made a commitment beyond just attending the meeting and can keep you going to meetings even when you don’t feel like it. In addition, volunteering can keep you in the right mindset and keeps you busy in a meaningful way.

The Science of Doing Good

We know that volunteer work helps the organization, but doing service work can also improve the physical and mental health of the volunteer. When you do something for someone else, you have an increased level of oxytocin in your system. This has been shown to increase self-esteem and optimism. Also, higher levels of oxytocin are connected to lower blood pressure and overall improved cardiovascular health. Levels of serotonin are also increased by volunteering, which improves sleep and reduces depression and anxiety. Endorphin levels are boosted, which reduces the sensations of pain and decreases anxiety. Finally, cortisol levels are lowered which results in less stress, which in turn leads to better overall health and is thought to slow the aging process.

Tips to Get Started

If you are in recovery or struggling with depression, finding a volunteer outlet will do you a lot of good. Start out slowly: volunteer to spend two hours a week stuffing envelopes for a non-profit organization in your area or make coffee for your AA meeting. Gradually increase the time that you spend volunteering or take on a different volunteer role. 

The opportunities for volunteering are endless. Find an organization that uses volunteer help and get involved. You’ll be glad you did.

The physical and mental health benefits of performing volunteer or service work are numerous and well-documented. Because of this, many opportunities to be of service are incorporated into the treatment offered at Enlightened Solutions, a substance abuse treatment center located on the New Jersey shore. Patients there work together to maintain the facility and have the opportunity to work on the center’s organic farm, which provides much of the food that they then use to prepare meals. Enlightened Solutions focuses on treating the whole person, not just the addiction, and develops a unique treatment program for each patient based on their needs and their goals for recovery. In addition to psychotherapy, the center offers many holistic treatment modalities including music and art therapy, yoga and meditation, sound therapy, equine therapy, acupuncture and chiropractic work, and family constellation therapy. If you are ready to be free from addiction, call (833) 801-5483.