More Prescription Drugs Aren’t the Answer: How Treating the Whole Person Is the Key to Lasting Recovery

There are powerful voices shaping the way a traditional drug rehab facility operates. Government agencies, senators, well-respected medical professionals, even some recovering addicts who fought their way out of the downward spiral and reclaimed a sober lifestyle.

What if the way it has always been done does more harm than switching to a non-traditional holistic drug treatment and aftercare program?

More prescription drugs aren’t the answer to drug addiction treatment

Critics of treating drug addiction with another drug have voiced concerns, yet many in the medical community still believe that the benefits of substituting “less dangerous medicine” for street drugs and habit-forming prescriptions have a place in the drug rehab environment. For decades, organizations that support the medication-substitution pathway to recovery have touted the successes and continued to make arguments for continuing such practices.

Even while admitting modern methods for treating substance abuse and addiction, such as teaching self-awareness and stress management techniques in the drug addiction treatment center, may improve outcomes, some drug rehabilitation specialists share an attitude expressed by John K. Smith, Ph.D., LCSW in a 2007 Social Work Today piece.

Using medications to help treat substance abusers has its critics, but in many cases, they’ve been effective. Know what’s available because these drugs are here to stay.”

In his article, Smith admitted that recovering addicts are sometimes the harshest critics of medicine replacement strategies. Some people in the 12-step community who generally agree with the structure of these programs still feel like they cannot really claim clean and sober status if they use drugs to get off drugs. Others go even further, saying that using any medications, even prescription drugs to manage chronic mental and medical conditions, makes membership status in AA and Narcotics Anonymous questionable at best.

Someday, geneticists may develop DNA altering drugs that protect against drug addiction and alcoholism. Last year, doctors attempted the first gene-editing procedure at the UCSF Benioff Children’s Hospital in Oakland, California in an effort to cure a metabolic disease called Hunter Syndrome. Doctors say the results are promising, but only time will tell how effective the treatment is. Treating other illnesses like drug dependency, diabetes and Parkinson’s with gene-editing may be in our future.  

It may take a long time before everyone embraces procedures that permanently alter their genetic makeup to treat or prevent substance use disorders. In the meantime,  there is no magic pill. And, the only guaranteed way to prevent addiction is abstinence. For those who don’t want to switch one addiction for another,holistic drug treatment may be the answer.

Treating the Whole Person is the Key to Lasting Recovery

1 First, do no harm: I will neither give a deadly drug to anybody who asked for it nor will I make a suggestion to this effect. (Hippocrates)

When people enter drug rehab centers using drugs like Antabuse or methadone, they receive a less potent substitute for their drug of choice to ease withdrawal symptoms. This may seem like the right thing to do, but it does not address the addictive tendencies or retrain compulsive behavior at the root of all addictions. Some clinics prescribe sleeping pills or medication to help clients relax. Each mind-altering drug dispensed has the potential to create a new addiction.

Writing in Psychology Today, Joseph Troncale M.D., describes cross addiction this way:

“The dopamine dysregulation in the limbic system of the brain seen in addiction is not able to tell the difference between addictive drugs. Therefore, if someone who has an addiction is given another addictive drug for whatever reason, the individual with addiction is being set up for relapse into their drug of choice.”

In the interest of full transparency, and out of deference to Dr. Troncale, he never suggests that an addict must be denied all medications. Instead, he recommends extreme caution because many medications interact with the same type of brain receptors that trigger drug and alcohol use.

Rather than set someone who has finally decided to pursue sobriety up for failure, holistic therapy protocol includes alternative therapies like yoga that have been proven to be effective, nonpharmacologic sleep aids and relaxation techniques. Avoiding cross-addiction is difficult without close monitoring and behavior modification training to change the way the brain responds to physical pain and emotional discomfort.

In most cases, holistic treatment plans limit medications to drugs necessary for the individual’s survival. For example, a Type 1 diabetic whose body cannot produce insulin, needs injections of the hormone to convert food to energy used for moving around, digesting food, growth and other bodily functions that start at the cellular level. So, while medical professionals in drug addiction environments focus on treating the whole person work hard to avoid cross-addiction, they may recommend clients take certain medications to improve their overall health and wellness.

2 Recognize the power to grow within each individual.

Yes, substance abuse is dangerous. Neurotoxic drugs damage the brain. Long-term malnutrition has devastating and debilitating side-effects. Sadly, thousands of drug- and alcohol-related deaths happen every year. As bleak as that sounds, addiction does not have to be a life sentence. People can, and do, recover, and go on to live vibrant, productive, healthy lives.

Many people may not realize the vast majority of people suffering from drug and alcohol addiction win their personal battles without any formal drug addiction treatment.

Studies show 60 to 80 percent of people addicted in their early years achieve lifelong sobriety by their thirties.  

Evidence supporting this surprising fact comes from researchers like Gene Heyman, a research psychologist at McLean Hospital who did a survey of people addicted during their adolescent and early adult years who achieved sobriety in their thirties and avoided relapse in subsequent decades, without drug addiction treatment or prescription drugs.

Studies of Vietnam War veterans who came home with narcotics addictions suggest most soldiers laid down their drugs without intervention. Sociologist Lee N. Robins (formerly at the Washington University School of Medicine-St. Louis) found that although almost 50 percent of veterans who developed a narcotic dependency in country, and tried similar drugs after returning home, only about 6 percent experienced renewed addiction.

Holistic drug therapy recognizes the power each individual possesses to overcome extreme challenges. For the people who need help achieving sobriety, treating the whole person, without simply substituting one drug for another, empowers individuals to take control of their own destiny.

drug addiction treatment

3 Leverage evidence-based tools and treatments. 

Designing an evidence-based plan to treat the whole person – body, mind, and spirit – starts with exploring what brought the individual to this crisis point.  A thorough medical review and psychological profile establishes a basis for recovery. Since many people with a substance misuse disorder also have mental health disorders and chronic medical diseases, identifying those factors allows drug rehab personnel to create a customized program that includes specific treatment to stabilize, cure or manage the patient’s health and wellness.

Placing a client in the proper treatment setting and aftercare program is critical.

Inpatient Services generally fall into three distinct phases, although individual control when they are confident and ready to move on to the next phase.

  • The first phase focuses on regaining physical and mental strength. There is a heavy focus on nutrition and exercise during the first few weeks. Daily meal plans and exercise routines may change as one’s body becomes stronger and clarity returns. During this time of adjustment, clients work with therapists to explore what lead them to this point and time. These weeks are all about achieving balance and harmony. Relaxation therapies, such as mindfulness activities and Dialectical Behavior Therapy, proven to calm the mind and ease a restless spirit are added.  
  • Phase two expands the concept of living a balanced life beyond addiction. Mindfulness activities continue as life skill training and learning tools are introduced. This is a time for carefully evaluating relationships, choosing support team members and thinking about what one thinks a normal day in the life of sobriety might look like. Group and individual therapy continue. Alternative therapy, such as art, dance, yoga and other expressive treatment methods, play a more prominent role as clients learn new communication tools. The second phase offers guidance for better decision making, coping with negative stimuli and beginning to think about the future.
  • Some say the final stage is when the real work begins. By this point in the journey, most inpatient residents are physically stronger and emotionally ready to dig deep to honestly explore their past. Group and individual therapy sessions ramp up as counselors encourage clients to embrace introspection and self-awareness are a mechanism for discovering their inner strengths and weaknesses. New behavior modification techniques and counseling methods are often introduced during the second inpatient phase. Cognitive Behavior Counseling sessions aim to replace negative behaviors with positive responses during stressful periods. During these weeks, select family members or friends may be invited to join counseling sessions. This allows everyone to revisit harmful events in the past and work through any lingering disappointment and anger. This is also when drug rehab centers finalize aftercare program.

Outpatient Services

Outpatient services offer many of these benefits of an inpatient setting; however, clients typically continue their normal routine. They live in the same house and work the same job or attend school during the day. Participants attend group and individual counseling sessions, along with education and training opportunities in the evenings. While drug rehab programs vary, the minimum treatment course is eight to 12 weeks. Holistic drug treatment sessions usually have a flexible end date that allows people to continue attending support group sessions until they reach their established sobriety and life-management goals.

The ideal outpatient treatment plans include:

  • Evidence-based treatment
  • Both individual and group therapy and addiction counseling sessions
  • Nutrition education, with mindfulness training
  • Post-treatment and relapse prevention planning
  • Ongoing support group opportunities

Holistic drug treatment

Moving Forward After Addiction Treatment

While some people achieve freedom from addiction without medical intervention, there are still many who cannot face the journey alone. Each individual deserves specialized treatment plans designed around the promise of sobriety. However, it would be a mistake to deny that relapse rates remain higher than anyone would like. For many, relapse is an expected part of the recovery process.

Armed with new life skills, a better understanding of the role nutrition and exercise play in maintaining a sober lifestyle and a fresh new approach to managing stress and negative stimuli, people in recovery often report on discharge day that they feel better about themselves and their futures than they have in years. Treating the whole person is all about achieving a healthy balance that supports physical, emotion and mental renewal.

Hope is a powerful emotion. It is what motivates many to stay clean even when circumstances suddenly change. To believe they can survive when an important relationship is in trouble or ends. To call their aftercare team or a trusted support group partner instead of reaching for the drugs or alcohol again.

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