When people arrive at an addiction treatment center, they typically don’t want to be there. They’re agitated and apprehensive, and they doubt whether they even have a problem, especially one that is as bad as their families, employers or the courts believe.
In many cases, the last thing they want to do is sit down for talk therapy or attend a support meeting, though both are essential elements of treatment. What they do want is relief from the discomfort of withdrawal.
There is no better way to begin building rapport with a client – and to keep them in treatment – than to listen attentively and help them feel better as quickly as possible. This is where complementary and alternative therapies can be of great value to the addict, particularly in the early stages of recovery.
Whether a client agrees with the therapist’s perspective or not, they are appreciative of any intervention that addresses their insomnia, anxiety, muscle cramps and other withdrawal symptoms. Not only are these symptoms unpleasant, but they are also major factors in relapse.
Once the therapist shows an interest in the problem as the addict defines it, the addict is more willing to talk about the problem as the therapist defines it. And so a relationship begins.
To keep a resistant addict invested in their recovery and to prevent the chronic relapser from deciding “this recovery thing just isn’t for me,” consider the following adjunctive therapies:
Practiced in China for thousands of years, acupuncture is gaining popularity in the U.S. as a complementary treatment for addiction. Although various forms of acupuncture can be helpful in recovery, the most commonly used is auricular (ear) acupuncture for detox.
Acupuncture can balance and restore function to the body, reduce stress and anxiety, alleviate withdrawal symptoms, pain and cravings, and combat insomnia. Like other holistic therapies, acupuncture allows resistant clients to access their emotions without having to open up verbally.
A number of studies support the efficacy of acupuncture as an adjunctive addiction treatment. In 2000, Yale researchers found that nearly 55 percent of cocaine addicts receiving ear acupuncture tested clean at the end of treatment compared to 23.5 percent in the group that didn’t receive acupuncture. A 2006 study published in the Journal of Dual Diagnosis found that 61 percent of the patients who received biweekly acupuncture treatments completed their treatment program, compared to only 32 percent of those who did not receive acupuncture.
Neurofeedback trains addicts to regulate hyper- or under-active brain waves using a computer and a few simple sensors. It is a safe, comfortable way to improve sleep and concentration, relieve depression and anxiety, and help people in recovery remain abstinent. Neurofeedback can be introduced during drug rehab and continued after the client returns home.
Research supports the use of neurofeedback in addiction treatment. In a 2005 UCLA study, 77 percent of participants who received neurofeedback in conjunction with a 12-Step program remained abstinent at 12 months, compared to 44 percent of those who didn’t receive neurofeedback.
While prolonged drug abuse divorces mind from body, massage and related bodywork therapies help repair the communication between the two. Massage can be useful throughout the recovery process, beginning with detox to relieve pain, reduce cravings, boost dopamine levels and enhance immune function.
The benefits continue during inpatient or outpatient treatment where clients report that massage promotes relaxation, improves their ability to think clearly and increases mind-body awareness. For the resistant client, massage can help them connect with and release pent-up emotions. After formal treatment ends, regular massage can aid in stress management and relapse prevention.
Research on massage therapy for addiction is limited, though a number of studies by the Touch Research Institute suggest that massage decreases anxiety, agitation and cravings, improves sleep, and reduces depression. Massage also improves outlook and encourages respect for the body by reminding the addict that they are naturally built for pleasure, without assistance from drugs or alcohol.
Yoga and mindfulness meditation are both widely used in addiction treatment programs to promote relaxation, reduce stress, regulate mood and boost mind-body awareness. Both practices emphasize focusing on one’s breathing and acknowledging thoughts and emotions without judgment. “Urge surfing,” which is the practice of allowing a drug craving to grow, peak and subside like a wave without taking action to fix it, can be particularly useful in preventing relapse.
A growing body of research supports the use of mindfulness meditation and related practices in addiction treatment. Sara Lazar, a researcher at Massachusetts General Hospital, discovered that mindfulness meditation actually changes the brain over time. With practice, the mid-prefrontal cortex and the mid-insular regions of the brain thicken and activity improves in the amygdala.
As a result, practitioners are better able to regulate their emotions, maintain an optimistic outlook, and identify and cope with relapse triggers.
Many addicts are malnourished or nutritionally deficient in ways that can impair brain function. Eating nutritious foods and taking appropriate supplements can help addicts not only feel better but also stabilize their moods and restore energy, focus and their ability to learn.
By avoiding the types of foods that stimulate the same reward circuitry in the brain as drugs, such as processed junk food, sugar and caffeine – and filling up instead on fatty fish, eggs, lean meats, and fruits and vegetables – nutrition can also be part of a well-rounded relapse prevention strategy.
A number of effective treatments exist for addiction, but the same ones won’t work for everyone. Even when you think you’ve tried it all, there may be an alternative approach that will resonate. If it doesn’t work, you haven’t risked much – it won’t do any harm, and most clients find holistic approaches to be a highlight of treatment.
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Last reviewed: 31 Jul 2012