The Basics of Holistic Therapy

Holistic therapy uses alternative forms of treatment that address the person as a whole, including the mind, body, and spirit. Its purpose is to promote healing, positive social relationships, and healthy emotional expression, in addition to many other favorable benefits. Although there’s limited research as to the effectiveness of holistic therapies for the treatment and recovery of alcohol and/or drug addiction, it has gained popularity as part of a comprehensive treatment plan at many rehab centers across the country.

Generic Treatment Name Holistic Therapy
Other Names Holism, Naturopathic Treatment, Fringe Therapy, Alternative Therapy, Complementary Medicine
Conditions Commonly Treated Alcohol addiction withdrawal and recovery, substance addiction withdrawal and recovery, pain, depression, anxiety, hyperactivity, mood disorders
Availability Some types of holistic therapy require a referral from a doctor and must be administered by a certified practitioner. Trained therapists may also administer specific types of holistic therapy at rehab centers or individual locations.
Common Types of Holistic Treatment Acupuncture, art therapy, equine therapy, massage therapy, meditation, music therapy, Reiki, tai chi, and yoga
Benefits Vary based on holistic therapy administered, but benefits of common options include anxiety, pain, or stress relief; relaxation, and improved mood and overall health
Drawbacks Limited research exists on the use of holistic therapy in substance abuse treatment. Many counselors and treatment programs rely heavily on evidence-based practices; due to lack of evidence on effectiveness, alternative therapies are rarely covered by insurance and are often costly.
Potential Side Effects Vary based on the type of holistic therapy being administered, but all types are generally considered safe when administered correctly

There is a long history of holistic methods used in the treatment of various conditions. Yoga has a 5,000-year history in ancient Indian philosophy, and acupuncture has been practiced in Asian countries for thousands of years. Other therapies, such as art therapy, have only been around since the 1950s. Hundreds of different types of holistic practices are available, with new therapies emerging all the time. In modern addiction treatment, many rehab programs have already recognized the importance of offering alternative therapies to complement traditional medical and clinical treatments.

Research is slowly revealing the potential therapeutic benefits of what were previously considered fringe therapies for people with substance use disorders. Therefore, more rehab centers may consider adding holistic therapies to provide a more diverse, comprehensive treatment program. In a 2009 survey of 139 substance abuse treatment centers, 58% of centers used meditation as one component of treatment and 33% of centers used some form of self-designated holistic therapy.

How Holistic Therapy Works & How It Is Used

Holistic therapy has been used to treat various ailments, but the focus of this guide is using it for the treatment of alcohol and/or drug addiction. This includes issues with anxiety, depression, and pain that may arise due to withdrawal and recovery from substance abuse. Because there are many different types of holistic therapies, how they work varies, but the overall holistic concept is to treat all aspects of the person to increase success in treatment and in positively altering his or her lifestyle.

During the various stages of recovery, you experience physical, emotional, and behavioral changes that require a variety of treatment approaches. The holistic approach addresses these changes and any co-occurring mental health issues, such as anxiety and depression, that may accompany your detoxification and recovery process. Holistic therapy focuses on all aspects of the person, including physical, emotional, and social well-being, to increase the chances of continued recovery and decrease the likelihood of relapse.

There are varying aspects covered in holistic therapies, including creativity, meditation, relaxation, yoga, spirituality, acupuncture, nutrition, and exercise. Yoga works by regulating stress hormones, providing a natural remedy for anxiety and stress, and improving your mood and brain chemistry. Meditation works by helping you achieve emotional stability and mental clarity while improving brain health. Art therapy lets you express feelings and thoughts you can’t put into words, which may help you manage stress and anxiety, develop coping skills, and strengthen your sense of self. Massage therapy works by relieving pain, promoting relaxation, reducing stress, and easing anxiety and depression, which can be especially important in the early stages of withdrawal.

An integrated, holistic approach tailors your treatment plan to help you resist destructive behaviors and often uses a combination of therapies to fully address underlying issues, prevent relapse, and help you transition to a healthier lifestyle. Holistic therapy isn’t intended to be a substitute for conventional treatment but should combine all aspects of recovery, including traditional treatment methods, psychotherapy, self-help groups, and alternative treatments, to maximize your chance of long-term sobriety.

How Holistic Therapy Is Administered

Holistic therapy comes in many forms, so how it is administered varies based on the type of treatment you receive. Rehab centers may offer a variety of options, and you may choose to add one or more of these options to your overall treatment plan. Holistic therapies generally aren’t stand-alone programs. They’re commonly combined with more traditional medical and clinical therapies. Some of the more mainstream holistic treatment options are listed below.

  • Yoga combines breathing and meditation with various stretching exercises and poses (asanas) to help reduce anxiety, depression, stress, and/or pain while improving sleep patterns and enhancing your overall well-being. Yoga especially helps during withdrawal and to support long-term sobriety by reducing the stress that you would normally respond to by self-medicating with alcohol and/or drugs.
  • Meditation involves focusing on breathing and bodily sensations and promotes mindfulness, an element particularly therapeutic in early recovery. Mindfulness helps make you more aware of your cravings and teaches you to wait for thoughts and feelings to come and go, instead of acting on them, to help reduce your chances for relapse.
  • Art therapy may include painting, music, writing, crafts, and other pursuits that are artistic in nature that offer multiple therapeutic benefits. Art therapy can provide a healthy outlet for communication and expressing underlying emotions, reducing opposition to receiving treatment, motivating positive behavioral changes, and promoting group discussions.
  • Massage therapy is administered by applying varying levels of pressure to tense muscles throughout the body. Through the healing power of touch, massage therapy promotes relaxation, decreases pain and anxiety, boosts mood, and improves sleep, which are all important in the early stages of treatment, especially during physical symptoms of withdrawal.
  • Acupuncture is the practice of using various sized needles, which are inserted into points along meridians in your body to stimulate various body parts. Meridians are energy points, so acupuncture is designed to energize the healing process.
  • Equine therapy is administered by pairing you with a trained mental health professional, a trained equine specialist, and a horse to perform a variety of equine activities. Equine therapy for the treatment of substance abuse rarely includes riding but, instead, focuses on feeding, grooming, and walking the horse to build confidence and impulse control while learning to bond with the animal and reconnect with your emotions.

Cost, Risks, and Other Considerations

The cost of holistic therapy can be high, especially through high-end outpatient programs. Rates for massage therapy can range from $150 to $165 per hour, and acupuncture can cost $100 to $110 per hour. However, some treatment programs don’t charge separate fees for holistic therapies, bundling them with the overall cost of the program.

Using only holistic therapy instead of combining it with conventional methods of withdrawal treatment may pose serious risks. When used in conjunction with traditional treatments, the risks of holistic therapy vary depending on which form of treatment you’re using. While it’s impossible to be certain about the safety of any treatment, most holistic therapies are generally considered safe. There are rare reports that meditation has made symptoms worse in people with anxiety and depression. Yoga should be guided by a well-trained instructor, and though serious yoga injuries are rare, beginners should avoid extreme poses, difficult techniques, and forceful breathing.

Counselors and facilitators of treatment programs tend to stick to more evidence-based practices. However, many individuals have endorsed holistic therapies as essential to helping them in their quest to recover from substance abuse. Lack of research on the effectiveness of holistic therapy in substance abuse treatment may limit its usage in various treatment settings. Therapists who do provide holistic therapy may find it difficult to bill insurance companies for the same reason. Satisfaction with holistic therapy results is typically confirmed when individuals stay in treatment and successfully complete the recovery process.

Holistic therapy may not work in the same way or with the same results for each person. One type of treatment won’t fit everyone’s needs, so you may need to explore several options to discover which one(s) work best for you.

How to Get Help and Additional Resources

Learn more about alcohol addiction and illicit drug addiction, including how to get help for addiction and how holistic therapy works.

Note: The information contained in this guide is for informational purposes and only intended to educate the public on how this therapy is used. It is not recommending a specific treatment or giving medical advice. Always consult with your doctor or other qualified medical, mental health, and addiction professionals before beginning any type of treatment.