It used to be that 12-step programs were overwhelmingly the recommended treatment protocol for people with substance use disorders. “Holistic” programs that employed alternative therapies (such as yoga, art therapy and massage) were relegated to…
It used to be that 12-step programs were overwhelmingly the recommended treatment protocol for people with substance use disorders. “Holistic” programs that employed alternative therapies (such as yoga, art therapy and massage) were relegated to the margins of the mainstream.
Today’s addiction treatment landscape looks far more diverse, with many rehab programs offering alternative interventions alongside more traditional medical and clinical therapies (including 12-step groups). That’s because a growing body of research has unearthed the therapeutic benefits of these previously “fringe” therapies for people with SUDs. As illustration, consider some of the more common holistic features of many current rehab programs and the science behind their effectiveness:
Yoga, an ancient Indian practice that pairs breathing with various postures and stretching exercises, helps reduce perceived stress levels, including stress-related symptoms of pain, anxiety and/or depression. This is significant because addiction itself often arises as a response to stress, with drugs or alcohol functioning as a means of self-medicating uncomfortable emotions and sensations related to perceived stress.
Harvard Medical School found that yoga regulates stress hormones like cortisol and adrenaline, thereby lowering perceived stress levels. These benefits are nothing short of revolutionary for people in early recovery: Lower stress levels naturally mean less of a compulsion to self-medicate with drugs or alcohol.
Other findings in the Journal of Complementary and Alternative Medicine suggest that yoga improves both mood and brain chemistry by increasing levels of the “feel-good” neurotransmitter gamma-aminobutyric acid, or GABA. (GABA levels tend to be dramatically low in people with addiction and co-occurring mood disorders, who often turn to substances for relief.)
Like yoga, meditation is increasingly a more garden-variety feature of many rehab programs because of its evidenced benefits for people with SUDs. “Mindfulness” is an element that is common to both yoga and meditation and is particularly therapeutic for people in early recovery. The practice involves tuning into one’s experience of the present moment by taking the stance of a passive, non-judgmental observer who simply watches fleeting thoughts and feelings come and go (instead of acting on them).
This same principle has proven helpful at increasing impulse control and, in turn, reducing rates of relapse among people in early recovery. For example, vipassana meditation (or “insight” meditation that involves close attention to the breath and bodily sensations) reportedly improved recovery outcomes in a group of drug and alcohol addicts newly released from prison.
A regular meditation practice can also improve brain health — another big help in early recovery when the brain is still healing from drug-related damage. In 2011, a team of Harvard researchers found that roughly 30 minutes of meditation daily across a period of eight weeks produced changes in regions of the brain associated with memory, sense of self, empathy and stress (some of the same parts of the brain that addiction hijacks).
Art therapy, which has been around since the 1950s, has more recently made dramatic inroads into substance abuse treatment programs now that research has documented its multiple therapeutic benefits for people in early recovery. These include:
— Reducing denial and opposition to treatment
— Providing a healthy outlet for communication and expression of one’s feelings
— Decreasing stigma-related shame
— Motivating positive behavioral change
— Facilitating group discussions and relational connections
Many rehab programs now combine art therapy with a spirituality angle, encouraging clients to pursue spiritual self-exploration and creative expression via various genres.
Massage therapy is increasingly an adjunct treatment in many otherwise more traditional rehab programs. The healing power of touch has been evidenced to:
— Boost mood, including levels of serotonin and dopamine (two neurotransmitters that govern positive mood)
— Promote relaxation and a reduction in the stress response and levels of the stress hormone cortisol
— Decrease pain
— Improve sleep
All of these benefits cited by the American Massage Therapy Association are especially relevant to people in early abstinence from drugs or alcohol, when they may be experiencing physical symptoms of withdrawal.
Equine therapy has helped many people in early recovery get “out of their heads” and connect with their feelings. Many rehab programs now use these horse-guided interactions to help clients access feelings and emotions that substance abuse once numbed or rendered inaccessible. Horses often sense human emotions better than humans can. By mirroring these otherwise hidden feelings — such as fear, anger or mistrust — in their interactions with patients, horses can help patients reconnect with their long-dormant emotional self.
This list of holistic therapies for addiction is by no means exhaustive. Yoga, meditation, art therapy, massage therapy and equine therapy receive mention here because they have become common and even “mainstream” in today’s treatment world. As a result, people for whom a traditional 12-step program may not have worked can now choose from a wider of selection of treatment options.
Addiction is a complex disease that affects body, mind and spirit, often creating a sharp dissociation between these parts of the self. On the other hand, successful recovery from drugs and alcohol depends on strengthening the interconnections between mind, body and spirit.
This is where holistic interventions that treat patients as the whole sum of their parts (body, mind and spirit) — as opposed to a body needing medication or a spirit needing the Twelve Steps — offer something truly invaluable to people in early recovery. Holistic treatments uniquely strengthen the mind-body-spirit connection that is so essential to becoming a healthy, happy and fully integrated person, which is the ultimate goal for anyone in recovery.