An alternative treatment is a therapy that may not have as much research supporting its effectiveness as traditional addiction treatment. Often referred to as Complementary and Alternative Therapies (CAM), these alternative therapies are used as a complement to your traditional treatment plan and can increase the effectiveness of your treatment by helping you to cope with withdrawal symptoms, stress/emotional issues, or even a lack of spiritual grounding.
The idea is to work toward the best version of yourself, and this often requires the use of more than one tool. There are many such options when you’re in recovery such as hypnosis, meditation, acupuncture and crystal healing. For your best chance of a successful recovery, you should pursue treatments with a strong evidence of their effectiveness.
However, there are times that alternative treatments might be worth trying:
When Conventional Treatments Aren’t Working
Doctors generally don’t prescribe alternative therapies. This is often due to lack of evidence behind them and also because there may be legal implications should any harm come to you as a result of that recommendation. Some doctors are more responsive to alternative treatments and will go through your options with you, but this is usually when a number of conventional approaches have already failed. If you haven’t seen much benefit from mainstream treatments, then you might want to try alternatives. It is important to note that you should continue with your standard therapies and use alternative approaches as a complement to them, not a replacement.
When You’re Treating a Symptom
In 2016, researchers published a review of alternative treatments for addiction in the journal Focus on Alternative and Complementary Therapies. The results did not show promise for alternative treatments, however, that does not necessarily mean they are useless. Some alternative treatments are effective in treating the symptoms people experience in recovery. For example, mindful meditation can produce moderate reductions in many types of psychological distress. Stress can interfere with how well treatments work for you, so it may be useful to do mindfulness meditation at home while still attending your normal one-on-one and group therapy sessions.
Where There Is Some Evidence of Effectiveness
For some alternative treatments, the evidence is growing but not yet complete — these are good options to pursue because they offer the best chance of success. Of these, exercise is perhaps the best choice. A review of the evidence published in Neuroscience and Biobehavioral Reviews found that exercise can have a healing effect on the same areas of the brain that become damaged through substance use. You can maximize the effect by combining exercise with a healthy diet — remember to stay hydrated, increase your intake of healthy proteins and eat more vegetables.
Some people in recovery have difficulty keeping up with a fitness routine, but one way to stay persistent is to work out with a partner. Working out with a friend can boost motivation and accountability. Others find that workouts are more enjoyable and rewarding when you can measure progress. Today’s fitness trackers and smartwatches can track everything from calories burned to how many steps you take. New models like the Apple Watch Series 4 can measure heart rate and track swimming workouts, and you can even accept calls and messages. A model like the Fitbit Charge 3 has a sharp display and long battery life, and it can track your workouts.
If There is a Low Risk of Side Effects
If a complementary treatment option has a low risk-profile in terms of side effects, it might be worth trying — assuming that you can afford it, of course. Some treatments carry very little risk, such as massage, reflexology, hypnosis, relaxation exercises, meditation, biofeedback, and acupuncture. If you’d like to give meditation a try, there are some helpful apps like Headspace and 10% Happier.
Others treatments have higher potential risks. Herbal products can produce side effects themselves or may interfere with other medications you are taking; acupuncture can cause lightheadedness or fainting in people afraid of needles, and certain types of body manipulation or deep massage can cause mechanical issues in the body. Exercise also carries some risks, but is considered safe if you follow a program recommended by your doctor.
Today, there are a number of evidence-based treatments for substance abuse disorders, but a study in 2012 found that only one in 10 people ever try them. If you are in recovery and not happy with your treatment, talk to your doctor about the different evidence-based therapies you could try. Once you are established on a treatment program, you can then talk to your doctor about complementary treatments to try on the side.