Holistic Addiction Treatment: Does It Work?

When applied to medicine, holistic means treatment for the whole person. It encompasses healing techniques that focus on the body, soul, and mind. Addiction is classified as a brain disease that has behavioral, social, and emotional ramifications, and not just physical consequences. In this vein, it makes sense that treatment methods that address the entire person and not just the physical aspects of the disease can be helpful.

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The National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health reports that close to 40 percent of American adults use some form of complementary and alternative medicine (CAM). Complementary techniques are used in conjunction with more conventional and traditional methods while alternative medicine is used instead of other forms of treatment. Examples of holistic methods used in addiction treatment include the following:

  • Meditation and mindfulness meditation
  • Yoga
  • Massage therapy
  • Acupuncture
  • Reiki and energy work
  • Neurofeedback and biofeedback
  • Herbal supplements and nutritional therapy
  • Chiropractic care
  • Equine- and animal-assisted therapy
  • Creative expression and art therapy

Addiction treatment is not a one-size-fits-all kind of modality, and what works for one person may not work the same for someone else. Treatment methods should be individual and suited to each person specifically. Holistic forms of care are often viewed as more natural and spiritual than traditional medical methods, and this can be very appealing to many people.

Generally speaking, it is likely that the optimal treatment program will include both holistic and traditional practices. An integrated care plan can improve a person’s overall well-being and, therefore, aid in a sustained recovery.

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Holistic Treatment or Traditional Methods?

The National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) reports that the goals of drug addiction treatment are to get a person to stop using drugs, remain drug-free, and be a productive member of society. There is no single form of treatment that is proven to accomplish all of these things.

Traditional forms of addiction treatment often include the use of both medications and therapeutic methods. Counseling and therapy sessions are designed to help an individual explore behaviors and thought processes that are negative and detrimental, and learn healthy techniques for coping with stressors and building self-esteem.

holistic massage therapy

The gold standard in addiction treatment is often centered around evidence-based practices, which means these methods have been scientifically proven to work based on research, trials, and data. The journal Health Policy publishes that evidence-based practices may be beneficial in addiction treatment; however, there is not a lot of actual empirical evidence or a consensus that these methods are always best.

Holistic methods can offer alternative and more spiritual components to addiction treatment.

Psychology Today reports that it may help to bring a person to treatment who may not relish the idea of conventional methods.

Holistic addiction treatment methods can help to alleviate stress and physical pain through body manipulation, creative expression, and mindfulness techniques. Things like yoga and mindfulness meditation teach people how to be more in tune with their own bodies and how to recognize emotions as they are expressed physically. By having a better understanding of the self, a person can work to combat drug cravings and recognize how to head off potential triggers.

Strengthening the connection between mind, soul, and body can improve self-image and confidence levels. As published by HarvardHealth, yoga has been shown to actually decrease stress and help to manage depression and anxiety, for instance.

Holistic treatment models are considered low-risk, and many of the methods can be used in virtually any setting at any time to relieve stress. Since holistic treatment methods focus more on different parts of the mind, body, or spirit than traditional measures, this may help to reach someone who is not yet ready to talk about what is going on in traditional counseling or therapy sessions. By grooming a horse or painting a picture, a person can just be in the moment, and they will often feel a sense of accomplishment and relief following the session. Holistic methods can, therefore, promote relaxation and be beneficial forms of stress relief.

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Effectiveness of Holistic Treatment

Typically, holistic methods are considered to be the most beneficial when used as adjunctive forms of care—that is, when they are used in conjunction with evidence-based practices. For instance, studies into the effectiveness of mindfulness meditation have reported that it can enhance cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) practices during addiction treatment. There is less empirical data on the use of mindfulness meditation on its own for minimizing relapse and sustaining recovery.

Holistic treatment methods commonly focus on more spiritual aspects of recovery than conventional measures. Spirituality can often be a contributing factor in recovery and is often a component of holistic treatment methods. The Journal of Reward Deficiency Syndrome published results showing that people with strong religious or spiritual beliefs, who regularly engaged in spiritual or religious practices, were more likely to remain abstinent from drugs like cocaine, marijuana, heroin, and alcohol and have a sustained recovery than those who didn’t. Spirituality and weekly attendance of religious or spiritual services were noted to minimize relapse and, therefore, strengthen recovery.

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Similarly, as published in the Journal of Addictive Disorders, regular attendance at Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) meetings improves recovery rates and decreases instances of relapse. AA is a 12-step and peer support program that is considered an integral part of traditional addiction treatment programs. It is faith-based and also promotes spirituality in recovery. In this way, although peer support groups are considered conventional in their use for addiction treatment, they are also inherently holistic in nature.

Holistic treatment methods may be helpful in keeping a person in treatment for longer. NIDA reports that length of time in treatment is a strong predictor of sustained recovery. Generally speaking, the longer a person remains in an addiction treatment program, the better, and programs should last a minimum of 90 days.

Again, holistic treatment can be highly beneficial in helping to relieve stress, teach healthy coping mechanisms that can be used anywhere, improve physical and mental health, and minimize relapse. Traditional and evidence-based practices are helpful as well and often necessary. For example, opioid, alcohol, and benzodiazepine withdrawal can be intense and even life-threatening, and a detox program will commonly need to use medications to manage the possible side effects and keep a person safe. Holistic and supportive methods may be better suited for withdrawal from drugs like methamphetamine, cocaine, and hallucinogens, as these substances do not have physical withdrawal symptoms that are quite as strong.

Conventional addiction treatment includes behavioral therapies that retrain the brain to have more constructive thoughts, which, in turn, positively affect behaviors. Group and individual counseling and therapy sessions are integral parts of an addiction treatment program. Holistic treatment can serve to complement traditional therapy, but it should not replace it.

Instead, holistic treatments can address many aspects of the self, and when combined with traditional methods, they can enhance healing and recovery. An optimal addiction treatment program typically integrates various methods for a plan best suited for the individual. Ideally, a person needs to feel connected, comfortable, and heard when entering an addiction treatment program, and an individualized treatment program that combines methods can help.

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