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Making the Case for Holistic Care in Addictions Treatment

Sam Darcy, MA, CAP, LADAC

Holistic care has become a virtual cliché treatment tag line, but offering quality adjunct care has respected research showing that treatment outcomes, retention and recovery rates improve when delivered effectively.  While treatment centers claim they offer holistic care and treat the mind, body and spirit, it’s crucial to define the components that research says are truly effective in treating addiction.

Acupuncture, yoga, meditation, psychodrama, family therapy, equine therapy, art therapy, diet and nutritional programs are all cited as meaningful facets of holistic treatment.  Research from the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), Substance Abuse and Mental Health Service Administration (SAMHSA), as well as research published during the past few years in The Lancet, New England Journal of Medicine, The Journal of Substance Abuse Treatment in addition to a wealth of publications from eminent researchers such as Dr. Bessel van der Kolk, Dr. Jerry Boriskin, Tian Dayton and Dr. Colin Ross to name a few, all substantiate that incorporating holistic approaches, along with 12 step recovery and established therapeutic approaches improve patient outcomes.

Therapeutic interventions and approaches that have scientific validity showing improved patient outcomes have to be great news for practitioners, patients and patient families. 

Vista Taos has been consistently improving its services during the past 18 years by incorporating these holistic services as they have become effective practices in treating addiction.  The core curriculum of treatment services that includes experiential therapy such as psychodrama, yoga, Rosen Method Movement, guided meditation and acupuncture are proven strategies helping patients resolve the underlying issues motivating their addiction and addictive behaviors.  Since implementing these alternative interventions noted above, the retention rates at Vista Taos have significantly increased so AMA (against medical advice) departures within the first 10 days of a patient’s stay have dropped to 1% during the past year. 

A concern among industry specialists is the devastating effect some drugs have on the body and brain making treatment efforts much more challenging.  Designer drugs, methamphetamine, extremely potent prescription opiates and even potent marijuana make detox efforts extremely uncomfortable for the addict and more complex for treatment agencies.  From pre-admission through the course of treatment, having additional proven resources to help the patient heal their wounds and embrace recovery is a godsend.

What’s exciting is that the following have gone from fringe therapy to accepted practice:

  • Acupuncture has shown to help with withdrawal and detoxification;
  • Meditation and Yoga have been shown to reduce anxiety and empowers the patient to utilize these skills on their own;
  • Experiential Therapy- including  Equine Therapy and Psychodrama – has been shown to help patients unblock frozen emotions that have fueled their addiction;
  • Diet and Nutrition have been shown to accelerate the body’s healing by eliminating refined sugars, caffeine and saturated fats from their diet in lieu of fresh foods and individualized meals.

Since incorporating a dedicated holistic model of treatment, Vista Taos’s outcome surveys have shown remarkable improvement in overall patient satisfaction – at 90% positive or higher – duplicating the positive outcomes from the research material cited.  Quite simply, the research regarding implementing holistic methods has been the best treatment plan for our center in providing exceptional patient care.  Vista Taos’s Clinical Director, Michael Cugini, reports that the combination and integration of our wide variety of interventions only helps to accelerate the patient’s engagement in recovery noting that 30 – 35 days is a very brief period of time to work with patients.  Our other clinicians report seeing patients make tremendous progress toward finding hope as the result of easing physical and mental distress that occurs with this integrated approach.

Treating, or rather resolving, the painful emotions that underlie addiction and related obsessive/compulsive behaviors that our patients suffer from remains a primary goal in their path to recovery.  For some of our patients the intensity of their emotional pain comes from traumatic events and/or occurrences. Drs van der Kolk, Ross and Boriskin’s research on PTSD and trauma all underscore how experiential therapy and holistic practices help heal trauma wounds.  The therapist with our extended care program incorporates D.B.T. and the work of Dr Gabor Mate and Byron Katie.  Our observation is that having added these approaches those with trauma/PTSD issues developed resolution and coping skills to prevent relapse and remain engaged in therapy.  

Unblocking frozen emotions that occur as the result of PTSD/trauma and consequent addiction is a counseling challenge that requires multifaceted approaches in addition to quality treatment time.   To free the patient from their entrenched fears and align themselves in the fellowship of recovery requires creating a recovery partnership between the treatment center and the patient.  Holistic approaches that once appeared non-traditional or too far ‘out there,’ are proving far too successful and have given this treatment facility added value to give to our patients.

Since the mid nineties to current date, there has been a wealth of research that reinforces the healing benefits of meditation, acupuncture, experiential therapy, outdoor therapeutic activities that help heal and restore neurochemical balance.  The advent and improvements in neuroscience have shown the damage that emotional trauma and drug abuse creates in the brain and reveal the recovery that occurs with holistic practices.  Whether we call it multi-axial, multi-modal or integrative approaches, combining holistic practices with talk therapy improves our patients’ commitment to long term recovery.

Smaller and trust based therapy groups have been studied for over 60 years with the message that smaller groups create a safe environment for individuals to speak to their fears and anxieties.  Dr Irvin Yalom’s theory of group process being the standard for essential emotionally sensitive group work, guides us to create a safe environment for patients to openly share and process the secrets that have held them captive.  Incorporating as many healing arts techniques in the treatment of addiction is proving to be best practice for treatment providers and certainly a commitment Vista Taos has made in our pledge to our patients.

The integration of 12 step based traditional treatment and holistic practices have respected research and science based methodology showing our evolution in treating this challenging disease of addiction.  The neurological studies conducted in the past decade show how much of an impact substance abuse and process addictions have on the brain.   This same technology reveals how effective these holistic therapeutic interventions can be and giving treatment providers so much more to offer their patients.

Treatment works; holistic practices integrated with traditional services work even better.

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