Alternative therapies include various natural and holistic treatments that have been scientifically proven to support recovery from drugs and alcohol, as part of an integrated plan of substance abuse care. Beach House Center for Recovery incorporates a number of these services in its treatment programs, on the basis of their established link to better recovery outcomes. What follows is a closer look at how Beach House uses alternative therapies in substance abuse treatment.
Why Alternative Therapies Are Effective in Recovery
Alternative therapies like yoga, massage and others are effective for recovery from drugs and alcohol—that is clear from a quick survey of the scientific literature. The specific mechanisms for how these holistic interventions work to reverse the damage of addiction and heal the mind and body in recovery are not entirely clear, and they are the target of ongoing investigation. However, because yoga, mindfulness and other alternative therapies take an integrated mind-body approach to healing, they can be more effective than medications alone at treating the complex and varied symptoms of diseases like addiction—not just the physical issues, although these also find relief through alternative therapies
With substance use disorders (SUDs) especially, holistic approaches can be effective at addressing the complex root causes of compulsions to drink or do drugs. These cravings are not purely physical in nature; they also display psychosocial, spiritual and emotional dimensions. And these various dimensions are interwoven with one another such that only treating the physical symptoms—in the case of heroin addiction, for example, via a medication-assisted treatment that reduces cravings—rarely is adequate to effect long-term sobriety. In such instances, complementary interventions that support overall mental health and wellbeing as part of an integrated plan of care can improve recovery outcomes.
Examples of Alternative Therapies at Beach House
Beach House uses a number of alternative therapies in treating clients with SUDs, including the following:
Clients at Beach House take part in instructor-led sessions of yoga several times a week. The ancient practice combines breathing, meditation, and various postures and stretches, as an evidence-based way to still the mind, calm the body, and reduce stress and anxiety levels during early recovery.
Such results make yoga “a great addition to any recovery program,” according to Dylan Lundgren. Lundgren became a convert to the practice after experiencing its benefits firsthand in his own recovery. He is now a yoga instructor at Beach House, and teaches a form of yoga known as Kripalu, a “compassionate form of yoga with an emphasis on learning about one’s self, beginning with the body,” with a focus on “self-observation without judgment.”
What are the health benefits of yoga to clients in recovery? Lundgren is quick to cite evidence suggesting there are many, starting with research showing yoga boosts levels of the neurotransmitter GABA, which aids in relaxing the nervous system, thereby calming the mind and body.
Why is that important? “It’s been said that 80 percent of diseases stem from an over-stimulated nervous system,” Lundgren says. And indeed, many in early recovery from drugs or alcohol will experience a nervous system that is in overcharge. Withdrawal symptoms can involve mood swings and elevated anxiety levels, for example, especially when post-acute withdrawal symptoms are at play. Lundgren thus uses yogic breathing techniques, such as dirgha breath, to promote full breathing, deep relaxation and greater mind-body awareness. Clients can then better access what they are feeling and with more loving self-connection.
Trauma and related symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) are common roots of addiction that yoga also therapeutically addresses. Clients with traumatic histories are often tense from being in a “fight or flight” mode, Lundgren explains, but over time, thanks to deep yogic stretches like the yin yoga, their bodies can grow attuned to releasing that build-up of tension. Here Lundgren quotes the world-renowned expert on trauma, Dr. Bessel Van der Kolk: the author of The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind and Body in the Healing of Trauma dubbed yoga “better than any medication anybody’s ever studied” in treating PTSD.
Finally, yoga is a helpful tool for reducing stress in at least several ways. First, long deep breathing (yogic breathing) has been shown to decrease levels of the stress hormone cortisol. Second, yoga reportedly modulates the body’s stress response system, by reducing heart rate, lowering blood pressure and easing respiration. Third, during the process of holding uncomfortable poses, clients develop greater stress resilience (meaning the ability to handle stressful situations with the recognition that these hard periods will pass); and greater stress resilience translates as greater relapse resilience.
As a weekly complement to clients’ plans of care, massage therapy utilizes the healing power of touch to help Beach House clients ease into treatment and recovery with greater comfort, relaxation and focus. Like other alternative therapies, this intervention can improve overall mental, physical and emotional wellbeing, as evidenced by the following research:
- A study in the International Journal of Neuroscience found massage therapy both decreased cortisol and increased levels of the “feel good” neurotransmitters serotonin and dopamine.
- In at least nine clinical trials, clients with a diagnosis of fibromyalgia who received massage therapy saw improvements in symptoms of pain, insomnia, depression and anxiety, according to a summary of these results.
- Elsewhere massage has proven an effective form of pain management for chronic low back pain, tension headaches and postoperative pain associated with surgery, and has relieved pain and anxiety in patients undergoing cancer treatment.
These same therapeutic benefits can also be of great help to those in early recovery, for whom detox from one or more drugs can be painful, uncomfortable and a source of anxiety and distress. The evidence has suggested that even a simple 20-minute “relaxation session” focused on one’s breathing and accompanied by a massage can help clients tapering off alcohol, cocaine or opiates relax more deeply and sustain these relaxation effects for at least 24 hours.
The director of the University of Miami’s School of Medicine’s Touch Research Institute, Tiffany Field, Ph.D., explained how massage induces relaxation, in an article for the American Massage Therapy Association: Massage stimulates key pressure receptors, among them the vagus nerve, which is one of the 12 cranial nerves in the brain. In turn, these decrease heart rate, lower blood pressure and reduce stress hormones, much like a chemical chain reaction that produces greater calm and better sleep.
Mindfulness meditation is another integrated holistic service that Beach House clients can expect to receive in various treatment venues:
- Therapeutic walks on the beach
- Spiritual meetings at the start of each week day
- Group and individual therapy
Recent evidence now suggests that mindful meditation practiced regularly can rewire the addiction-hijacked brain, by building new neural connections that support greater mental and emotional health and balance. For example, a study in the journal Biological Psychiatry found that a three-day intensive training in mindfulness meditation increased the size and connectivity of brain regions responsible for cognition and improved executive functioning skills.
Still other research has revealed how mindfulness exercises can aid in recovery and prevent relapse, as explored in the following Learning Center articles: “How Mindfulness Exercises Aid Recovery” and “How Mindfulness Can Prevent Relapse.”
A comprehensive listing of all of the holistic services Beach House uses can be found here.