Drug or alcohol addiction is a disease that changes the way your brain functions over time, causing intense cravings for drugs, alcohol or other substances that only more of that particular substance can seem to satisfy. Alteration of the brain’s chemistry may be one of the first physical changes that result from addiction, but it is usually not the only one. Addiction can affect a person’s long-term and short-term health.
While traditional addiction treatment may utilise medications to reduce withdrawal symptoms and behavioural therapies to help you learn how to deal with cravings, an increasing number of rehabilitation facilities and community based drug and alcohol services are also embracing alternative treatment therapies as a means to enhance recovery and help you emerge from rehabilitation and addiction with a new, healthier lifestyle. Alternative/complimentary therapies can include exercise, art, music, biofeedback, equine therapy, acupuncture, mindfulness, meditation and others. While these are not a replacement for traditional addiction treatments, they can be a supplement that enhances your results and success at long-term abstinence or sobriety.
Several alternative therapy types are available. This article will explore some of these options and the benefits each type offers to those looking to engage in stress-relieving measures as well as reduce anxiety, stress and tension associated with attempting to quit using drugs or alcohol along with cravings and recovery from long-term emotional/spiritual neglect.
Here you will find the two key words that we will use throughout this article. These words may be unfamiliar to you so to clarify this, we have provided you with some simple definitions:
Holistic: Characterised by the treatment of the whole person, taking into account mental and social factors, rather than just the symptoms of a disease. Also by the belief that the parts of something are intimately interconnected and explicable only by reference to the whole.
Complementary Medicine: Any of a range of medical therapies that fall beyond the scope of conventional medicine but may be used alongside it in the treatment of disease and ill health. Examples include acupuncture and acupressure.
Benefits of Exercise in Recovery
Physical exercise has plenty of great benefits for people in recovery. It improves mood, increases self-esteem and improves the duration and quality of sleep. Regular exercise can also improve a person’s immunity to illness or disease and energy levels for overall increased physical health. It is also a positive way to use some of your time productively, especially when you are in the early stages of your recovery however continued exercise will only carry on benefiting you as time goes by.
According to a study published by Frontiers in Psychiatry, people who don’t participate in aerobic exercise on a regular basis are more likely to abuse drugs. Conversely, those who do some kind of aerobic exercise regularly are less likely to abuse drugs. Regular exercise also reduces the risk of relapse for people in recovery.
Although regular exercise is an important part of a life in addiction recovery, people can’t always just jump right into extreme physical exercise. A slow, gradual integration into physical exercise will reduce a person’s risk of injury while still providing all the physical benefits whilst removing the typical trait of addicts which is to learn and do something quickly and then after an extremely short period of time, get fed up and stop doing it as they have moved onto something else. This trait is common in addicts and not just those who have an addiction to substances, gamblers and sex addicts also have this trait within.
Art & Music Therapy To Promote Healing
According to the Journal of Addiction Nursing, music and art also have several benefits for people in recovery. Not only do addiction programs offering music and art therapy provide more positive treatment results than those that don’t, but clients have the opportunity to express themselves in alternative ways outside of talking therapies. This is especially important when trying to overcome a difficult issue such as a past trauma, depressive episode or dealing with suicidal or self-harming thoughts.
Despite what many people may think, clients don’t have to be exceptionally skilled musically or artistically to enjoy the benefits of these alternative therapies. Instead, the focus is on the creation process and the emotional responses to the act of creating a piece of art or expressing their emotions or feeling when conventional talking therapies may feel uncomfortable or unable to allow the person to express themselves in a way that will allow them of off-load some of the negative thoughts and feelings that they may be holding on to.
Utilising Mindfulness Practices
An offshoot of customary types of exercise are mindfulness practices, such as yoga, qigong, meditation and many others. These practices emphasise the mind while also involving the body. Deep breathing and slow, controlled movements are an important part of what mindfulness practices have to offer in order to reduce stress or anxiety, help to relax those currently going through a detox or simply to prepare for a stressful day or to unwind at the end of the day to promote better sleep. This can be done multiples times a day and some exercises can even be done whilst on trains, buses or air planes without anyone else knowing what you are doing! We will discuss some of these a little later in this article.
There are several different types of yoga, but in general yoga incorporates guided stretching movements that can help you strengthen your body while also focusing on careful, deliberate breathing patterns and relaxation. Participants do not have to be as flexible as a gymnast to effectively complete yoga positions. Some rehabilitation programs utilise a series of modified slow, controlled postures to help you achieve feelings of peace, comfort and relaxation.
According to the British Holistic Medical Association, yoga can specifically help those in recovery by reducing the cravings, insomnia and agitation that can often occur when a person is attempting to detox from drugs or alcohol.
Through learning to join body and mind by resting comfortably and mentally focusing on peaceful, positive thoughts and being “in the moment”, yoga practitioners can learn to better deal with stress and temptations that can occur when they return to regular life following a rehabilitation stay or community drug and alcohol treatment as part of an ongoing process to take better care of yourself which we often forget to do whilst in active addiction. Yoga helps to reduce stress hormones in the body, such as adrenaline and cortisol. Additionally, yoga practice can help to increase the amount of GABA, a neurotransmitter associated with making you feel calm and relaxed.
Qigong Shows Promise in Addiction Treatment
Another alternative therapy option associated with mindfulness is qigong. This practice is a combination of several therapeutic approaches, including choreographed postures, breathing techniques and mental focus. Participants engage in slow, controlled movements while engaging in mindfulness through positive visualisations and guided imagery, including imagining a flow of energy through the body that promotes healing.
A study published in the Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine incorporated qigong sessions into the daily routine of participants in residential addiction treatment. Participants were asked to complete questionnaires on a weekly basis to determine if the therapy was effective, and this treatment was then compared with another program, called the Stress Management and Relaxation Training. Participants in the qigong group experienced higher program completion rates as well as a greater reduction in drug cravings. The researchers concluded that qigong programs provided equally positive results as traditional meditation therapies offered. However, each addict is different in their needs, the severity of their addiction and which substances they are addicted to so more often than not, many addicts find that they must incorporate multiple different types of therapies into one continual, ongoing way to prevent from lapsing or relapsing.
Acupuncture: An Ancient Therapy to Restore Energy
Acupuncture is an ancient Chinese medicinal practice of applying small, thin needles to specific areas on a person’s body to restore balance. While acupuncture is traditionally used to treat chronic pain, it has other applications, including in the addiction & recovery field. According to the National Centre for Complementary and Integrative Health, acupuncturists have used the techniques since the 1960-70’s to help people quit smoking.
The Oxford School of Medicine published an article on the specific use of auricular treatment (ear acupuncture) for individuals in recovery. The acupuncturist stimulated five specific points intended to relieve anxiety and help those struggling with addiction to relax:
- Autonomic Point: Promotes relaxation and slows down the nervous system
- Shen Men: Also known as the “spirit gate,” stimulating it helps to reduce feelings of anxiety and nervousness
- Kidney Point: Calms fears and heals internal organs
- Liver Point: Helps to achieve detoxification, purify the blood and reduce anger
- Lung Point: Reduces grief, shame & embarrassment
Acupuncture sessions can last anywhere from 30 minutes to over an hour. Once the needles are applied, clients are often encouraged to drift off to a peaceful sleep or be guided through meditation/mindfulness and breathing exercises. According to a study published in Evidence-Based Complementary Alternative Medicine, some animal-based studies have concluded that acupuncture has benefits in reducing withdrawal symptoms associated with alcohol abuse along with other types of substance addiction.
While more research should be conducted, there is some evidence that acupuncture increases the amount of dopamine levels in the brain. Dopamine is a neurotransmitter associated with pleasure and reward. This release of dopamine has also been shown to aid people withdrawing from opioid addictions.
Although many of the benefits of acupuncture are often anecdotal, it is important to consider the risks associated with any type of treatment, including acupuncture as well. It is important that a person must see an experienced practitioner who uses sterile needles and is well-versed in the proper delivery of such treatments. While reported side effects are rare, they can include infections at the needle insertion points and central nervous system injury. More and more community based drug and alcohol services and residential rehabilitation facilities are offering auricular acupuncture as part of their standard therapies offered to patients as ever increasing anecdotal evidence from those who are now in recovery from addiction to substances.
Biofeedback: Using the Brain to Improve Body Processes
Stress, anxiety, tension and anger can all produce physiological changes in the body. The practice of biofeedback aims to help a person gain better control of their own brainwaves. A particular kind of biofeedback known as neurofeedback aims to help people develop a more “normal” pattern of brain waves through self-regulation.
During a neurofeedback session, a person is connected to an electroencephalogram (EEG) machine via electrodes that are painlessly placed on the head and a monitor displays ongoing changes in brain waves. The participant is then encouraged to picture several scenarios where he or she has successfully overcome a drug or alcohol addiction. According to the American Holistic Health Association, this has the effect of reducing the likelihood of drug relapse.
A study published in The American Journal of Drug and Alcohol Abuse found that patients who participated in EEG biofeedback experience a longer period of drug or alcohol abstinence than those who did not. During the study, more than 100 volunteers participated in a biofeedback regimen or a control group who didn’t. After 12 months, an estimated 70 percent of those in the biofeedback group were still sober & abstinent as compared to 44 percent for the control group that did not receive the biofeedback treatments. According to the study, biofeedback was shown to improve attention and thinking while also reducing impulsivity, which can contribute to a person’s likelihood to relapse or adopt other forms of addictive behaviour.
In addition to therapies using neurofeedback, there are also therapies that use other tools to help promote sobriety and abstinence. These include measuring a person’s breathing rate, blood pressure and muscle tension while a therapist explains deep-breathing exercises as well as visualisation exercises. By utilising these approaches, people are able to learn to control and moderate their physical responses to stress and anxiety, helping with day to day life as well as those going through the detox and recovery process. You can find out more information here about Biofeedback and how it can help with those who are afflicted by addiction.
Nutritional Therapy After Addiction
Substance abuse and addiction can affect a person’s metabolism and often results in nutritional imbalances, weight loss or wright gain, immunodeficiency along with other side effects of either eating too little (for example, in a crack cocaine addicts life) or too much (for example, in a marijuana addicts life who may binge eat after smoking). The withdrawal process from drugs or alcohol can also result in stomach symptoms, such as diarrhoea, vomiting and nausea that can affect a person’s overall level of nutrition. Nutritional deficiencies can include electrolyte imbalances as well as an overall lack of energy due to insufficient calorie intake in those who do not eat a balanced, healthy diet regularly.
People who abuse alcohol are particularly affected by nutritional imbalances, such as deficiencies in vitamin B6, thiamine and folic acid. The results are medical conditions such as anemia and Korsakoff syndrome, which is the result of a thiamine deficiency.
In an attempt to correct these nutritional deficiencies, people in recovery can benefit from nutritional counselling by a dietitian or other nutrition professional. Nutritional advice may include, but not limited to:
- Eat at regular mealtimes to develop a healthy eating routine
- Choose foods that are higher in dietary fibre, such as fruits, vegetables and whole grains to reduce symptoms and increase intake of vitamins and minerals
- Reduce caffeine intake whenever possible, which can decrease anxiety and feelings of nervousness. This includes energy or fizzy drinks, coffee and tea ect
- Incorporate lean proteins and complex carbohydrates into your diet
In addition to adopting healthier eating habits, a person can also benefit from increasing his or her fluid intake and making an effort to drink more water. A dietitian can also advise a person in the nutrients he may be missing and recommend supplements associated with these deficiencies. For instance, a person experiencing alcohol abuse problems can benefit from B-complex vitamins as well as thiamine, a simple vitamin tablet can help rectify this situation along with others.
According to a study published in Drugs and Alcohol Today, there is a close relationship between drug use and poor nutrition. By learning about healthy eating and making dietary changes that are nutritionally beneficial, a person may be able to reduce the withdrawal symptoms associated with abusing drugs or alcohol. According to the study, a well-nourished brain that is supplied with all of the nutrients it needs is associated with higher rates of long-term recovery.
Hypnosis As A Means To Promote Relaxation
Hypnosis is another technique that addiction rehabilitation facilities & community based drug and alcohol services are starting to employ more and more in helping addicts to find ways to reduce cravings and promote relaxation. A hypnotherapist can assist in using hypnosis during recovery. A therapist who specialises in addiction treatment may use hypnosis to instil the belief that a person does have the power to overcome a drug or alcohol addiction and help the addict develop and invoke strong negative feelings towards their substance(s) of dependence instead of them seeing it as a “reward” or as a positive or quick fix/relieving way to cope with stressful or upsetting events in life as well as manage past traumas that they have experienced, leading them to turn towards substances in the first place.
Steps a hypnotherapist may take during a session can include the following:
- Asking a client to rest quietly and imagine their future self living a life of sobriety or abstinence.
- Asking a client what they see or hear. Examples could include a person seeing themselves with more energy, a steady job and a stable home life or simply free from a life involving around drugs or alcohol.
- Building on these positive thoughts by encouraging a person to see themselves as a strong individual who can overcome drug or alcohol addiction and maintain abstinence and sobriety.
Equine Therapy (Horse Therapy)
Many individuals find equine therapy (horse therapy) to be a very beneficial part of drug and alcohol treatment when it comes to gaining control over their addiction.
What Is Equine Therapy? Equine therapy is the use of horses in a therapeutic setting. It helps promote emotional growth and personal development in the lives of individuals who may have lost sight of their priorities. This type of therapy has been effective in a variety of treatment scenarios for children, adolescents and adults. Individuals who participate in equine therapy while recovering from a drug or alcohol addiction often experience several life changing benefits. Working with horses is often just a small part of a comprehensive treatment plan. It is especially useful in treating people who have not shown improvement with other types of drug rehab treatment, such as group/1-2-1 therapy or counselling.
How Does Equine Therapy Work? Equine therapy programs are becoming an ever popular option to offer addicts as part of a tailored treatment package and are becoming more frequently offered to addicts at rehabilitation centres and community based drug and alcohol services around the UK & the world. The programs differ depending on the rehab facility or drug and alcohol service, location and country. They are often tailored to suit the unique needs of the individual addict. Individuals in a drug rehab treatment centre or community based drug and alcohol service typically spend time with a horse each day, week or month. They also continue working with their therapists and addiction counsellors. In equine therapy, the addict develops a relationship with the horse while tending to its basic needs. The horse’s needs include feeding, grooming, cleaning their living environment, exercise. Learning to saddle the horse and perform other more complex tasks may also part of the process but do vary from facility to service. Many equine therapy programs do not include riding, however. This is because many of the horses used in equine therapy are either too old for regular riding or have suffered injuries that render them un-rideable.
Therapeutic Use of Horses Horses have been used to successfully improve the condition of patients with many different symptoms. As already mentioned, they play an important part of treatment at more and more drug rehab treatment centres. They have helped many individuals with addictions to alcohol, cocaine, heroin and other substances. Equine therapy is also often recommended for children with autism. It is also a very effective treatment for children and adolescents with conduct disorder and other types of behavioural problems. These gentle animals can be also very beneficial in the treatment of those suffering from depression, anxiety, dissociative symptoms, OCD, self-harm, have suicidal tendencies and even those with dementia. Another common application of equine therapy is the treatment of individuals who have experienced significant trauma in their lives. This includes individuals with post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) such as soldiers or those from our armed forces and may also include those with personality disorders, such as borderline personality disorder.
Why Is Equine Therapy Effective? Animals have proven their ability to soothe and relax sick patients on numerous occasions. Cats, dogs and even dolphins have been used in many different cases to alleviate pain, improve mood and/or reduce stress. Horses are very effective for all of those things. In drug treatment, equine therapy gives recovery addicts a new focus. By doing this, it helps them start replacing their former, unhealthy habits that led to and perpetuated their addiction initially. As the equine therapy program continues, addicts learn to take responsibility and maintain a regular schedule. An effective treatment plan will include counselling or group therapy (if they aren’t already receiving any) and other therapy techniques mentioned earlier in this article and those discussed in other D’n’D articles in addition to equine therapy. The combination will encourage patients to examine their lives, their actions and their future. The ultimate goal is to enable them to grow as individuals.
Equine Therapy and Self-Worth Many people who struggle with drug or alcohol addiction experience significant feelings of inadequacy and diminished self-confidence. Working with horses in a structured therapy setting can help boost their sense of confidence and self-worth. As they establish a relationship with the horse, it allows them to gain the horse’s trust and unconditional love and affection. For many addicts, this is a very new experience, and one that can be powerfully affirming! They often feel an incredible sense of accomplishment during their equine therapy sessions. Many recovering addicts also find that they feel supported and needed by the horses as they work with them during their treatment. This new-found sense of personal value & self-worth makes it easier to gain control over their addiction. Even if they already have that love and support from friends and family, equine therapy provides a fresh start and a new angle on being needed by something or someone else. This can be very beneficial in helping them overcome the negative thoughts and feelings that have blocked their path to recovery in the past.
Equine Therapy and Behaviour Behaviour management is often a key component in an effective drug and alcohol treatment plan. Both alcohol and drug addiction are frequently accompanied by aggressive or violent tendencies or behaviours. These often end up endangering the patient as well as his or her loved ones. As addicts learn to communicate with and care for the horse, they will also have the opportunity to explore how the animal reacts to their different moods, vocal tones, and body language. This “feedback” from the horse helps them distinguish between hurtful or harmful behaviours and acceptable ways of asserting themselves which may be something that they have had problems with mastering previously. This provides the perfect opportunity for lessons on the importance of trust and respect in a relationship, which are an important part of the therapeutic process. Personal reflection is also encouraged during equine therapy. The holistic approach of equine therapy has been very beneficial to patients struggling with all types of addiction. The responsibility of caring for a horse helps gives addicts a sense of purpose to their daily routine. Having a sense of purpose makes it much easier to let go of the drugs or alcohol that once filled their life. Bonding and communicating with the horse helps foster respect – both for themselves and for the animal. This unique relationship also soothes the patient, lowers stress levels and eases the typical withdrawal symptoms that typically accompany drug and alcohol rehab. Each year, more than 15 million UK residents don’t receive the drug rehab or community drug and alcohol treatment they need. Despite the fact that, millions of addicts do receive treatment each year, many of these individuals fail to have a successful recovery. Equine therapy, as a natural, noninvasive treatment option, can help significantly improve that latter number.
Equine Therapy as Part of the Bigger Treatment Picture Individuals who participate in a drug treatment program of any type that includes equine therapy receive many other services as well. Both residential and outpatient programs are available, depending on their individual needs. Equine therapy sessions are conducted by a certified equine staff. This individual guides the activities and interactions between the patient and the horse. For the best results, individuals undergoing treatment will also work with drug counsellors, key workers and psychotherapists. Drug counselling and psychotherapy can help addicts understand the issues underlying their addiction, as well as what triggers them to use. They can use their sessions to reflect upon past decisions and learn new coping skills. Recovering addicts can continue in a positive direction while receiving the support they need to overcome the inevitable obstacles they’ll encounter on their path to recovery. For many addicts, a drug rehab treatment centre that includes an equine therapy program is one of the best choices for successful rehabilitation. The power of animals – particularly the graceful, gentle understanding found in horses – may be the key to helping them finally overcome their addiction once and for all.
Exploring Alternative Therapies for Addiction
Just as traditional addiction treatment therapy is not a one-size-fits-all approach, neither are alternative addiction therapies. You may need to try one or more different therapies for a period of time to determine what treatments you respond to and get the most out of.
These treatments can be used in coordination with traditional treatments, such as 12-step programs and MAT medications for detoxification or stabilisation. When creating a treatment plan for you, key workers and addiction professionals will work closely with you to determine what approaches and alternative therapies may work best for you in your particular situation as well ast you hope to achieve .