The phrase “addiction treatment” usually brings to mind detoxification and treating physical symptoms. Proper detox is key in helping addicts achieve sobriety, and physical symptoms must be dealt with to ensure addicts do not turn back to drugs for relief. However, treating the mind is vital, too. Low self-esteem, extreme stress, mental illness, and other such issues contribute to substance abuse. In many cases, they are the roots of addiction. Mind-body therapy teaches addicts to recognize these issues, and gives them healthy coping mechanisms.
Additionally, drug and alcohol abuse has myriad negative effects on brain chemistry. Long-term addicts often struggle with memory loss, cognition problems, and the inability to make sound decisions. They often fail to recognize potential consequences of their actions. Along with counseling, mind-body therapy or holistic therapy helps retrain the mind to think beyond a next drink or fix. As their brains and bodies heal, addicts relearn to take responsibility for their actions and decision-making. Over time, their memory and cognition improve as well.
How Addiction Affects the Brain
To use mind-body therapy effectively, providers must know how and why addiction affects the brain. Within everyone’s brain, there is a neural reward system. Our reward center, sometimes called the pleasure center, is activated when experiences give us pleasure. Most people’s reward systems are activated when they engage in a hobby, eat a favorite food, enjoy intercourse with a partner, or spend time with their families and friends. For an addict, however, these experiences no longer provide rewards. The addict’s reward center has been rewired to prioritize his or her substance of choice, recognizing it as the only worthwhile reward available.
Addiction also compromises survival needs. A non-addicted person understands what he or she must do to survive, and the brain prioritizes those needs. They include food, water, and shelter. In contrast, an addicted person no longer responds to survival needs. In an addict’s mind, the substance of choice is the key to survival. Addicts will pursue their substances at any cost out of a real fear they will die without them. As a result, many addicts deal with malnutrition, severe lack of sleep, and myriad health problems.
Mind-body therapy such as meditation, yoga, and acupuncture rewire the brain so it does not respond favorably to substance abuse. The addict’s neural pathways, especially those to the reward center, are retrained to interpret healthy activities and experiences as pleasurable. The brain is also retrained to respond to survival needs. As the mind recovers, addicts begin focusing on self-care, hygiene, nutrition, and adequate sleep.
Types of Mind-Body Therapy
There are several types of holistic therapies, and rehabilitation facilities around the country are embracing them more each day.
Yoga – is one of the most popular, partially because it has so many physical benefits. Yoga can be modified to fit any fitness level, making it ideal for addicts whose muscles have weakened or atrophied. Yoga has been proven to reduce stress and actually grow new gray matter in the brain. This may help the brain physically heal itself more than most other mind-body therapies, because substance abuse has not damaged the new gray matter.
Meditation – Many people meditate in conjunction with or while performing yoga. Despite its connotation, meditation need not be religious, although many people use it that way. Addicts are encouraged to meditate because the practice helps their brain calm down. During addiction, the brain is constantly “on.” It fires signals at frenetic paces as the addict searches for a drink or fix, or works out how to manipulate people and systems. The brain is also challenged to function without sleep and food, running almost entirely on chemicals. Meditation teaches the brain how to quiet itself, hushing those frenetic signals. Additionally, meditation significantly decreases symptoms of depression and anxiety. This is particularly beneficial for people addicted to prescription anxiety medications.
Acupuncture – is another mind-body therapy that may help addicts. Much of the evidence for acupuncture is anecdotal; study sizes have been too small and poorly controlled to provide much statistical backup. However, the World Health Organization (WHO) has found acupuncture has some positive impacts on alcoholics and opiate or heroin addicts. Studies indicate acupuncture reduces drug cravings, lessens the pain of withdrawal symptoms, and calms the nervous system.
Animal – Acupuncture, meditation, and yoga are often the three things people think of when mind-body therapy is mentioned. There are several lesser known types, though. Many addiction treatment centers use animal contact or pet therapy to reach their clients. Animal contact therapy can be as complex as a full-fledged equine or farming program, or as simple as spending quality time with dogs and cats.
Non-Traditional Mind-Body Therapy
Addiction treatment providers use animal contact because it reteaches addicts what it means to have someone depend on them. Addicts often become so dependent on their substances, they develop a narrow and self-centered worldview. Animal therapy gently forces them to think about the world around them. Animals cannot be manipulated or let us down the way people can, so addicts must relearn patience and kindness to get an animal to do what they ask. Additionally, like many mind-body therapies, animal contact therapy releases endorphins, showing an addict what it means to feel happy without substances.
Art, music, and other creative therapies are also used in various treatment centers. These therapies let the addict focus on creating something rather than engaging in destructive behavior. They also build self-esteem and self-confidence, which many addicts sorely lack. Like yoga and animal therapy, creative therapies can be continued after treatment, giving the addict a healthy outlet for his or her feelings.
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