Introducing Alternative & Holistic Approaches to Addiction (Guide)
Last Updated Dec 2, 2021
Addiction is a complex disease. The National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) reports that effective treatment should address the entire person and all associated needs, and not just drug or alcohol use. Often, alternative and holistic treatment approaches can work well for people seeking recovery.
No one treatment is right for everyone. Most traditional addiction treatment methods use evidence-based methods, including behavioral therapies and medications.
There are a range of alternative and holistic approaches available that can address mind, body, and spirit altogether. This can include physical activities and exercise programs, alternative forms of therapies and creative expression, and additional methods of altering the mindset or the energy flow in the body.
Alternative and holistic approaches work best when used in conjunction with traditional addiction treatment methods. They generally should not be a replacement for evidence-based methods of care.
What Does Holistic Mean?
Holistic means the whole person. Instead of just focusing on the symptoms of a disease, such as addiction, this means all aspects of a person will be considered, including mind, body, and spirit.
Holistic treatment includes physical, mental, and spiritual factors. It is often considered outside the realm of conventional and mainstream medicine. Nearly a third of Americans use health care approaches that are considered to be “alternative” or “complementary.”
Complementary methods are used in tandem with traditional treatment options, while alternative generally means in replacement of. With addiction treatment, holistic and alternative treatment methods are often used in conjunction with traditional therapies and evidence-based treatment methods to best treat the whole person.
What Are Alternative & Holistic Options for Traditional Addiction Treatment?
There are many different forms of alternative and holistic treatment options for addiction treatment, which can include physical manipulation of the body or blood flow, self-awareness and relaxation techniques, and different kinds of therapies that involve creative expression or animals instead of straight talking.
Holistic and alternative methods are often offered as adjunctive therapies, which means in addition to, traditional evidence-based methods. For example, rehab often includes a variety of therapies, such as behavioral therapies and art therapy, targeted exercise programs, and animal-assisted therapy. Rehab centers can also be strictly holistic and offer alternative programming to traditional addiction treatment methods.
Holistic and alternative approaches are becoming more respected and widely used in addiction treatment, as they can help to address the entire person and not just the drug or alcohol use, making for an overall improvement in quality of life.
Different types of alternative and holistic approaches to addiction treatment are listed below.
A form of traditional Chinese medicine, acupuncture is an alternative medicine technique to Western medicine that inserts thin needles into specific places, called acupoints, in the body. This is meant to trigger these certain spots in an effort to rebalance a person’s qi, or energy.
Acupuncture is used to treat a variety of health conditions and issues, including chronic pain. It is also an accepted treatment method for drug abuse and addiction, and it is commonly used during detox and in addiction treatment to support recovery.
Acupuncture can help to increase levels of the following:
Each of these neurotransmitters works in the central nervous system and plasma. They can impact emotional regulation, pleasure sensations, movement, and cognition. As a result, acupuncture can help to mitigate drug cravings, balance moods, and aid with managing withdrawal symptoms that can occur with drug dependence and addiction.
Acupuncture is most commonly used as a complementary and adjunctive treatment as part of a comprehensive drug and alcohol addiction plan.
Massage is the physical manipulation of the soft tissues of the body, which can relieve pain and tension. Stress is a common trigger for drug abuse and a factor that can increase the odds of relapse. Massage therapy can relieve tension and lower stress levels, which can make it a good option for an adjunctive addiction treatment approach.
During detox and recovery, especially early recovery, agitation, pain, anxiety, and sleep issues are common. Massage therapy can help as a complementary form of addiction treatment. Massage therapy does the following:
- Reduces levels of cortisol: This is the stress hormone that can cause pain and a weakened immune system.
- Increases levels of dopamine and serotonin: This helps balance and regulate moods.
- Stimulates pressure receptors to increase vagal activity: This can lower heart rate and blood pressure and decrease production of stress hormones.
- Relieves physical tension: Stress is often carried in the body physically, and massage can work this out and help to relieve pain.
- Enhances sleep: Neurotransmitters are elevated when you are sleep deprived, and these can be lowered through massage.
Massage therapy can be a beneficial form of holistic treatment that can help to increase the connection between mind and body and promote more body awareness. It can also work to decrease anxiety, stress, and tension, which are common during addiction recovery. This can therefore help to minimize relapse and enhance both mental and physical health.
EEG Biofeedback or Neurofeedback
Chronic drug or alcohol abuse makes changes to brain activity. Neurofeedback, or EEG biofeedback, is a type of mind-body therapy that helps a person change the way their body functions to improve mental and physical health symptoms.
Neurofeedback can indicate that you are holding tension in your body, for instance. It can teach you how to recognize this and work to release this tension one muscle group at a time. In doing so, you can relax and gain more control over your mental state, helping to lower stress and anxiety.
During a biofeedback session, a trained practitioner will place sensors on your skin to monitor your electrical brain activity, or EEG biofeedback, as well as your breathing, heart rate, muscle activity and tension, sweat, and the temperature of your skin.
The practitioner can help you use mindfulness to focus on different parts of your body, or they may help you think about soothing things or images to promote relaxation. Different breathing techniques, muscle movement, and body positioning can also help to ease tension and stress.
Biofeedback can help you to recognize ways that your body is functioning to help with self-regulation of brain function during addiction treatment and recovery. This can be an important life skill that you can carry forward, as it enhances self-awareness.
With origins in ancient India, yoga is a mind and body practice focused on enhanced self-consciousness through movement and mindfulness techniques. Yoga has distinct proven benefits of improving physical and mental health while decreasing anxiety and stress levels.
Yoga is commonly used as an alternative or adjunctive holistic treatment approach for drug abuse and addiction. It can decrease substance abuse and help to maintain dopamine homeostasis. This can help with emotional regulation and balance the reward processing system in the brain that is altered through drug abuse.
Yoga uses stillness, contemplation, mindfulness, breathing techniques, postures or poses (asanas), and meditation to help you tune into your body and increase the connection between mind, body, and spirit.
Yoga is an intervention that can be practiced in a structured environment initially. Once you’ve learned yoga, it can be performed virtually anywhere on your own to reduce stress and enhance overall calm. Yoga practices can potentially decrease drug cravings, reduce physical pain, and provide coping mechanisms for successfully managing triggers to minimize relapse and enhance addiction recovery.
Mindfulness & Meditation
Mindfulness-based interventions are commonly used in addiction treatment to reduce cravings and substance misuse by targeting the processes involved in self-regulation and reward processing.
Mindfulness involves focusing your attention and monitoring your own responses. This is often accomplished through a meditation technique that works to concentrate on breathing or is guided to direct your attention to certain parts of your body or specific targeted thoughts. With mindfulness, you are able to pay attention to how your body responds and learn how to regulate this to limit emotional reactivity and take better control over your thoughts and responses.
Meditation and mindfulness can help to do the following during addiction treatment and recovery:
- Regulate breathing
- Reduce tension and stress
- Lower cravings and the chances of relapse
- Help to rewire the brain’s reward processing and pleasure centers
- Promote calm and a feeling of inner peace
- Cope with triggers
- Minimize withdrawal symptoms
Meditation is commonly used as an adjunctive holistic approach in addiction treatment.
Art & Music Therapy
Both forms of creative expression and used as alternatives to traditional talk therapy, art therapy and music therapy can give individuals a method for expressing themselves as well as a healthy and positive outlet for emotions. With art and music therapy, individuals can engage in creating art or music or interpreting one or the other.
Art and music can be used in a variety of ways during addiction treatment. Both have been shown to be highly effective when used in addiction treatment.
Art therapy can have the following benefits:
- Decreases denial and reducing opposition
- Minimizes shame
- Provides an outlet for communication
- Offers motivation for positive change
Music therapy can have these benefits:
- Provides motivation to receive treatment
- Provides ability to access needs and emotions via an alternate form of communication
- Promotes relaxation
- Decreases anxiety, depression, anger, and stress
Animal-assisted therapy (AAT) is a form of complementary therapy with many benefits, including decreased impulsiveness, improvement in motivation and cooperation in therapy, and an overall enhanced quality of life.
Animal therapy can also include equine therapy, which uses horses and caring for horses as an alternative approach for addiction treatment. With equine therapy, individuals learn how to care for these animals and create a bond with them, enhancing self-reliance skills and providing a positive purpose and emotional outlet.
Animals can often sense emotion that people may not even be unaware of. This can help people to access these feelings and foster healing.
What Are the Success Rates of Holistic Treatment for Addiction in Rehab?
It’s rare for a single holistic therapy, such as acupuncture or yoga, to be used as a standalone addiction treatment, so it’s tough to differentiate success rates of holistic therapies. Studies have shown that certain alternative addiction therapies, like yoga, improve positive mood and reduce stress, illustrating that these could be successful additions to treatment plans.
Holistic treatment in rehab approaches help to reconnect the mind, body, and spirit, which are commonly disconnected from each other during addiction. Overall, alternative and holistic methods are highly beneficial and have been proven effective for treating substance abuse and addiction.
Generally, they are not recommended to replace traditional forms of addiction treatment, such as behavioral therapy and medication. Traditional therapy should still make up the backbone of your addiction treatment.
But holistic and alternative addiction therapies can round out your treatment plan, helping you to make bigger gains in your recovery. Certain types of alternative therapies appeal to different types of people, so it can be helpful to try a few different approaches to find one that works best for you.
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Integrating Trauma-Informed Yoga into Addiction Treatment. (September 2021). Journal of Creativity in Mental Health.
Why You Should Consider Holistic Addiction Treatment. (October 2018). U.S. News & World Report.
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