What’s Good for the Soul is Good for Sobriety, research shows
A deep sense of gratitude. Living with purpose. Becoming one with nature. Belief in a divine being.
Whatever spirituality means to you, science tells us it has real benefits for addiction recovery. A life-affirming spiritual path can help you cope better with drug cravings, feel more positive and restore hope and meaning to your world.
“Individuals in successful recovery often showed greater levels of faith and spirituality than did those who had relapsed,” concludes a seminal report, “So Help Me God: Substance Abuse, Religion and Spirituality,” from the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University.
A growing body of research suggests that spirituality – broadly defined to encompass life meaning and purpose – can be a catalyst for initiating recovery “and a source of enrichment that can enhance quality of personal and family life in long-term recovery,” says William L. White, Emeritus Senior Research Consultant at the nonprofit Chestnut Health Systems/Lighthouse Institute in Illinois.
“It seems to exert this effect through new resources and relationships beyond the self, the discovery of previously hidden strength within the self, and the inculcation of new values – for example, humility, gratitude, forgiveness, tolerance, service to others, connection to community,” says White, who has written extensively on addiction and is the author of Slaying the Dragon – The History of Addiction Treatment and Recovery in America.
Spirituality Can be a Powerful Force in Recovery
Even if you don’t consider yourself “religious” or identify with any faith, spirituality can be a powerful force in your recovery, experts say.
While religion is characterized by specific beliefs (dogmas), rituals and practices about God or a greater power, a person does not have to do any of these things to be deeply spiritual. The quest for spiritual growth is attuned to creating purpose and meaning for our humanity – with or without belief in God.
“The influence of spirituality on recovery is independent of religiosity,” the Columbia University report notes. “For example, degree of religiosity at treatment admission does not predict or only modestly predicts positive treatment outcomes, but self-reports of having had a “spiritual awakening” through involvement with A.A. are highly predictive of recovery three years following treatment admission.”
America’s religious landscape is changing. An estimated 7 in 10 adults identify as Christian, but that share of the population is declining, according to a new study by the Pew Research Center. The percentage of adults who describe themselves as Christians declined from 78.4 percent in 2007 to 70.6 percent in 2014.
During the same period, the number of Americans who describe themselves as atheist, agnostic or “nothing in particular” increased from 16.1 percent to 22.8 percent, according to the study. More Americans also identify with non-Christian faiths, with growth among Muslims and Hindus especially.
Regardless of religious affiliation, anyone in recovery can benefit from spiritual practices and avenues that increase belonging and social connection.
White notes the growing network of secular recovery organizations that provide mutual aid – such as Women for Sobriety, Secular Organizations for Sobriety, SMART Recovery and Lifering Secular Recovery – and a wide range of science-based (secular) addiction treatment options.
“There are multiple pathways to recovery and all are cause for celebration,” White says.
Practical Inspiration For Your Spiritual Journey
A spiritual orientation is well-documented to enhance recovery from addiction. But what works best is highly individualized.
Anything that adds meaning and purpose to your life – from creative pursuits to a personal yoga practice – can be a significant part of your healing process. Here’s a closer look at some spiritual practices that can aid your well-being and recovery:
Develop Mindful Awareness
This spiritual tool can make you more aware of personal triggers for drug relapse, and boost your ability to cope with cravings and stress.
Mindful awareness means that you pause, completely focus on the present moment and calmly observe any thoughts, emotions or personal struggle that unfolds – without criticism or judgment. You eventually learn to “detach” and free yourself from anxieties and trauma, responding in ways that better serve you.
Mindful awareness also improves your ability to handle discomfort – which can be particularly helpful when dealing with drug cravings.
People in recovery who engage in mindfulness report “significantly lower risk of relapse to substance use and heavy drinking,” according to studies by the University of Washington. Here are some free guided audio meditations from the university (scroll to end to download)
Live With Gratitude — It is Good for Your Health
People who consistently practice gratitude report stronger immune systems, lower blood pressure, more positive emotions and less loneliness, according to the Greater Good Science Center at the University of California, Berkeley.
Recovery from drug and alcohol addiction brings many reasons to be thankful, including better health and improved relationships. A national survey of 3,228 people in long-term recovery shows a 50 percent increase in steady employment, a 10-fold decrease in emergency room visits, and 50 percent higher participation in family activities, compared to when they had an active addiction (read more about the survey).
Find Gratitude with these Three Provoking Questions
One way to practice gratitude is to use the Naikan reflection technique based on three questions:
“What have I received from _____________?
“What have I given to _____________?
“What troubles and difficulties have I caused __________?
This technique is recommended by gratitude expert Robert A. Emmons, Ph.D., author of Thanks! How the New Science of Gratitude Can Make You Happier. Here are Emmons’ 10 tips for practicing gratitude every day.
Connect with the Natural World
It’s no surprise that spending time in nature is therapeutic for reducing chronic stress; a mountain of evidence confirms that. But a 2015 study by Stanford University shows that natural environments can also reduce rumination – dwelling on negative thoughts about oneself.
Participants who took a 90-minute nature walk reported lower levels of rumination and showed reduced activity in an area of the brain linked to risk for mental illness, compared with those who walked through an urban setting, according to the study.
So if you want to enhance your mood and reduce negative, repetitive thinking that could fuel drug relapse, spend time in nature.
Albert Schweitzer, the famed humanitarian, celebrated our spiritual connection with the great outdoors:
“The deeper we look into nature, the more we realize that it is full of life, and the more profoundly we know that all life is a secret and that we are united with all life that is in nature. . . . From this knowledge comes our spiritual relationship to the Universe.”
Being altruistic can enhance your sense of connectedness and help you stay sober, according to research by Case Western Reserve University.
Abstinence rates are consistently higher among those who help and serve others in 12-step programs while they’re attending formal treatment, the research shows. Example of service activities include low-intensity tasks such as making coffee at a 12-step meeting, calling a peer to encourage attendance or becoming a sponsor.
You can also find service opportunities through organizations such as Volunteer Match, which pairs volunteers with more than 90,000 nonprofit organizations worldwide. You can search Volunteer Match for causes you care about or service opportunities near you.
Give Forgiveness Freely – You May Extend Your Life
Forgiveness can transform your recovery – and may extend your life.
A landmark study of 1,232 older Americans examined how forgiveness ultimately influences a person’s mortality risk. After controlling for religious and other variables, the study found the only significant predictor of mortality was conditional forgiveness – that is, forgiving others only if they apologize, promise to change or meet other conditions (“Forgive to Live: Forgiveness, Health, and Longevity,” by Toussaint et. al, was published in 2012 in the Journal of Behavioral Medicine).
So harboring a grudge or staying angry and resentful can cut your life short. Other research studies show that people who forgive more easily have better sleep and healthier heart, endocrine and immune functioning. They are also less likely to suffer depression and anxiety.
Seeking forgiveness and making amends to others can also lead to more self-forgiveness, according to research by Baylor University. One way you can practice forgiveness is by doing a “loving kindness” meditation (also known as “metta” meditation).
You start with loving kindness toward yourself, because self-love makes it easier to wish happiness for others. The meditation asks you to relax, breathe deeply and slowly recite and repeat specific heartfelt phrases:
May I be happy.
May I be well.
May I be safe.
May I be peaceful and at ease.
Next, you bring to mind another person and slowly repeat the phrases of loving kindness toward that person. For more details on this meditation, click here:
Tap the Power of Prayer, Spiritual Community
The universal language of prayer, the fellowship of a faith community. These are spiritual practices that give strength to many people in recovery.
Personal prayer can improve your self-control and ability to reduce temptation, according to a study published in 2013 in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology. The study suggests that the social connection with God or a higher power can influence behavior. “Engaging in a social interaction during prayer may have similar effects of providing a cognitive boost that can benefit subsequent self-control attempts,” the researchers noted.
There’s also a lot of evidence for the power of prayer to prevent illness and accelerate recovery, according to Duke University’s Center for Spirituality, Theology and Health.
A spiritual community – whether your anchor is a church, synagogue or mosque – can provide a sense of belonging and also benefit sobriety, research shows.
Adults who never attend religious services are almost twice as likely to drink and seven times as likely to binge drink as those who attend religious services weekly or more often, according to the study So Help Me God: Substance Abuse, Religion and Spirituality,” from the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University.
The report also shows that adults who never attend religious services are about eight times likelier to have used marijuana and more than five times likelier to have used another illicit drug in the past 30 days than those who attend religious services weekly or more often.
Being connected to some type of faith community or social network is beneficial for both prevention and addiction recovery, the research concludes.
Combine Treatment with Peer Support
Individuals who combine professional treatment for addiction with the support of a spiritually-based recovery program (i.e., Alcoholics Anonymous, Narcotics Anonymous) are more likely to sustain sobriety, according to Columbia University’s National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse.
The Center’s study of 2,191 patients in outpatient drug treatment reveals those in AA or NA groups were more likely to report total abstinence after three months of treatment than those who did not affiliate.
“Regardless of patients’ religious background, individuals who are referred to AA or NA programs are more likely to attend meetings and persons who attend AA or NA meetings have better outcomes,” the research noted. “Previous religiousness or spirituality is not a prerequisite to gaining the benefit of spirituality in recovery including a 12-step process.”
A variety of mobile apps can help you locate the nearest peer recovery program; some examples of popular apps are Sober Places, Steps Away, In the Rooms and Addicaid.
Additional support for your spiritual journey can be found on the nonprofit website “Spirituality & Practice,” which offers this toolkit of more than 250 classic and informal spiritual practices.