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“Spirituality” is a term that has been defined in various ways and as a phenomenon can differ from one person to another. In its most basic sense, spirituality refers to how a human being derives life meaning — in other words, a passion and purpose for being alive.
“In its broadest meaning, spirituality can be defined by how it is experienced (a heightened state of perception, awareness, performance or being) and by what it does to and for the individual (informs, heals, empowers, connects, centers or liberates),” the addiction expert William White wrote in a 2006 article in Counselor Magazine.
As so defined, spirituality and the presence of a spirituality component in treatment correlate with higher rates of recovery from drug and alcohol addiction, according to recent findings in this area. This article will highlight some of the existing research, including what it suggests about how, more specifically, spirituality improves rates of recovery. (You can find more helpful information on the role of spirituality in recovery in this previously published Learning Center article.)
12-Step Spirituality and Higher Rates of Recovery
A growing body of research has found that the presence of a spirituality component in treatment and recovery yields better recovery outcomes. 12-step groups like AA are where these links between spirituality and higher rates of recovery have received the most study.
AA by its own description is a spiritual program for recovery in which there are “many paths to spirituality” and members come to rely on a “Higher Power” … “whether it was the collective power of AA, the AA group itself, or some other entity, concept or being that helped us to stay sober.” The “12 Steps” are spiritual principles that members are encouraged to practice in their daily lives, with the goal of experiencing positive core change and, in turn, sobriety. They include the following:
- We admitted we were powerless over alcohol—that our lives had become unmanageable.
- Came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.
- Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood Him.
- Made a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves.
- Admitted to God, to ourselves, and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs.
- Were entirely ready to have God remove all these defects of character.
- Humbly asked Him to remove our shortcomings.
- Made a list of all persons we had harmed, and became willing to make amends to them all.
- Made direct amends to such people wherever possible, except when to do so would injure them or others.
- Continued to take personal inventory and when we were wrong promptly admitted it.
- Sought through prayer and meditation to improve our conscious contact with God as we understood Him, praying only for knowledge of His will for us and the power to carry that out.
- Having had a spiritual awakening as the result of these steps, we tried to carry this message to alcoholics, and to practice these principles in all our affairs.
Studies have shown a strong correlation between regular involvement in AA’s spiritual program for recovery and better recovery outcomes, such as higher rates of abstinence and lower rates of relapse:
- In a large clinical trial (“project MATCH”) that compared 12-step facilitation with cognitive-behavioral and motivational therapies for clients with alcohol use disorders (AUD), higher AA attendance predicted higher abstinence rates.
- AA participants who reported having experienced a “spiritual awakening” (as a deeper connection with a Higher Power) enjoyed higher rates of abstinence in another study of 12-step groups.
Other Links Between Spirituality and Recovery
Research has turned up still other links between spirituality and recovery that suggest spirituality plays a critical role in improving treatment and recovery outcomes. For example, a study of recovering heroin and cocaine addicts funded by the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) found a strong link between spirituality and better treatment outcomes.
Other studies have shown how a spirituality component can help prevent relapse, boost abstinence rates and improve overall quality of life during longer-term recovery (and in turn resilience to substance abuse). In a 2006 study published in Alcoholism Treatment Quarterly, researchers examined the role of social supports, spirituality, religiousness, life meaning and 12-step affiliation —all factors that relate to spirituality — in recovery from heroin and crack cocaine. Below were just a few of their findings:
- Social supports, spirituality, religiousness, life meaning and 12-step affiliation significantly improved quality of life for those in recovery.
- More specifically, spirituality, religiousness and life meaning reportedly enhanced stress coping, instilled hope for the future, provided a greater sense of control, security and stability, and conferred support and strength to resist substance abuse cues.
- The presence of spirituality and religiousness in a program of recovery was a protective buffer from life stress and, in turn, from stress-induced relapse.
- Higher levels of involvement in religion (“religiousness”) correlated with a lower lifetime risk of substance abuse.
Spirituality in Healing From Trauma and PTSD
Spirituality is also gaining more attention as an evidence-based treatment intervention for the common co-occurring disorder (COD) known as “post-traumatic stress disorder” (PTSD) that disproportionately affects people with drug or alcohol addiction. (Roughly half of those in substance abuse treatment have suffered some form of trauma and its effects.) Now recent studies suggest that healthy spiritual beliefs (which can be acquired) can help heal this common COD afflicting those in recovery.