Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today


How the Wisdom of 12-Step Programs Can Help Us With COVID-19

Seven practices to help you navigate quarantine.

"Hugging Sarah" by Clover_1
Source: "Hugging Sarah" by Clover_1

At first blush, it wouldn’t seem like 12-Step programs could help ordinary people through difficult times. After all, these programs are only designed to help people recover from addiction, right?

Yes and no.

It turns out that handling an addiction problem has much in common with handling the next month at home in isolation during a pandemic.

The key is to understand that 12-Step programs are designed to promote emotional well-being, not just physical sobriety. The Al-Anon program, derived from Alcoholics-Anonymous, is intended to help people cope with living in crazy times. Al-Anon is a 12-Step program for people who live with or once lived with alcoholics. One of the central tenets of Al-Anon is that “we can be happy whether the alcoholic is still drinking or not.”

We can tweak that sentiment to read, “we can be happy whether we are in quarantine during a pandemic or not.”

Here are some of Al-Anon’s secrets to not just weathering the storm, but flourishing during it:

1. Letting go of control

Human beings are designed to seek control and to seize it whenever possible. During a pandemic when so much is out of our control, the best gift we can give ourselves is to follow the Serenity Prayer made so famous by 12-Step programs.

The prayer encourages us to let go of the things we cannot change and to focus only on things we can control. “Letting go” calms us and assures us that we’re neither designed nor able to fix the entire world.

2. Patience

One of the central ideas of 12-Step programs is the notion that in any crisis there are rarely quick-fixes. A crazy addiction or a crazy pandemic didn’t happen overnight, and it won’t resolve itself overnight, either.

We can work on increasing our patience by understanding that solutions to big problems require a process that is already well underway. We can trust that process and allow it to unfold on its own timetable. Letting go of our need to fix and control can help foster patience.

3. Keeping the focus on oneself

Al-Anon teaches its members that the solution to most problems resides in our own attitudes and mindsets. Spiritual teachers throughout the ages have cautioned against taking the mental stories in our heads too seriously.

A pandemic quarantine offers an opportunity for stillness and solitude — two keys to calming ourselves and changing the self-narrative to gratitude and to letting go of the need to control things beyond our own individual lives.

4. Trust

12-Step programs emphasize the importance of trusting that even when things seem to be going wrong, there is a deeper, more long-term perspective that we can take. Such a perspective sees the potential good in any situation.

We can trust that despite appearances, a power greater than ourselves is in charge and will somehow provide solutions that we’re unaware of right now. Trust means, again, letting go of control and having faith that the world is slowly but surely healing itself.

5. Living in the present

One of the most important tools of 12-Step recovery programs is the practice of staying in the present moment. Our minds can easily wander to the past, where regrets or resentments lie waiting for us, or to the future, where anxieties lurk.

There are no problems in the present moment, only challenges that can be met one at a time, one moment at a time. Staying in the present keeps our fears at bay and converts our problems into bite-sized, manageable issues that we can easily deal with.

6. Social connections

It has been said that every person with addiction's “sore spot” is the feeling of isolation, of being socially disconnected. Yet psychologists know that the need to belong is central to every model of human well-being. All 12-Step programs strongly encourage their members to find a mentor, a sponsor who can walk the path of life with us.

We each need to have one or more persons we can turn to for advice, for comforting words, for companionship, even if it’s over Zoom or the phone. Reaching out to people, even just texting them, can promote our well-being.

7. Service to others

The 12th and final step of recovery programs states that the key to maintaining our own emotional well-being is to help, encourage, and comfort others. Each one of us possesses a gift to share with the world, whether it is painting, writing, singing, or simply listening. The latest research is very clear: When we reach out to help others, we are helping ourselves get better, too.

Research on heroism tells us that we are all designed to do what all classic heroes do — encounter adversity, seek help from friends, make mental adjustments, behave accordingly, and then share our experience, strength, and hope with others. The hero’s journey is the 12-Step journey that we can all benefit from during any phase of our lives. We have the opportunity to engage in practices that will help us grow and transform into our best selves, pandemic or no pandemic.

Facebook image: Ruslan Huzau/Shutterstock

More from Scott T Allison Ph.D.
More from Psychology Today