There were 22.7 million Americans aged 12 and older who needed treatment for a problem with alcohol or drug abuse in 2013, according to the National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH), and only 10.9 percent of these individuals received care in a specialty facility that year. Relapse rates are as high as between 40 and 60 percent, even for those who do attain abstinence, the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) reports. Traditional therapies may not work for everyone, and alternative therapy methods were created seemingly in response to that issue.
Individuals who have tried traditional therapy models or treatment programs and been largely unsuccessful may be attracted to alternative methods. Traditional drug or alcohol rehab is usually provided in an outpatient or residential treatment setting, and starts with detox first. Clients then generally progress to group, family, and individual therapy sessions, with education and life skills training added in. Clients then move on to aftercare with 12-Step meeting attendance and peer support groups. Alternative therapies may not follow this same linear path, and the therapies may not be conducted inside a traditional rehab facility.
Many methods that are considered alternative, or holistic, may complement traditional therapy methods. Therapies, like yoga, meditation, massage therapy, acupuncture, and chiropractic care, are called complementary medicine, as they are used alongside traditional care as part of a comprehensive treatment program.
Alternative medicine, as the name implies, may be used instead of a traditional treatment program. That being said, many alternative therapies also include components of traditional addiction treatment within their models as well. Alternative therapies are not generally used as a replacement for traditional therapies, although they may provide an alternate method of accomplishing the same overall goal, which is a strong foundation for recovery.
An offshoot of adventure therapy, wilderness therapies have traditionally been used to treat troubled teens or adolescents who are remanded to court-ordered treatment programs. In the 1980s and 1990s, wilderness programs were common places to send “at-risk youth” to try and facilitate behavioral changes; however, these programs were not strictly regulated and many may have ended in tragedy. In 1996, the Outdoor Behavioral Healthcare (OBH) Council was founded to attempt to provide some regulation and promote the benefits of wilderness therapies. Today, wilderness therapy is not just for teens and young adults involuntarily committed. It may also help couples, families, and range of different demographics as an alternative therapy for drug or alcohol addiction.
Wilderness therapy may be a brief few-day intervention or a longer stay program. In the shorter programs, wilderness therapy is usually followed with some form of aftercare or continuing care program. Longer wilderness therapy programs may last several weeks and be experiential in nature, meaning that participating individuals get hands-on learning experiences.
Wilderness therapy programs likely include a variety of outdoor adventure activities, usually participated in with a group, that may include:
- Rock climbing
- River rafting
Individuals may be placed in a primitive environment and taught survival skills. These therapy methods rely on teamwork, positive peer interactions, new skills training, collaboration, self-reliance, and positive conflict resolution. Therapy may be less overt, although traditional group therapy and counseling may be part of these programs as well. Individuals learn how to function in a group setting and become more self-aware, building self-confidence and helping to recognize their potential.
Wilderness therapy may be an empowering tool for individuals battling addiction. Studies published in High Country News report that mental health and long-term coping skills may be enhanced through wilderness therapy. Aftercare may include transitional programs and follow-up care to help prevent relapse and to learn how to use the new skills in an everyday life setting.
Art and Music Therapies
Creative therapies use art or music – in many cases both – as methods of expression and self-actualization tools. Creative outlets like art and music can help individuals relax, calm inner turmoil, and may be nonconfrontational therapy methods.
Art therapy was likely founded by Margaret Naumburg in the 1940s, Psych Central reports. It is often used as complementary therapy technique as a part of a more comprehensive treatment program, although it may be an alternative therapy modality as well. Art therapists are often trained in both the fields of art and psychology. Individuals experiencing trauma or difficult emotions surrounding addiction may be able to express themselves nonverbally through painting, drawing, sculpting, or other forms of art. Art can provide a stress or anxiety release and may help to reduce drug or alcohol cravings.
The American Art Therapy Association (AATA) publishes that art therapy may be optimally suited for individuals experiencing psychological impairment and may help resolve problem behaviors, foster insight into the self, and improve interactions with others, thereby helping with interpersonal relationships. Art therapy may include individual or group therapy or counseling sessions based around interpretations of the art produced and may help to open the lines of communication.
An art therapy session may be guided or more freeform. A guided session may help people to visualize the way they see themselves, become more self-aware, and therefore find motivation and desire to change negative behaviors or thoughts.
Music has been used in the healing process for centuries. The American Music Therapy Association (AMTA) reports that music therapy has a strong foundation in research for effectively reducing stress and anxiety by helping people relax physically and emotionally, communicate better, cope with trauma or powerful emotional triggers, enhance motivation, promote cohesion in a group setting, and help to improve the self-image through heightened self-awareness. Music therapy has many of the same properties and creative outlets as art therapy, and it may be beneficial during addiction treatment as a communication and relapse prevention tool as well.
Art and music therapies may also be used in tandem. The Journal of Addictions Nursing published studies that found art and music therapies being used more frequently in addiction treatment for adolescents and women, although both therapies may be beneficial to a wider population demographic, perhaps especially when used as a complementary technique to 12-Step programs.
Other Alternative Therapies
There are many holistic alternatives to traditional Western medicine. When found in an addiction treatment program, they may be more often used to complement, instead of replace, other behavioral therapy and pharmacological techniques as part of a comprehensive program. Some of these therapy models include:
- Equine-assisted therapy: This experiential therapy uses horses to build confidence, address problem behaviors, and teach leadership, problem-solving, and teamwork skills in a brief intervention model. Horses can help individuals learn about how their body language and nonverbal cues may affect those around them and can increase self-awareness. Individuals learn by doing, usually in a group setting, and then are taught how to better process their emotions. Equine-assisted therapy may build trust, improve interpersonal skills, and improve mental health, especially for individuals who have experienced trauma, the journal Health and Social Care in the Community The EAGALA (Equine Assisted Growth and Learning Association) reports that equine-assisted therapy may also be beneficial for those suffering from mental illness and/or substance abuse.
- Yoga and meditation: The concept of mindfulness and the use of yoga and meditation are considered ancient Eastern therapy techniques that may be extremely useful in helping to reduce stress, provide inner peace, clear the mind, reduce drug or alcohol cravings, and improve a person’s self-image and confidence levels. Yoga uses controlled breathing and specific body posturing while meditation provides quiet introspection. One such offshoot of meditation techniques is that of mindfulness meditation; during a session, the instructor will help individuals to focus on one muscle group at a time and become aware of negative stimuli that may be external or internal, thus helping to understand what needs to change to benefit a restoration of balance between spirit, mind, and body. Mindfulness meditation has been proven to reduce anxiety, depression and even physical pain, the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) Internal Medicine reports, although it generally functions best when used with other therapy methods during addiction treatment. The skills taught during weekly, or more regular, sessions may be used as coping mechanisms throughout recovery to help prevent relapse and manage stress.
- Acupuncture: Another form of Eastern medicine, acupuncture involves the placement of needles into the body during a session with a trained professional who is knowledgeable on the 365 pressure points and how they may be activated to relieve stress, mental pain, and physical distress by activating the energy flow of qi. The journal Acupuncture Today reports that using the NADA (National Acupuncture Detoxification Association) method places needles into five points in the ear to reduce drug or alcohol cravings and increase energy levels. Acupuncture for addiction treatment is usually considered an adjunct therapy and not necessarily alternative to traditional methods.
- Massage therapy: Also sometimes referred to as an alternative therapy, massage is more likely beneficial as a complement to conventional methods of addiction treatment. The use of touch in healing has been around perhaps as long as humankind. In the case of massage therapy, a licensed massage therapist works to help reduce both physical and emotional pain by relieving muscle tension and increasing positive blood flow. Massage therapy may also help to enhance the connection between mind and body, releasing emotions that may have been pent up and even potentially increasing the production of some of the brain’s neurotransmitters like dopamine that may be negatively impacted by substance abuse, Psych Central
Nutritional therapy, fitness training, and other holistic or wellness programs may complement addiction treatment and serve as alternatives to medications or more traditional clinical methods. No two addiction treatment programs are exactly alike, and a comprehensive assessment is beneficial to help decide which types of therapy methods to include during addiction treatment and recovery. It is highly likely that a combination of methods is optimal in many cases.
Tips for Choosing an Alternative Therapy Program
One of the potential downfalls to alternative therapy methods, outside of the lack of extensive research into its benefits, may be the lack of standardization of care and oversight into these models. There is no standard of care for most alternative therapy programs, and it may be hard to tell what type of program and level of care will really be provided. There are numerous organizations offering alternative therapies with long lists of testimonials touting their positive results.
In many cases, these programs may not be covered by insurance and can therefore be costly, causing a drain on a family’s budget. Some things to consider when looking for an alternative program include:
- Check into the certifications, licenses, and training the staff members and the program itself may have.
- Make sure that licensed therapists or counselors are the ones providing mental health support.
- If medications are needed, ensure that the program has a medical professional on hand to oversee any pharmacological methods.
- Consider the family budget, and explore any all flexible funding options or insurance coverage.
- Make a list of goals for the individual and family that therapy is desired to help achieve and decide if the program can help accomplish these goals.
- Consider the length of time and aftercare required for the program; some are short, intensive programs lasting only a few days that require additional follow-up care, for example.
- Ensure that the program follows the individual and family’s set of core values and that it inspires a foundation of trust and respect.
- Look for testimonials from those completing the program who are not professing “miracles” but are rather more credible and realistic about the results.
- Check the staff-to-client ratio and determine that set policies and safety regulations are in place for eventualities.
- Look for a program with clearly defined structure and operating procedures.
Alternative therapies can provide families and individuals with more choices when it comes to addiction treatment and should be considered when seeking a comprehensive program.