Giving Back: Finding Healing in Helping Others

It has been called the “cure of caring:” studies show that taking the initiative to help others is an excellent way to heal from mental and physical illnesses. In fact, such acts have proven so effective that some experts recommend adding it to the common adage of “eat right and exercise.” A recent research paper reviewed 40 studies that were conducted over a period of 20 years—they all support the connection between health and volunteering1. The question is why does helping have such a healing effect? Is it realistic for people who suffer from severe problems to expect benefits while helping others?

The Healing Effect—When and Why

Joy is a natural payoff that people are wired to receive when they sense they have helped someone else. This experience seems to be attuned with what we perceive as purpose: just as the intake of food satisfies a natural physical need, the output of care through demonstrations of kindness produces a feeling of inner joy that cannot be destroyed even in unhappy circumstances. Therefore, joy produces a healing effect on ailing people. In fact, when properly motivated, the giving process produces effects that can decrease the risk for mortality by an astonishing 22 percent. Even the American Cancer Society officially recommends it to its patients2.

A sense of accountability motivates people to accomplish goals they might otherwise avoid. For example, many people may decide to start jogging early in the morning only to hit the alarm when the time comes. However, they may get up if they know their running buddies will be outside on foggy corners waiting for them in the cold. In other words, when people have others to keep them accountable, they will feel more inclined to meet expectations.

For similar reasons, rehab programs are more likely to succeed when people follow up those programs with close-knit alumni groups3. In systems of peer support, participants encourage each other to use their ongoing experiences from their respective conditions to educate, forewarn and encourage other people. In response, people who see how their own successes benefit each other will motivate them to continue progressing. Everyone likes to receive praise and to know that other people will follow their footsteps, so join these groups to encourage long-term success in both yourself and other people.

Help Others Even While Helping Yourself

Even if someone struggles to stay on course with recovery, helping others develop their goals can powerfully motivate success in both parties. Research indicates that people need not master a quality or habit to encourage it for others—in fact, recovering patients only need to strive to develop it for their efforts to help others. In other words, no recovering addict should tell someone to “do as I say, not as I do,” as recovery is a process that patients reinforce each time they explain it to another person. However, as the adage goes, once taught, twice learned.

According to the Center for Substance Abuse Treatment, when someone in recovery witnesses other people improving and reduces her own isolation as a result, this exchange “draws clients into a culture of recovery.” Such interaction also reduces depression, eliminates the isolation that may lead to relapse and rids one of the shame that may needlessly accumulate if he dwells on his own problems4.

Discouragement robs the potential of progress, but seeing successful results produces hope. While many recovering addicts find it difficult to see positive changes in themselves from day to day, it is often easy to identify such growth in other people. When recovering addicts reach out lovingly to their peers, they can help each other reach their goals, which fosters an environment in which commendation is freely given. For example, one member may notice the progress of her companion, and vice versa, and offer praise without being prompted to do so. Perhaps the person did not even realize he had made progress, so the conversation may in turn foster hope while highlighting the fact that challenges are indeed surmountable. In response, people may realize they can meet their goals for health5.

Everyone has something to contribute to recovery circles, so do not discount yourself by believing you cannot help someone else. Look for people who are in similar situations as you and who want to improve at your side. Thinking of ways to offer your assistance will likely yield a crop of self-confidence and esteem that will become a part of your new way of living and thinking. To put it differently, with help, you can get and stay clean.

Help Others While Healing Yourself

If you have questions regarding addiction and mental health problems, then please call our toll-free, 24 hour helpline now. Our admissions coordinators will provide suggestions to help yourself and others so you can lead as healthy a life as possible. Call now for instant, professional support.


1 https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/the-empathy-gap/201308/the-caring-cure-can-helping-others-help-yourself “The caring Cure: Can Helping Others Help Yourself?” Posted online August 29, 2013. Retrieved 1/7/16.

2 http://www.cancer.org/cancer/news/features/help-others-help-yourself The American Cancer Society “Help Others, Help Yourself.” Article date: October 27, 2015. Retrieved 1/7/16.

3 https://www.thefix.com/content/alumni-recovery “Rehab Alumni: Stay Close and Stay Sober” By Rich Knutsen. Published online: 02/24/15. Retrieved 1/7/16.

4 http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK64223/ SAMHSA “Substance Abuse Treatment: Groups and Substance Abuse Treatment.” 2005. Retrieved 1/7/16.

5 http://www.samhsa.gov/recovery SAMHSA “Recovery and Recovery Support.” Retrieved 1/7/16.