Holistic treatment attempts to address a client’s needs in an overall fashion. This involves interconnecting all important components of an individual as opposed to treating only the disease.

Holistic treatment attempts to address the person in terms of their physical aspect (their body), spiritual aspect, and cognitive aspects (the mind, including intellect and emotions).

What is Holistic Treatment?

Holistic treatment is generally defined as the treatment of the whole person, as opposed to a simple focus on physical needs. In addiction treatment, treating multiple areas of a person is important because addiction can take over many aspects of their life. Active addiction can jeopardize your mental and physical health, relationships, finances, and your legal standing. In addiction treatment, this is often referred to as multidisciplinary treatment because it involves treatment from professionals in multiple disciplines (i.e,. doctors, therapists). However, the term holistic often refers to more than just multidisciplinary treatment. 

Holistic treatment may also refer to the use of alternative therapies. Alternative therapies are approaches to treatment that may help some people but haven’t been proven to be effective in scientific research. Addiction treatment approaches that have been tested and proven effective are called evidence-based therapies. 

Evidence-based therapies are generally effective in a variety of treatment settings and can be useful to a wide variety of patients when it comes to treating a particular issue. Evidence-based treatment options that are used to treat substance use disorders should form the foundation of your addiction treatment program. Common therapies include cognitive-behavioral therapy, dialectical behavior therapy, and contingency management. 

Just because therapy is evidence-based doesn’t mean that it will work for everyone. People are different, and addiction is a complicated disease that requires a complex approach to treatment. However, evidence-based does mean that it has been studied and proven to be effective in directly treating addiction and will have some value for most people that need it. 

Alternative therapies like yoga and acupuncture aren’t proven to be effective in treating addiction directly, but they can help some people as supplementary therapy alongside evidence-based therapy.

What are some Holistic Approaches to Rehab?

Holistic rehabs focus on interventions that are most often referred to as complementary or alternative types of treatment.

Holistic alcohol addiction treatment may not consist of formal medical practices, psychotherapy practices, or other standardized practices associated with the treatment of substance abuse. Instead, they may incorporate elements of philosophy and even religion into the treatment regime.

There are many different types of holistic interventions.

A few of the more common techniques used in holistic rehabs include:

  • Acupressure & Acupuncture
  • Types of energy work like Reiki
  • Different forms of massage
  • Neurofeedback and biofeedback techniques
  • Yoga, martial arts like tai chi, and different forms of meditation
  • Nutritional therapy and herbal medicines

What is the Main Issue with Holistic Treatments?

The main issue with holistic therapy and addiction treatment for substance use disorders is that they lack empirical evidence (research-based evidence) to support their use, especially use as mainstream or a first-line approach to the treatment of substance use disorders.

  • A well-cited review investigating the utility of acupuncture found that it does not matter where acupuncture needles are placed on an individual. Individuals will often report feeling better and their symptoms improve regardless of placement.
  • Another well-cited research study regarding Reiki has indicated that it has little to no treatment utility. Reiki involves laying hands on someone or massaging them and transferring energy.
  • Recent studies investigating the use of yoga treatment for substance abuse are notorious for poor quality and have significantly mixed results.
  • Nutritional therapy for the treatment of substance use disorders has no direct empirical evidence to support its effectiveness as a first-line approach for substance abuse treatment unless a person is severely malnourished. However, good nutritional practices can support empirically validated substance use disorder therapies.

The Benefits of Holistic Addiction Treatment

It is important to understand that research studies do not suggest that holistic interventions like yoga or nutritional therapy have no benefit, but the research indicates that their effectiveness to alter issues with addictive behaviors is not consistent with the notions of effective treatment. 

They may have general benefits that can complement substance use disorder treatment, but these interventions themselves are not sufficient as the main methods of intervention for substance abuse. 

Holistic treatment that employs alternative therapies generally provides a very dynamic approach to treatment. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), one of the principles of effective treatment is the fact that there is no one-size-fits-all addiction treatment plan. Treatment should be tailored to individual needs. As long as holistic therapy is grounded in evidence-based treatment options, it often provides that personalized approach. 

Alternative therapies aren’t suitable to form the foundation of your treatment, but they do have their place. Even if they can’t directly treat substance use problems on their own, things like yoga, art therapy, and music therapy can help to increase treatment engagement. Treatment buy-in is a critical component of effective treatment. Your own belief that treatment is necessary, effective, interesting, and possible for you is an important part of engaging with your own recovery. 

There are evidence-based therapies that are used to help increase treatment engagement, like motivational enhancement therapy. However, some alternative therapies can help to increase interest in treatment. People that are excited to participate in treatment may see more results and progress than people that are ambivalent about therapy.Alternative therapies may also help to address other issues that are common alongside addiction. Yoga, mindfulness, art therapy, music therapy, and nature-based therapy may help to reduce stress and anxiety. While they aren’t useful as a first-line treatment for addiction, they may help to address other common problems that may be barriers to treatment. 

Other Drawbacks to Holistic Treatment Methods

Many of these treatments are described as complementary or alternative interventions, indicating that they are not designed to be first-line approaches to treatment. Instead, they are designed to be used in addition to standard approaches to treating substance use disorders. Thus, attending a completely holistically oriented rehab program may shortchange an individual in terms of their potential recovery.

These programs are often surprisingly expensive, and insurance companies generally do not cover the costs of their interventions. For instance, acupuncture treatment for substance abuse is rarely, if ever, covered by insurance companies. It will often be very difficult to get coverage for other forms of holistic therapies, resulting in a rather large financial obligation for interventions that lack research evidence for their effectiveness.

Any facility can claim to provide holistic treatment interventions even if it provides no holistic treatments at all.

It is important to investigate the types of interventions a rehab facility utilizes. Ensure the facility provides a combination of holistic interventions and empirically-based treatment interventions, such as cognitive-behavioral therapy, group therapy, and medically assisted treatments.

Are there some Advantages to Holistic Rehabs?

Despite a lack of empirically-based evidence for their use, holistic interventions may offer some advantages when incorporated into a treatment program that utilizes evidence-based treatment.

Some Advantages

  • Clients in these programs enjoy many of these interventions, such as yoga, meditation, and martial arts like tai chi
  • Using many of these interventions can break the monotony of the traditional rehab schedule.
  • Including holistic treatment, interventions might attract individuals who otherwise might not be interested in conventional substance use disorder treatment and make them more willing to participate in treatment.
  • Holistic treatments can be used to strengthen the working alliance or bond between treatment providers and clients in treatment. This relationship is one of the most important factors in determining a successful treatment outcome.

How Important is Empirical Evidence?

Again, when an intervention is listed as being empirically validated or has empirical evidence to support its use, it means that the intervention has sufficient research evidence to suggest that it can be effective in addressing a particular disease, disorder, or situation. However, just because an intervention is an empirically validated intervention does not guarantee that the intervention will provide the type of results a person is seeking.

Empirically based treatments offer the best possible hope and conditions to allow an individual with a certain condition or disorder to address their problem. Because these treatments have the most solid form of support for their use, they are the preferred approaches to addressing the specific condition in question.

Do Holistic Treatments Work?

Even if many of the holistic treatment interventions lack empirical evidence for their use in the treatment of substance use disorders, this does not mean that they do not provide benefits or will not result in improvement for some people.

For instance, many non-empirically validated treatments may produce benefits through placebo effects, which are non-specific effects that occur as a result of the intervention.Assorted herbs, minerals, and oils on a wooden table

Placebo effects most often occur for conditions or situations that are highly subjective, such as the experience of pain, issues with anxiety or mood, and other subjective qualities like increasing self-confidence.

Many of the interventions used in holistic rehab programs, like yoga, meditation, and other techniques, do have empirically documented health benefits that can help to increase an individual’s overall sense of well-being.

Is Holistic Rehab Right for Me?

There are important things to consider when looking at holistic rehab treatment facilities:

  • Does the treatment facility combine empirically validated treatment interventions with complementary and alternative treatments (holistic treatments)?
  • Are the holistic interventions the types of activities you are interested in participating in?
  • Do you have any physical restrictions that limit your ability to participate in these activities?
  • How much of the treatment costs will be covered by your insurance?
  • What do other clients say about the program?
  • What do other clients say about the program?
  • Is research-based evidence available regarding the specific types of holistic treatments the facility offers?

Look for a Mix of Interventions

A holistic rehab program that is not consistent with the National Institute on Drug Abuse’s outline of effective substance use disorder treatment should be avoided.

The best program will combine the use of medical treatments (medications), substance use disorder therapy (group and individual sessions), and holistic interventions, so it is balanced and practical.

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