A Holistic Approach to Addiction Recovery

By Dominic Nicosia – July 10, 2021

Recovery from substance use disorder is more than staying away from drugs and alcohol; it’s more than regretting what you did when you were in active use, and it’s more than spending your whole life focusing solely on abstinence and what it means to NOT have something. It’s about living a balanced, rewarding and fulfilling life in which your brain, body and emotional health are fully aligned and nurtured. Alcohol and drug abuse impacts every area of your life — your physical health, your emotional stability, your relationships, your spirituality and your quality of life. 

Relapse rates for drug addiction remain somewhere between 40-60%, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), which is on par with chronic diseases like diabetes and hypertension. Very often, the reason for these relapses is a hardship or a lack of fulfillment in one’s life that triggers the inclination toward self-medication. A holistic approach to recovery focuses on all aspects of healing and puts you in a position of empowerment rather than in a defensive state of strict relapse prevention. In other words, it gives you something to live and be present for that isn’t a substance. 

What Does a Holistic Approach to Addiction Recovery Look Like?

Holistic addiction recovery mirrors a holistic approach to living life in general. It focuses on taking care of your mind, body, spirit and emotional well-being so you feel good and balanced as often as possible. In recovery, however, there are direct benefits related to this style of healing that can help further insulate you from relapse. Key components of holistic addiction recovery include, but are not limited to: 

Proper Diet and Nutrition

Sugar and opioids affect the brain in many similar ways; creating intense euphoria and leading to visceral cravings. Diets rich in sugar and salt can prolong many of the physical side effects of withdrawal, making it harder to function and be present in everyday life. On the other hand, fruits, veggies and whole grains contain many of the vitamins, minerals and antioxidants you need to increase energy, improve digestive health and expedite healing. Eat whole foods whenever possible. 

Foods that are rich in the amino acid L-glutamine, like dark leafy greens, can help boost immunity and help reduce sugar cravings. Try, also, to eat foods that are rich in gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA), such as kefir, shrimp and cherry tomatoes. These can help decrease anxiety, a common withdrawal symptom. Generally speaking, it’s best to stick to natural whole foods and avoid processed foods high in sugar, salt and trans fat. 

Exercise and Physical Activity 

There are few forms of physical discomfort that can be aided by at least moderate movement and physical activity; and it can be especially beneficial in addiction recovery.

In the early stages of recovery, exercise benefits the body by releasing endorphins to promote positive feelings that can aid in physical withdrawal. It also helps increase mobility, raise your heart rate to a healthy level and alleviate aches and pains. In the long-term, it promotes all of the aforementioned physical benefits (and more) while helping you build your confidence, giving you something to focus on and a means by which to set and achieve new goals. 

Remember not to overdo it when you start. Get at least 30 minutes of physical activity per day to start, then increase your time and intensity as time goes on. Make sure to take plenty of breaks and stay hydrated. 

Take Care of Your Long-Term Mental Health 

Everyday emotional health is a pillar of long-term recovery and wellness. Maintaining emotional health looks different for everyone, but it’s helpful to continue to go to therapy even after you complete your treatment program. Your therapist may recommend certain supplemental therapies on the clinical level, such as cognitive behavioral therapy, dialectical behavioral therapy or eye-movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR)

On a basic level, make time for the things you love like keeping a journal, meditation, breathing techniques and others. Fill your life with things that make you happy like music, art, good people and literature. This will help you be more present in your professional and personal life when people need you. 

The Eight Dimensions of Wellness 

The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) has developed what it calls the Eight Dimensions of Wellness to help guide people toward holistic living in addiction recovery. The eight dimensions are: 

  • Emotional – Learning to cope with and contextualize adverse situations and build healthy relationships
  • Environmental – Immersing yourself in healthy, stimulating environments to promote emotional wellness
  • Financial – Cultivating stability and satisfaction with current and future financial situations
  • Intellectual – Nurturing creative and educational abilities and exploring ways to grow them
  • Occupational – Personal satisfaction derived from work and professional endeavors
  • Physical – Recognizing the need for a proper diet, physical activity and proper sleep
  • Social – Cultivating a healthy and supportive social circle and surrounding yourself with positive and helpful people
  • Spiritual – Spending time contemplating purpose and meaning in life beyond everyday existence

These dimensions account for essentially all elements of daily life and they directly impact recovery. If there’s dysfunction or lack of fulfillment in one or more of these areas, it’s considerably easier to relapse. Whether or not you’re in recovery, remember to take care of yourself: mind, body and spirit.


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