The Value of Spirituality in Addiction Recovery

Spirituality in addiction recovery can be a vital component of healing, but it is often misunderstood by those who are new to the recovery process. So what is spirituality, how can it be incorporated in addiction recovery, and what evidence is there to support it? By exploring these questions, you can come to better understand the value of spirituality in addiction recovery and seek out the care you need to create true transformation.

When we talk about recovery from addiction, we often talk about a process of emotional, physical, and spiritual healing. The first two elements are self-explanatory—addiction disrupts normal neurological and emotional function while often having profound effects on our corporeal selves. The spirituality side of it, however, seems more nebulous. Addiction itself may have stripped you of the spirituality you previously held dear. Or perhaps you never considered yourself a spiritual person to begin with, and the concept itself seems foreign. In some cases, an emphasis on spirituality in addiction recovery can even be alienating, particularly for those who don’t fully understand what spirituality entails or feel that they have no place in spiritual discourse.

Spirituality, however, is a deep, personal experience that can be vital to the recovery process. By exploring what spirituality is, how it can function to improve treatment outcomes, and the value it can add to your life, you can more fully understand how spirituality can be used as a tool to help you flourish.

What is Spirituality?

Spirituality can appear to be an ambiguous thing, difficult to capture in words. It is perhaps precisely this seemingly nebulous quality that leaves so many people skeptical of participating in spiritual healing, particularly if it is conflated with religion. But the first thing to understand is that spirituality is not the same thing as religiosity. According to the Fetzer Institute, “Religiousness has specific behavioral, social, doctrinal, and denominational characteristics because it involves a system of worship and doctrine that is shared within a group.” Spirituality, on the other hand, “is concerned with the transcendent, addressing ultimate questions about life’s meaning, with the assumption that there is more to life than what we see or fully understand.”

While spirituality is typically—but not necessarily—a core part of religious practice, religion is not inherently a part of spirituality. As such, spirituality can be a guiding force in the lives of people who do not subscribe to any religious belief system. Sam Harris, a neuroscientist and author of Waking Up: A Guide to Spirituality Without Religion, explains:

Spirituality must be distinguished from religion—because people of every faith, and of none, have had the same sorts of spiritual experiences. While these states of mind are usually interpreted through the lens of one or another religious doctrine, we know that this is a mistake.

Indeed, spiritual experiences—“self-transcending love, ecstasy, bliss, inner light”—cross boundaries of religiosity and enter the lives of believers, atheists, and agnostics alike.

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Incorporating Spirituality in Addiction Recovery

While we often talk about “spiritual experiences”, spirituality is not something that simply happens tous. Rather, it is a kind of grounding philosophy that gives you a framework for how to understand yourself and connect with the world around you. As psychiatrist Larry Culliford, author of Psychology of Spirituality, so eloquently writes:

Spirituality [can be] thought of as a boundary-less dimension of human experience. It is possible to look at spirituality as something free from institutional structures and hierarchies, not so much about dogma and beliefs as about attitudes and practices, about what motivates you (us) at the deepest level, influencing how you think and behave, helping you find a true and useful place in your community, culture, and the world.

What this looks like varies for each one of us and is deeply personal. It can also evolve over time as you gain new perspectives, experiences, and insights; understanding what spirituality means for you can be a lifetime project.

Addiction, however, can profoundly damage your spirituality; instead of being guided by your own spiritual beliefs, you become entrapped in a cycle of suffering spurred by drug use, clouding your ability to connect to yourself and others in an authentic way. Even in recovery, with the haze of substance abuse lifted, many people struggle to gain a true sense of self, and this struggle can create profound feelings of emptiness and hopelessness that threaten their newfound sobriety. Attending to this need for direction, purpose, and possibility must be a central component of the recovery process.

This is where spirituality comes in. Treatment programs that integrate spirituality in addiction recovery seek to provide the guidance and support necessary to help you reconnect with yourself and the world around you, explore the possibilities of life without drugs or alcohol, examine what is most important to you and, and discover how you can live in a way that honors that. This does not mean pushing a particular ideology, but creating a safe space in which you are able to more deeply connect with your own individual thoughts, feelings, and beliefs about how you want to live in the world.

The Evidence for Spirituality

Unfortunately, some addiction treatment programs have historically been based on an understanding of addiction as solely a crisis of spirituality. This approach flies in the face of modern medical evidence of addiction as a chronic disease of the brain and has been profoundly detrimental for people seeking recovery. Indeed, as Dr. Lance Dodes, former assistant clinical professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, says, “We know from numerous studies that when people rely on a treatment which claims that addiction is a spiritual problem, they are at high risk of relapse.”

However, evidence also shows that when spiritual exploration and support is incorporated into a medical model of addiction treatment, people experience better outcomes and higher overall quality of life. According to a 2015 study, “Those with low spirituality have higher relapse rates and those with high spirituality have higher remission rates. These results demonstrate the clinically significant role of spirituality and the social bonds it creates in drug treatment programs.” Another study on the role of spirituality in recovery amongst methadone-maintained outpatients “suggested that spirituality suffered in complex ways during active addiction, but ‘went hand in hand’ with recovery.” In fact, nearly all participants considered voluntary spiritual discussion to be a vital addition to formal treatment. The protective nature of spirituality for people in comprehensive addiction treatment programs has been confirmed again and again.

So what is it specifically about spirituality in addiction recovery helps people move toward healing? “Spirituality and life meaning enhance coping, confer hope for the future, provide a heightened sense of control, security, and stability,” say Laudet, Morgen, and White in their own research on spirituality in addiction recovery. “They confer support and strength to resist the opportunity to use substances, all of which are very much needed to initiate and maintain recovery.” In other words, spiritually provides motivation for resisting drug use by offering meaningful alternatives, a sense of agency, and helping you define the values by which you want to live your life.

Finding Spirituality in Addiction Treatment

The power of spirituality in addiction recovery is undeniable. As such, it is imperative to find an addiction treatment program that offers the correct mix of evidence-based, cutting-edge therapies and spiritual integration within a scientifically-informed model of care. Dr. Ian Wolds, Executive Director at Alta Mira, who wrote his doctoral dissertation on spiritual growth in Alcoholics Anonymous, says, “A spiritual base of recovery is really important for long-term transformation.”

According to Wolds, gauging what helps strengthen each client’s spiritual connection should be a part of the assessment process from the very beginning in order to ensure that each person has the opportunity to optimize spiritual inquiry and growth. The program should offer a safe space to nourish spirituality through individual and group therapies as well as 12-step group involvement while maintaining a highly personalized approach and working in accordance to each person’s comfort level. “Spirituality is different for everybody,” he explains. “It helps us connect to the deepest parts of ourselves, of our personal truth, and also connects us to the ultimate meaning of things.”

To Wolds, folding spiritual processes into a recovery framework is an essential ingredient of addiction recovery because it allows you to engage in a project of self-transformation that nourishes you throughout and extends far beyond your time in treatment.

I think people often have a false assumption that life is about discovering who you are. I believe life is about creating who you want to be and I think coming into residential treatment is a huge opportunity for people to do that—to look at what’s going on in their lives and what doesn’t fit in their own concept or how they want to show up in the world. Helping people understand and develop awareness of their own truth, about spiritual beliefs, their connection to other people, and their place in the world is a strong central driving point for me. Helping people develop that high vision of their lives and what’s possible beyond the challenges that they face is what drives me to this work.

Indeed, the purpose of addiction treatment is not simply to stop using drugs or alcohol, it is to forge a new future in which you can create a richer, more fulfilling life and find your place in the world. Spirituality offers you a pathway toward that transformation and gives you something to hold onto as you begin anew.

Alta Mira offers a comprehensive suite of treatment programs for people struggling with drug and alcohol addiction as well as co-occurring mental health disorders and process addictions. Contact usto learn more about our renowned Bay Area programs and how we can help you or your loved one start the journey toward true recovery.