The Stigma Behind Holistic Approaches to Addiction Treatment

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Choosing the right approach to substance use disorder can prove incredibly important. If you take a treatment option that does not work for your specific needs, you may find yourself falling back into addictive patterns and behaviors or struggling with the same issues repeatedly. 

Unfortunately, many addiction treatment centers offer a one-size-fits-all approach to addiction treatment, which can leave patients struggling to get the support they need as they recover. A holistic approach to addiction treatment can help improve overall outcomes. 

What Does Holistic Mean?

“Holistic” means “the entire, interconnected whole of something.” Alternative medicine and treatment deal with a whole-person approach to treatment rather than simply focusing on a single problem.

Addiction is a whole-person problem. As many as 60% of people with a substance abuse disorder also have an underlying mental health condition.8 As many as 70% of adolescents with substance abuse disorders have a trauma history. 3
Patients with ADHD can prove up to three times more likely to suffer from a substance abuse disorder than people in the general population.12 People with mental health conditions, trauma history, or other concerns will often attempt to self-medicate with drugs or alcohol.

Without treating those underlying conditions, many patients cannot experience the improvement in symptoms or decrease their overall struggle with addiction the way they could if they addressed the underlying challenges that may have led to those addictions and problems in the first place.

Physical Treatment

Sometimes, treating addiction means taking a comprehensive look at any physical challenges that may be contributing to addiction. For example, many patients struggling with addiction may have underlying chemical imbalances in the brain, which can, in many cases, be resolved with medications and therapy. Taking care of physical treatment for addiction may also mean medications that can help address withdrawal symptoms or physical discomfort in a patient who may have used drugs or alcohol to self-medicate.

Mental/Emotional Treatment

Mental and emotional treatment for addiction can help address the challenges that may have caused the patient to fall into an addictive spiral. In many cases, patients suffering from addiction lack coping mechanisms to help them cope with the feelings or challenges they may experience without turning to drugs or alcohol. During a holistic addiction treatment program, patients will address any underlying emotional challenges that may have contributed to addiction and develop coping mechanisms to help them deal with mental health challenges and concerns without turning to substances.

Spiritual Treatment

For many people, treating the whole person as part of a comprehensive addiction treatment protocol means a look at the spiritual side of that addiction. Spiritual treatment may involve a look at the patient’s soul or higher self, including evaluating the patient’s spiritual connections and beliefs, to develop a solid treatment protocol and understanding of the patient’s overall needs.

A holistic-style treatment does not stop simply offering the physical support a patient may need. It also provides support in the emotional and spiritual elements of overcoming addiction. The holistic approach to addiction treatment looks at the patient as a whole person, which can effectively address those symptoms.

Does Holistic Treatment Work?

An estimated 45% of intravenous drug users in one study reported using at least one type of alternative therapy, including a religious treatment program, to help address addiction. 6 
Alternative and holistic approaches to addiction treatment may include things like:11

In addition, holistic addiction treatment involves looking at potential underlying challenges that patients may face and how they may have contributed to that road to addiction. Often, dealing with those underlying challenges can make it easier for patients to address the symptoms of addiction. These holistic treatment approaches may bring more to the table than a traditional approach to addiction treatment, which may not consider the full range of challenges patients may face as they address addiction and determine their next steps. 

Relapse Following Traditional Treatment Programs

Following a traditional treatment program, relapse rates are as high as 65-70% of patients.10 Patients may relapse for a variety of reasons. Often, that relapse occurs because the same problems and challenges that led to addiction in the first place do not go away once the patient leaves rehab behind.

Patients may head back into the world, assuming they can now cope with those challenges. Unfortunately, they may find that they do not have the resources they had hoped for or that they fall into the same behavior patterns. 

Mindfulness and Addiction Treatment Can Help

As part of a holistic treatment approach to addiction, mindfulness treatment can go a long way toward decreasing relapse rates and making it easier for patients suffering from substance abuse disorders to cope with the challenges they may face when they get ready to resume their normal life patterns.

Mindfulness treatments encourage patients to think about why they engage in certain behaviors and to prepare ahead of time for the results of those behaviors.4 As a result, many patients find themselves better equipped, in general, to deal with those challenges, including being exposed to the substance they were once addicted to or to the circumstances that previously led to addictive behaviors.

The Stigma Behind Holistic Approaches to Addiction Treatment

Is Holistic Treatment Taboo?

For some people, any treatment that considers addiction’s mental and spiritual side is considered taboo. Instead of acknowledging the challenges that patients may face and the benefits they may receive from a holistic treatment style, those people may assume that holistic or spiritual treatments will not work.

Addiction treatment requires a mind-and-body approach to treating the substance abuse disorder and supporting the patient. Addiction is not just a physical ailment or a “weak will.” 

Instead, addiction can result from several challenges, including:

Recovering from addiction is not as simple as the detox process alone. Detoxification can remove the drug from the patient’s system, but it does not address any of the challenges that may have led to addiction in the first place. Unfortunately, many people steer their friends and loved ones away from holistic-style treatment because they believe it will lead to “spiritual nonsense,” “false hope,” or a variety of other challenges born out of bias. 

How Well Does Holistic Treatment Work?

Holistic treatment has become increasingly important for a variety of health conditions. What a patient eats, the patient’s activity level, and overall mental wellness can substantially impact the patient’s recovery from various severe health conditions and disorders. A positive mental outlook can be essential in recovery from various mental health conditions, including addiction.1 Holistic treatment aims to address those concerns. It provides patients with a multi-faceted approach to addressing addiction.


Most treatment for addiction starts with ensuring that the patient receives therapy geared toward developing coping mechanisms. Individual and group therapy can be critical for helping a patient identify dangerous thought patterns and behaviors and effectively address them. Therapy serves as the foundation of holistic treatment programs as well as more traditional treatment programs.

Exercise and Activity

Part of a holistic recovery often means increasing overall activity levels. Exercise can have several critical mental health benefits that cannot be ignored in the journey to addiction recovery.8 Patients suffering from substance abuse disorders may find that exercise helps give them something else to focus on and a new routine that adds structure to their days. 

In addition, exercise can help patients suffering from substance abuse disorder connect with others, including those outside their addictions. Often, people continue to engage in addictive behavior after leaving rehab because they reconnect with the same people who helped pull them down into addiction in the first place. 

Exercise, including participating in various team-related activities, can help improve the sense of connection to people and offer more socialization during and after recovery. While athletes are certainly not immune to addiction, engaging in those athletic activities regularly can provide patients with a positive outlet that may improve their odds of recovery.

Mindfulness and Meditation

Mindfulness and meditation can often play a heavy role in overcoming addiction. In addition to passive meditation, patients may benefit from activities like Pilates or yoga, which can help improve the mind/body connection and improve addiction recovery efforts. Mindfulness and meditation as part of a holistic recovery process can help improve recovery and provide more mindful decision-making skills. 

Music Therapy

For many patients, music can have immense benefits. Most people do not consider music therapy part of a comprehensive recovery program. Music offers several benefits that can help with overall mental health and wellness. 

Music can be used very effectively as a mental health intervention.9 Patients who listen to music regularly may find it easier to address mental health concerns, including depression and anxiety. Furthermore, music improves immune response, stimulates certain brain areas, and more. By using music as part of a holistic treatment approach to addiction, many patients can see better overall outcomes.

Creative Expression

Many patients find creative outlets essential as they recover from addiction.5 Patients often have trauma to work through and process as they recover from addiction. Patients may choose to draw, write, paint, or engage with various artistic media as they aim to process the conditions that caused trauma and use their new knowledge to help recover from addiction-related challenges. Creative expression can also give patients an essential dopamine release and provide a constructive way to use energy.


What a patient eats can have a powerful impact on overall recovery.2 Unfortunately, diet is often overlooked in treatment for traditional health disorders and mental health conditions, including addiction recovery. Many people who suffer from drug or alcohol addiction will limit food consumption during those periods of addiction, which can lead to malnutrition and other challenges in the recovery process. 

Furthermore, a healthy diet is essential to maintaining mental health during recovery. Often, a diet high in sugar or short of essential nutrients can lead to its own set of mental health challenges. Taking a careful look at a patient’s diet can often help provide mental health support to help the patient avoid relapse. Diet can also prove critical to fueling physical activity, which may be a vital part of recovery.

Because holistic treatment often aims to look at all the pieces that can work together to create the addictive cycle, it may put patients in a better position to recover fully.

Holistic Treatment and the Stigma Behind It

A certain stigma behind holistic treatment suggests that it may not offer an effective recovery strategy. Many people assume that recovering from addiction has to be hard work–and it certainly is. Addicts must put in the time and effort to overcome addictive behaviors. Part of that process, however, means addressing the conditions that may have caused the addiction in the first place.

A certain stigma behind holistic treatment suggests that it may not offer an effective recovery strategy. Many people assume that recovering from addiction has to be hard work–and it certainly is. Addicts must put in the time and effort to overcome addictive behaviors. Part of that process, however, means addressing the conditions that may have caused the addiction in the first place.

For many addicts, there is a “rush” associated with drug use. Often, opioids and other addictive substances substitute for the endorphin rush addicts cannot get in other circumstances, particularly if they struggle to get their brains to produce and release those essential chemicals.

As part of a holistic treatment program, patients with substance abuse disorders can find a healthier way to release those endorphins and experience that rush. They may try music, creative expression, exercise, or a host of other activities, all of which can help provide an outlet for those emotions and help with overall mental health. 

Unfortunately, many people do not believe in the essential effects of that holistic approach, which means that they may forego vital treatment methods that could help them get the essential dopamine or endorphin release needed to improve functionality.

Holistic Addiction Treatment in San Diego

Holistic therapies can be combined with evidence-based therapies to be an effective form of treatment for addiction to drugs or alcohol. Holistic treatment focuses on treating the individual as a whole rather than the addiction alone. By using treatments like yoga, meditation, and exercise, addiction treatment can be more comprehensive.

At Healthy Life Recovery, we believe in a holistic approach to addiction recovery that can help patients see genuine, lifelong benefits. Not only do we help patients work through therapy, including couples or family therapy, that can help them improve overall outcomes, we work with our patients to increase activity levels through various sports that can help create an endorphin rush and raise positive socialization. 

  1. 1. Iasiello, M., van Agteren, J., Keyes, C. L. M., & Cochrane, E. M. (2019). Positive mental health as a predictor of recovery from mental illness. Journal of affective disorders, 251, 227–230.  
  2. 2. Jeynes, K. D., & Gibson, E. L. (2017). The importance of nutrition in aiding recovery from substance use disorders: A review. Drug and alcohol dependence, 179, 229–239.  
  3. 3. Khoury, Lamya, Yilang L. Tang, Bekh Bradley, Joe F. Cubells, and Kerry J. Ressler. (2010). “Substance use, childhood traumatic experience, and Posttraumatic Stress Disorder in an urban civilian population.” Depress Anxiety. 
  4. 4. Li, W., Howard, M. O., Garland, E. L., McGovern, P., & Lazar, M. (2017). Mindfulness treatment for substance misuse: A systematic review and meta-analysis. Journal of substance abuse treatment, 75, 62–96. 
  5. 5. Liggett M. (1999). Nurse-led art expression in addiction treatment. Journal of psychosocial nursing and mental health services, 37(6), 11–15.  
  6. 6. Manheimer, E., Anderson, B. J., & Stein, M. D. (2003). Use and assessment of complementary and alternative therapies by intravenous drug users. The American journal of drug and alcohol abuse, 29(2), 401–413.  
  7. 7. Mikkelsen, K., Stojanovska, L., Polenakovic, M., Bosevski, M., & Apostolopoulos, V. (2017). Exercise and mental health. Maturitas, 106, 48–56.  
  8. 8. National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine; Health and Medicine Division; Board on Health Sciences Policy; Board on Health Care Services; Forum on Mental Health and Substance Use Disorders, Alper, J., Friedman, K., & Graig, L. (Eds.). (2020). Caring for People with Mental Health and Substance Use Disorders in Primary Care Settings: Proceedings of a Workshop. National Academies Press (US). 
  9. 9. Rebecchini L. (2021). Music, mental health, and immunity. Brain, behavior, & immunity – health, 18, 100374.  
  10. 10. Sinha, Rajita. (Oct. 2011). “New Findings on Biological Factors Predicting Addiction Relapse Vulnerability.” Curr Psychiatry Rep. 2011 Oct.; 13 (5): 398-405. 
  11. 11. Tabish, Syed Amin. (January 2008.) “Complementary and Alternative Healthcare: Is It Evidence-Based?” Int. J Health Sci (Qassim). 
  12. 12. Zulauf, Courtney A., Susan E. Sprich, Steven A. Safren, and Timothy E. Wilens. (March 2014.) “The Complicated Relationship Between Attention Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder and Substance Use Disorders.” Curr Psychiatry Rep. 2014 Mar. 
Dr. Sanajai Thankachen

Medically Reviewed By:

Dr. Sanjai Thankachen

Dr. Sanjai Thankachen graduated from Adichunchanagiri Institute of Medicine in 2000. He completed his residency in psychiatry in 2008 at Creedmoor Psychiatric Center in New York. Dr. Thankachen is currently working with Pacific Neuropsychiatric Specialists in an outpatient practice, as well as working at multiple in-patient psychiatric and medical units bringing his patients the most advanced healthcare treatment in psychiatry. Dr. Thankachen sees patients with an array of disorders, including depression, bipolar illness, schizophrenia, anxiety, and dementia-related problems.

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Sean Leonard Bio Image

Edited for Clinical Accuracy By:

Sean Leonard, Psychiatric Nurse Practitioner

Sean Leonard is a board-certified psychiatric nurse practitioner. He received his master’s degree in adult geriatric primary care nurse practitioner from Walden University and a second postmaster specialty in psychiatry mental health nurse practitioner from Rocky Mountain University. Sean has experience working in various diverse settings, including an outpatient clinic, inpatient detox and rehab, psychiatric emergency, and dual diagnosis programs. His specialty areas include substance abuse, depression, anxiety, mood disorders, PTSD, ADHD, and OCD.

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