Addicted People Should Be Defined by their Overall Well-Being

It is common for people to become defined by their illness. We can often be found referring to a person simply as a drug or alcohol addict, a diabetic, or hemophiliac, for instance. Thus, many suffering from addiction come to define their identity by their condition. In effect, they can feel reduced somewhat dismissively to a set of symptoms.  This is stigma at work.  The condition and its symptoms — in our case addiction — becomes the exclusive focus of attention and, as a result, important dimensions of the patient and his or her life can be obscured, overlooked or trivialized. We risk missing something that may be critical to their achievement of recovery.

Until recently, medicine also had a tendency to focus narrowly on a specific ailment and its particular symptoms. Treatment was closely aligned with that compartmentalizing approach and probably included use of invasive procedures and medication. The patient was usually the passive recipient of treatment. As the established norm in society, it became referred to as conventional medicine to distinguish it from so-called complementary medicine and alternative medicine that emerged to become ever more popular in the last century.

Holistic and integrative practitioners look beyond the limits of a diagnosis to the whole person thus helping people to reclaim a fuller sense of self in the process.  Through this more accepting approach, they may be better able to identify the personal and social resources they have available to them to support their recovery.  The deficits in recovery capital across all domains can be identified and redressed with the right support.

A Holistic Approach– Mind, Body, Spirit

An holistic treatment centre combines and indeed integrates more conventional therapies with what are often referred to as complementary therapies. While a substance abuse treatment may ostensibly concentrate only on a particular area, it is understood that when being used in an holistic addiction treatment Program, it will make a contribution to the improvement of the overall well-being and therefore to recovery from addiction. For instance, Art Therapy may help inter-personal communication and better self-knowledge, while Massage Therapy may relieve nervous tension as part of stress management. It is important that the holistic recovery team has at its disposal a range of complementary therapy options as not everyone will be drawn to and derive benefit from the same thing.

Holistic addiction treatment recognizes that addiction doesn’t just affect one part of a person but every aspect of their life and being; body, mind and spirit, as well as their family and wider social network. It therefore makes no sense to focus narrowly on the condition defined as addiction without carefully considering every aspect of the personal and social context in which it has emerged and now thrives. In turn it will require the whole person to engage with recovery. People will need to learn to look after their body, mind and spirit.

As its name suggests, Holistic Medicine is concerned with the whole person, not solely with the narrow specifics of someone’s presenting symptom in isolation. When considering what ails a person, a holistic approach takes into account every aspect of that individual’s life and the interrelation of those dimensions. Everything is viewed as important when it comes to trying to understand and fashion an effective response to the patient’s ill health: including physical, psychological, spiritual, social, family and environmental factors. 

What is Integrative Holistic Medicine?

While the phrase Integrative Holistic Medicine is commonly used, Integrative Medicine is by definition holistic. This means that rather than segmenting the picture of the patient and restricting itself to concentration on a specific presenting pathology, it considers the person as a whole. It is inclusively concerned with the person’s mind, body and spirit and the interrelation of all three in the promotion and restoration of health, as well as the prevention of illness. It embraces the notion that the natural potential for healing is more likely to be realized in these circumstances, using the most natural and least invasive interventions whenever possible. Social context is thought vitally important and Integrative Holistic Medicine takes everything into account, including life style, family and community that might be having an influence on the person’s health and wellbeing at the time.

Integrative medicine aligns with the holistic approach.  While keeping the whole person in mind, an integrative approach draws upon a variety of interventions and therapies as considered appropriate to providing effective treatment or to improving wellbeing.  It will combine so-called traditional or conventional interventions with complementary therapies, provided there is valid evidence to support their use. It cannot simply be left to a practitioner’s personal preference or professional allegiance.  Integrative medicine requires well-coordinated care, sometimes involving a number of different practitioners. It will include focussing on improvements to nutrition, diet, exercise and sleep since these are fundamental to good health and to building resistance to ill health.  Residential or in-patient treatment options may be better placed to offer such co-ordinated treatment given the skills available on site.

How Does Integrative Holistic Medicine Help?

If integrative holistic medicine has a mantra it is: we attend to all of you, not part of you. In doing so, the patient comes to understand that sustainable recovery from addiction and associated mental disorders is not simply about the absence of symptoms that occasioned the original diagnosis. Rather, they recognize that it involves a commitment to an integrated approach to restoring the wellbeing of the whole system.  Such improved wellbeing in the round will increase resilience. This may mean a radical change in lifestyle and a conscientious increase in attention to self-care.  So, not holistic or integrative; both.

There is as yet only a small amount of scientific evidence to support some of these holistic approaches to treatment. However, this is due in most cases to the fact that holistic research as an approach to substance abuse has still to be undertaken. Some, like animal-assisted therapies, have shown promise when it comes to lowering anxiety and depression and group-based Art Therapy to improving mental health. Early recovery is not without stressful challenges so any non-addictive stress-relieving activity, like meditation, is to be welcomed.

In the meantime such therapies have become popular in addiction treatment and as such have the added benefit of helping patients participating in recovery Programs, to stay actively engaged with the broader process. It would be wrong to ignore or discount patients’ self-reports of benefit while we wait for more systematically produced evidence.