Learn / Holistic Treatment for Substance Use Disorders
Holistic treatment, sometimes called alternative treatment, uses a variety of techniques to approach healing. This philosophy considers each client as a whole person, with a deep intrinsic connection between their mind, body, and spirit. More and more rehab programs are implementing holistic therapy to treat substance use disorders.
For the most part, these techniques are not based in Western medicine. The term “holistic therapy” usually refers to Eastern modalities, such as Reiki, yoga, and similar practices. However, there are some exceptions, like certain types of massage therapy. And it can be most effective to combine holistic work with more clinical techniques.
A growing body of research supports the idea that holistic medicine can have a powerful impact on healing. According to the American Medical Association (AMA), “recent changes in medical education have begun to address the need for holistic medical care.”1 These practices can be extremely helpful for clients who are healing from conditions that affect both physical and mental health, such as substance use disorders.
Holistic treatment isn’t just one type of therapy. Instead, this term refers to an overarching philosophy of care. Depending on your specific rehab program, you may participate in any number of different therapeutic techniques.
This perspective is multifaceted, and aims to address many aspects of health at the same time. Specifically, “it addresses the psychological, familial, societal, ethical and spiritual as well as biological dimensions of health and illness. The holistic approach2 emphasizes the uniqueness of each patient, the mutuality of the doctor-patient relationship, each person’s responsibility for his or her own health care and society’s responsibility for the promotion of health.”
One key difference between most holistic programs and most Western programs is the emphasis on spirituality. For example, some alternative therapies include energy work, such as reiki, or transcendental meditation. However, the gap between Eastern and Western philosophies is beginning to close. Some clinical therapies even have strong foundations in spiritual practices. Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT), for example, was inspired by Zen Buddhism.
Data suggests that certain meditative and spiritual practices may have a measurable impact on mental health. The concept of the mind-body connection, in particular, may be extremely important for healing from substance misuse. Experts are calling for more research in this area, and claiming that “brain–body information streams would seem to be necessary elements of a comprehensive model of addiction.”3
While holistic therapy can refer to a variety of modalities, certain treatments are commonly used in rehab programs. Many of these practices are ancient, with centuries of anecdotal evidence. Nevertheless, more data is needed, as this is a relatively new subject of scientific inquiry. As research continues, many of them are being tailored to meet the unique needs of clients with substance use disorders.
Yoga is both a physical and spiritual practice,4 in which clients move, stretch, breathe, and meditate. It has many well-documented benefits for physical health, and can be helpful for those with or without any diagnosis. Specifically, it’s known to relieve muscle pain, reduce symptoms of depression and anxiety, improve sleep and balance, and help with weight loss.
Evidence also suggests that yoga can help manage the symptoms of substance use disorders.5 Specifically, research has found that it helps with nicotine withdrawal. It has also been “found to be a feasible and well accepted adjunct treatment for alcohol dependence.”6
Meditation is an umbrella term that can refer to a number of practices, but most often includes being still and focusing on one’s own internal experience. Practitioners may sit in silence, clear their minds, listen to guided narratives, perform visualizations, or simply count backward from a high number. Body scans are another popular meditative practice. During this meditation, you gently bring your attention to each area of your body in turn, usually starting with either the head or the feet, and simply notice how it feels in the moment. Mindful breathing is often a big part of meditation. According to Dr. Hari Sharma of the Center for Integrative Medicine at Ohio State University, “An ever-increasing body of research shows various health benefits associated with meditation.”
Specifically, meditation may ease the symptoms of depression and anxiety, improve sleep habits, and even reduce blood pressure. There’s also evidence that it might reduce blood pressure and alleviate gastric symptoms, helping clients with irritable bowel syndrome or ulcerative colitis.
Meditation can also help clients with substance use disorders to “gain self-efficacy skills.” This refers to a person’s belief in their own ability to achieve goals. “Self-efficacy reflects confidence in the ability to exert control over one’s own motivation, behavior, and social environment.” And as you heal from substance misuse, this growing sense of confidence can be extremely important.
During recovery, mindfulness can help you resist triggers. This collection of strategies teaches clients to stay present in the moment, accepting difficult feelings without acting impulsively. Research has shown these techniques to be “successful for reducing dependence, craving, and other addiction-related symptoms7 by also improving mood state and emotion dysregulation.”
Mindfulness can also help with overall brain function,8 which may help clients build healthier, more sustainable habits over time. Specifically, these interventions improve executive function. These skills “are the mental processes that enable us to plan, focus attention, remember instructions, and juggle multiple tasks successfully.” Executive function9 is especially important for those who want to improve memory, self-control, and mental flexibility. It can also help you stay present in your body during difficult moments.
There are countless types of massage therapy, including Swedish massage, deep tissue, Thai massage, and Shiatsu. While one or more of these modalities may be best for your physical needs, all of them have similar neurological benefits.
Massage therapy increases dopamine and serotonin, the neurotransmitters that help you experience happiness and a sense of achievement. It also decreases cortisol, sometimes called “the stress hormone.” Because of these effects, it is particularly helpful to clients in recovery. Massage can be especially helpful in the early stages of withdrawal,10 when patients exhibit low levels of dopamine.
This modality can also alleviate physical pain, and can even improve body awareness. This may help clients practice mindfulness, reconnecting with their own bodies even while they experience uncomfortable symptoms. By focusing on acceptance, it may be easier to navigate certain triggers.
Massage can continue to be helpful throughout the recovery process,11 even after withdrawal symptoms end. Its benefits include “quicker detoxification, deeper relaxation, and greater self-acceptance.”
Acupuncture is an ancient form of medicine, in which an acupuncturist inserts needles into specific areas on the client’s body, with the intention of channeling and rebalancing their energy. Some experts believe acupuncture may help clients detox from substance misuse.12
Preliminary data suggests that this type of therapy is especially helpful for those in recovery from opiate misuse.13 However, questions have been raised about the methodology of these studies. While more research is needed, many clients find this modality to be helpful.
Holistic medicine may help you reintegrate your sense of self. Because substance misuse impacts both the body and mind, these modalities may remind clients what it means to feel whole. By simultaneously improving your physical and mental health, you can also hone the skills that will help you live a healthier life, even after inpatient treatment.
As one expert describes it, holistic wellness14 “is a conscious, deliberate process whereby a person makes choices for a self-defined lifestyle that is both healthier and more satisfying.” This puts you back in control of your own life. Remember that you have both the right and the ability to make healthy choices. If you engage in holistic therapy during rehab, you may be better equipped to live sustainably in the long term.
Some of these treatments, like massage therapy, can also feel like a profound relief. After the stress and trauma of life immediately before rehab, there’s a great benefit to simply experiencing physical comfort. And this type of healthy, sustainable pleasure is also an important part of recovery.
However, it’s important to note that these holistic methods aren’t appropriate for everyone. Many clients need medical treatment in addition to—or instead of—these therapies. This is especially true for clients with certain physical conditions, including chemical dependence on illicit substances.
If you do want to pursue holistic healing, make sure to speak with a medical professional about any potential risks, given your unique health history. For example, a person who has experienced trauma within a religious community might not be a candidate for spiritual practices, like certain kinds of yoga or meditation. You may still be able to benefit from other holistic modalities, but it’s important to proceed carefully and with intention.
The road to recovery looks different for each person. Even if holistic healing is a good fit, you may find that certain modalities work better for you than others. Remember that the goal of this therapy is to treat each client as a whole and complete person, worthy of great respect, with unique needs and goals.
With that in mind, your needs might or might not be met by these methods. But by listening to yourself, and staying as mindful as you safely can, you’ll be able to choose the best possible path forward.
If you’d like to learn more about holistic therapy for substance use disorders, you can browse our list of holistic rehabs here.
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