Addiction has a way of making you feel helpless. Substance abuse disorders rob people of satisfaction in their lives, replacing the potential of personal fulfillment with guilt and shame in equal measure. When the brain is re-shaped to respond primarily to drugs, other responsibilities fall by the wayside, and relationships falter. Effective treatment focuses on teaching people to re-engage with the world in meaningful ways as a means of staying sober for good, and volunteering during addiction recovery is one of the best ways to do that.
Neurology and Addiction
To find out why volunteering is such an excellent recovery tool, we have to explore the mechanisms behind addiction and its motivation-sapping symptoms. Addiction isn’t an invisible disease — its effects can be seen in the way the brain gets hijacked by addictive substances.
When participating in any pleasurable activities, including eating and sleeping, the brain’s “pleasure center” kicks into drive. This involves three main stages:
- The nucleus accumbens releases a flood of the neurotransmitter dopamine.
- The hippocampus records the event as the source of pleasure.
- The amygdala works to embed a conditioned response to the stimulus.
Altogether, addiction works on your brain to make substance abuse a routine and seemingly necessary behavior. When the pleasurable sensation of drinking or doing drugs decreases as tolerance sets in, feelings of desperation and compulsion arise.
This leaves people with substance abuse disorders feeling uprooted from reality and without purpose — which is a big factor in relapse. That’s why successful treatment programs incorporate techniques that help individuals regain a sense of self outside of their addiction and the ability to ground themselves in the real world. But once treatment is successfully completed, what do people do to maintain a sense of fulfillment as well as their sobriety?
Reasons to Volunteer During Recovery
Nearly all treatment programs and post-treatment support resources advocate the benefits of volunteering for people in recovery from drug and alcohol addiction — and there’s good reason. Volunteering can play a pivotal role in the maintenance of sobriety and the healing of the self by:
- Creating opportunities for networking and peer support.
- Providing a constructive outlet for negative emotions.
- Restoring a sense of purpose in life.
- Fostering a learning environment.
- Creating chances to use real-world recovery skills.
- Offering a way to re-integrate into the community.
The deep satisfaction achieved by providing your services to the community on a voluntary basis is unique in its ability to help people in recovery stay sober. Its social and emotional benefits are invaluable unto themselves, but here’s the kicker: It’s good for your health!
A 2013 study by the United Health Group took a look at the ways volunteering affects some common indicators of health. The study is titled Doing Good is Good For You, and these statistics from individuals who volunteered at least once in the past 12 months are a clue as to why:
76% said volunteering made them feel healthier.
Keeping the mind and body aligned in health can be a huge booster to successful recovery. Taking any action that improves the perception of health helps fight the physical symptoms that arise from alcohol or substance cravings during indefinite sobriety.
94% said they experienced improved mood.
Wide emotional fluctuations are an extremely distracting part of recovery, as the body and mind learn to live without mood-altering substances. Having an occupation that consistently boosts mood is a fantastic tool for sobriety.
78% reported that volunteering lowered their stress levels.
Since stress is one of the greatest driving forces behind substance abuse and addiction, having a go-to action that reduces stress is invaluable for people in recovery.
96% said volunteering enhances their sense of purpose.
Loss of purpose and feelings of helplessness are unfortunate hallmarks of addiction, so having a structured activity that benefits both self and the community is one of the best ways to create personal responsibility and fulfillment that combats cravings for drugs and alcohol time and time again.
It’s clear that making the choice to volunteer is the right one for anyone in recovery from drug and alcohol addiction — but how can you get out there and find the right program for you?
Ways to Give Back by Volunteering
The best thing about volunteering is there’s a program to fit every person and every recovery. However, it can be difficult to narrow down and choose from all the options — so here’s a comprehensive guide to seven sectors where people in recovery can contribute to the community while bettering themselves and solidifying their recovery:
1. Working With Animals
One of the most popular modes of volunteerism is working with animals. For people in recovery who may not feel secure around others, or who are concerned about the temptations that abound in many spaces, volunteering with animals can be a perfect solution.
What do these volunteers do?
The animal kingdom has so many opportunities for volunteering it can seem overwhelming — but there are two main avenues open to people with little or no experience:
Animal shelters: With the way our feline and canine companions reproduce, many animal shelters find themselves over-crowded and understaffed. This is a perfect opportunity for people in recovery to reach out and make a difference — as long as they don’t mind the occasional nip or scratch. Helping pets find their permanent homes can give people in recovery a serious case of self-esteem boost!
Animal shelter volunteers can be found feeding, bathing, socializing and training future pets. These are usually cats and dogs, but small pets like bunnies and hamsters, as well as exotics like chinchillas or even snakes or lizards can also be found for those who are more adventurous in their choice of animal companions.
Zoos: If you love animals but like the idea of interacting with the public as well, there are excellent opportunities to volunteer at your local zoo. Most zoos offer programs that allow volunteers to contribute to animal welfare as well as educate the public. Wildlife centers that belong to the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA) offer these categories of opportunities:
- Animal care and nutrition
- Conservation education
- Visitor services
There’s also the benefit of going after opportunities for skill development and education. Whether you want to help care for and gather data on animals or educate visitors on crucial conservation topics, there’s a place for you at your local zoo.
Fact: From June 2013 to July 2014, a total of 2,128 individuals volunteered 134,809 hours at Animal Humane Society shelters, allowing the organization to achieve an 82% placement rate on pets in their care.
2. Serving Our Seniors
As life expectancy grows and Baby Boomers continue to age, the U.S. is expected to become home to 83.7 million adults over 65 by the year 2050. This means the assisted living industry will continue to expand rapidly, leaving lots of room for volunteering with seniors.
What do these volunteers do?
People who work with seniors on a volunteer basis can fulfill many different roles in the facility depending on skillset and personal preference, but these two areas are the places where most people start:
Food service: Your diet gets more and more important as you age, so if you love how you look in an apron, it might be great for you to volunteer in the kitchen of an assisted living or nursing home. Basic knowledge of cooking will definitely help you here, but if you’re eager to learn, there are many facilities that are eager to teach you!
Care & life enrichment: Helping residents get around, socialize and have fun are essential functions in any assisted living facility. You can assist medical aides in day-to-day routines, or you might be able to pitch in on community projects like gardening. If you like a varied job with plenty of personal interaction, your recovery from drug addiction could benefit from volunteering with seniors.
Fact: Over one-third of assisted living facilities enlist the help of volunteers to support their staff, and 41% of those facilities have four or more volunteers that help out at least once a week.
3. State & National Parks
Many people in recovery find that socializing with a lot of people just isn’t their thing, but they still want to give back to the community. For these individuals, the secluded environs of state parks can offer an incredibly fulfilling way to volunteer.
What do these volunteers do?
Volunteers in state parks perform a variety of essential tasks that keep these national treasures up and running for future generations. If you feel a connection to nature and want to put your services to work for our state parks, consider volunteering in one of these capacities:
Cleanup & maintenance: Keeping the grounds pristine and all the amenities functioning is a huge part of keeping state parks running smoothly. Clear away litter on a scenic route, or put your mechanical skills to work in any of the state park facilities across the nation to ensure the safety of both wildlife and the public. You might assist park rangers in making sweeps of the premises or help out with repairs of machinery or vehicles.
Tour & trail guides: If you want to share your love for local ecosystems and the wildlife that inhabits them, consider bolstering your recovery by volunteering as a guide for the many exhibits and tours available in state and national parks. Teach visitors about conservation, ecology and the wonder of wildlife while building your own skills at communication and public speaking.
Fact: In 2012, nearly 283 million visitors flocked to U.S. national parks, despite the economic downturn and high cost of gas.
4. Learning at Libraries
If you’ve made a hobby of reading, or you just like helping people find what they need, a library volunteering opportunity may be for you.
What do these volunteers do?
Libraries are where the public goes for the information they need — and some of it you just can’t find on the Internet. That’s why helpful folks are always welcome behind the front desks and shelves of our public libraries, and volunteering at a library can be a low-stress way to build ties and self-esteem in recovery. Here are some areas where your skills might be useful:
Stocking & organizing: If you’ve ever been to a library, you know how important it is that everything is organized correctly. And it’s not just books anymore. Magazines, DVDs and CDs all need to be catalogued and placed properly, and volunteers can help. Many people in recovery find the task of organizing helps counteract the compulsion that accompanies addiction, and offering those skills to your community can be an excellent element in maintaining your sobriety.
Planning & events: Most libraries are more than just a selection of books, movies and music. They’re a place for people to come together and learn. If you enjoy putting together events, consider asking about opportunities at your local library. Assisting in community get-togethers is a valuable source of constructive socialization, and it can really provide a sense of purpose for participants.
Fact: According to the American Library Association (ALA), 58% of U.S. adults have a library card, and Americans go to libraries over three times more often than they go to the movies. That leaves a whole lot of room for people in recovery to contribute!
5. Hospitals & Healthcare
You might think it’s impossible to lend your services to a hospital without at least some medical training, but that’s not true. Though the professionals at your local hospital keep things going as smoothly as possible, there’s always room for an extra pair of hands.
What do these volunteers do?
Hospital volunteering is all about greasing the wheels so medical professionals and support staff can do their jobs as efficiently as possible. Whether that’s delivering messages or holding babies in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU), there’s always a job for a willing volunteer. Some positions you might be able to fill include:
General volunteering: The exact duties you may be assigned as a hospital volunteer vary depending on the department you end up in, but they’re all essential roles. While the surgeons, doctors and nurses are busy administering the vital medical care patients need, volunteers can help make sure patients are as comfortable as possible.
Most volunteers start out greeting visitors, helping transport patients between rooms and appointments, and just generally doing everything possible to make patients’ stays more comfortable. If you decide your recovery can benefit from hospital volunteering, you may find yourself refilling waters, reading to patients, fluffing pillows and communicating back and forth between patients and nurses.
Hospitals are a great setting for people in recovery from drug and alcohol addiction to volunteer. Many individuals find that helping professionals care for the health of others is a fulfilling way to heal themselves.
Fact: Of the 62.8 million people who volunteered between 2009-2010, 7.4% chose to help out in hospitals or other health centers.
6. Food Banks & Soup Kitchens
For a relatively low-stress volunteer experience, you can help under-privileged parts of the community secure something everyone needs: food.
What do these volunteers do?
There are many food banks and soup kitchens all across the country where you can give your time and make a big impact on your community during your recovery from addiction. You can expect to fill one of these main roles:
Food prep & service: Working in a soup kitchen or other food program for your community means spreading the simple satisfaction of a hot meal to those who need it most. Whether you’re helping to prepare the night’s meal or helping to unload and organize donations for the next day, volunteering at a food distribution center of any kind is an excellent way to enrich your own life and give back at the same time.
Administrative tasks: Food donations and hot meals can’t get distributed without someone taking care of the logistics. If you’re good with people and organization, that person could be you. Many food banks and soup kitchens can use individuals to answer phones, file records and reach out to members of the community.
Many community food sources also play other roles in the community, doubling as art or garden spaces and hosting seminars or other educational and fundraising events.
Fact: In 2014, a full 14% of American households experienced food insecurity, defined as unreliable access to adequate amounts of nutritious food.
7. Disaster Relief
The ultimate way to give back can be giving your all on the front lines of the world’s disasters. Every rescue and relief effort needs volunteers on the ground, and organizations can often have a hard time finding people willing to do the work.
What do these volunteers do?
Disaster relief is a huge endeavor spanning many different types of volunteer efforts. If rescue and relief pique your interest, you’ll want to decide whether you prefer to work in the field or on the more administrative and grassroots side of operations:
Search & rescue: When a tornado, hurricane or other weather disaster hits, the first priority is to rescue survivors. Workers must leave no stone unturned when it comes to searching collapsed or otherwise damaged buildings for anyone who may still be alive. This is a great volunteer alternative for anyone who prefers a physical way of contributing to the community during their recovery.
Other relief: When those survivors are found, they’ll join a big segment of the community that looks to relief workers to provide essential services on the front lines of disaster. This can include distributing water, emergency food rations and vital information to displaced and panicked people. Essential requirements for volunteering in this arena are the ability to remain cool under pressure and a strong desire to make a difference through empathy and organization.
Fact: In 2013, Red Cross volunteers responded to more than 52,000 home and residence fires and helped 226,000 Americans get back on their feet after a disaster.
Giving Back and Getting More
When it comes to recovery from drug and alcohol addiction, there’s no single cure-all or magic formula for staying sober. All you can do is address the areas of your life that don’t bring you satisfaction and take action to bring more positive people and places into your existence.
Rehab treatment like you’ll find at 12 Keys is the most effective way to stop substance abuse and begin sobriety, but the real world demands constant engagement in recovery. Volunteering helps those in recovery build new bridges and stay focused on the path toward complete sobriety.
Volunteering also offers a source of stability and a chance to take on responsibility in the real world. Not only that, spending your time in service of others increases positive feelings and self-perceptions of health across the board. When you volunteer, you’re actively engaging in self-healing while earning yourself a spot amongst those who are appreciated in their communities and the world.
If you or someone you love is struggling with addiction, contact 12 Keys today to get on the path to recovery. Then, we can work with you to combat feelings of emptiness or lack of purpose by assisting you with finding a volunteer location that will help you heal, give back to your community and create the life you deserve.