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4 Brain Benefits of Support Groups

 

 

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Carl Thomas

Pastor | Live Free Founder | Lover of Jesus, Philly sports, fitness, tattoos, sarcasm, and craft beers.

Sex and porn addiction is a complex and challenging struggle that many individuals face.

And while therapeutic interventions are crucial for the recovery process, the importance and impact of community support cannot be emphasized enough.

Support groups provide a unique and invaluable resource for individuals grappling with compulsive unwanted sexual behavior. Beyond the emotional and social support they offer, these groups also have been shown to positively effect the brain. With that said, here are four empirically evidenced brain benefits of participating in support groups.

Benefit 1: Neuroplasticity

The brain’s capacity for change, called neuroplasticity, is a fascinating part of our biology and an essential facet of recovery. Addiction often leads to structural and functional changes in the brain, particularly in areas associated with reward, motivation, and decision-making. These changes to the brain’s structure is a large reason why overcoming compulsive behaviors is so incredibly difficult. 

That said, studies show that participating in support groups can help the brain’s ability to change and improve the neural pathways related to addiction. One such study conducted by Mashhoon et al. (2014) found that participating in group therapy increased gray matter density in important regions associated with self-control and emotional regulation. These findings highlight the positive impact of support groups on the brain’s ability to adapt and recover, playing a crucial role in overcoming addiction.

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Benefit 2: Stress Reduction and the Role of Cortisol

The burden of shame and guilt that accompanies addiction places significant stress on both the body and mind. This heightened stress, in a cyclical manner, further fuels addictive behaviors. Nevertheless, support groups emerge as a valuable resource in helping individuals navigate and alleviate this stress. By providing a safe space for sharing experiences and learning effective coping mechanisms for triggers, these groups offer a communal experience with the potential to profoundly influence the brain’s stress response system, including its regulation of cortisol—a hormone intricately tied to stress.

In a noteworthy study conducted by Kelly et al. (2012), the relationship between participation in 12-step groups and cortisol levels among individuals in addiction recovery was explored. The findings revealed a compelling association: regular attendance at support group meetings was linked to a significant reduction in cortisol levels. This suggests a tangible, stress-reducing impact that not only holds the potential to enhance cognitive function but also contributes to improved emotional well-being.

Benefit 3: Social Connection and Oxytocin

Addiction often leads to isolation, exacerbating feelings of loneliness, shame, and alienation. However, support groups combat isolation by fostering a sense of community and shared purpose. Additionally, social connection, in itself, has profound effects on brain chemistry.

Heinrichs’ (2003) study explored the role of oxytocin in social bonding and stress regulation and found that positive social interactions, such as those experienced in support groups, stimulate the release of oxytocin (often referred to as the “bonding hormone”) promoting feelings of trust and bonding. This neurochemical response strengthens social bonds and helps individuals recovering from addiction improve their mental health and resilience.

Benefit 4: Enhanced Dopaminergic Activity

The reward system in the brain, governed by dopamine, plays a crucial role in addiction. Substance abuse often dysregulates this system, leading to diminished sensitivity to natural rewards and decreased motivation for non-dopamine producing activities.

However, support groups can provide individuals with a sense of achievement and a feeling of camaraderie that comes from working together towards common goals, which can have a positive impact on the brain’s dopamine pathways. In fact, a study in “JAMA Psychiatry” found that being in a supportive group increases dopamine activity, which helps with motivation and a positive outlook during the recovery process (McHugh et al., 2013).

Ultimately, participation in a support group offers individuals in recovery multiple benefits including emotional support, shared experiences, and tangible benefits for the brain.

The neuroplasticity, stress reduction, social connection, and enhanced dopaminergic activity fostered by these groups can contribute significantly to the healing process. Therefore, as you journey through the challenges of recovery, don’t overlook the incredible impact that a supportive community can have on your progress, influencing both your behavior and neurology in powerful ways.

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Mashhoon, Y., Czerkawski, C., Crowley, D. J., Cohen-Gilbert, J. E., Sneider, J. T., Silveri, M. M., & Dager, A. D. (2014). Alterations in Brain Structure and Function in Alcohol-Dependent Individuals: A Combined Magnetic Resonance Imaging and Diffusion Tensor Imaging Study. Psychiatry Research: Neuroimaging, 221(3), 208–217. doi: 10.1016/j.pscychresns.2014.01.251

Kelly, J. F., Stout, R. L., Magill, M., Tonigan, J. S., & Pagano, M. E. (2012). Mechanisms of behavior change in alcoholics anonymous: Does Alcoholics Anonymous lead to better alcohol use outcomes by reducing depression symptoms? Addiction, 107(10), 1741–1749. doi: 10.1111/j.1360-0443.2012.03939.x

Heinrichs, M., Baumgartner, T., Kirschbaum, C., & Ehlert, U. (2003). Social support and oxytocin interact to suppress cortisol and subjective responses to psychosocial stress. Biological Psychiatry, 54(12), 1389–1398. doi: 10.1016/S0006-3223(03)00465-7

McHugh, R. K., Fulciniti, F., Mashhoon, Y., Weiss, R. D., & Roberston, M. J. (2013). Memory and abstinence in alcohol dependence: Effects on mental and physical health. Journal of Behavioral Medicine, 36(3), 265–275. doi: 10.1007/s10865-012-9425-3

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