According to a 2014 study conducted at Harvard, spirituality and brain activity are inextricably linked. The study found that mindfulness meditation could do far more than simply redirecting certain thought patterns. It actually changed the brain’s gray matter. Specifically, meditation resulted in “a major increase in gray matter density in the hippocampus, the part of the brain associated with self-awareness, compassion, and introspection.” Because addiction impacts the brain in profound ways, this new knowledge holds enormous implications for the effectiveness of certain spiritual techniques used in addiction recovery.
An Unlikely Antidote
In 2002, international social work professors and researchers, Kris Kissman and Lynn Maurer, published an article in the Journal of International Social Work entitled East meets West: Therapeutic aspects of spirituality in health, mental health and addiction recovery. In it, they share that spirituality – the moral framework for giving meaning to life – can be a sort of “antidote to depression and despair.” They go further to say that “spiritual healing promotes wholeness and well-being, lacking when life circumstances create dejection that can result in self-medication, or the use of psychoactive substances to combat dispirited feelings.” For anyone who has ever felt the unyielding grip of depression or addiction and is ready to encounter change, hope of such an antidote is worth exploring further. From scholars to clinicians, experts are taking a closer look at practices that have been commonly used in Eastern cultures, and finding ways to incorporate them into the addiction recovery tactics used in the West. In a 2014 New York Times article, Dr. Lisa Miller, Director of Clinical Psychology and of the Spirituality Mind Body Institute at Columbia University’s Teachers College, wrote that “a personal relationship with a higher power is the most powerful form of protection against the ‘mystic consciousness’ of substance abuse.” Addiction recovery programs offer a space in which one can explore this personal relationship alongside professionals who are familiar with the multifaceted nature of addiction. One by one, the most highly respected authorities in the field of medicine are getting on the spiritual bandwagon because of the unquestionable evidence that brain and spirit are connected. In 2008, Pew Research Center published the transcript of a discussion held among a panel of neuroscientists. They spoke about how brain-imaging technology is telling us more and more about how we are affected by matters of the soul – “In observing Buddhist monks as they meditate, Franciscan nuns as they pray and Pentecostals as they speak in tongues, Dr. Andrew Newberg, a radiologist at the University of Pennsylvania, has found that measurable brain activity matches up with the religious experiences described by worshippers.” Addiction recovery experts are utilizing this knowledge, and it is proving to be quite effective.
Spirituality vs. Religion
There’s a difference between spirituality and religion, so it’s important to distinguish between the two. Lance Dodes, M.D., Assistant Clinical Professor of Psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, clarifies this difference – “…up to about 70 years ago, the terms spirituality and religion were almost synonymous. But since then, ‘spirituality’ has also been used to refer to a feeling or belief in the oneness between an individual and the universe, being in touch with one’s soul or inner self, and even simply a sense of personal well-being. None of these newer meanings has a specific reference to a deity or to religion.” Others who have attempted to define the terms have said religion relies more heavily on a collective agreement to adhere to certain rules, while spirituality is more focused on individual experiences and the unique meaning that s/he derives from those experiences.
Spirituality – A Lasting Road To Transcendence
Across disciplines, spirituality is being utilized as a dynamic tool that guides individuals toward an inner connectedness, awareness of oneself in relation to the universe, and a state of health and well-being. What we now know is that addiction is often the result of a person’s desire to have a sense of pleasure and well-being. One’s substance of choice offers a temporary and false sense of euphoria, or as Dr. Miller puts it, “a shortcut to transcendence.” A deeper understanding of this human need for transcendence is informing the development of mental and behavioral alternatives to patients. These alternatives hold hope for those who use substances to satisfy their craving for feelings of bliss and relief.
Spiritual Recovery – What To Expect
For those who choose to venture into the world of spiritual healing, some of the angst may be due to not knowing what to expect. Many of the methods involve what Kissman and Maurer refer to as “present-moment awareness.” By focusing on breathing, listening, and sharing stories, this “present-moment awareness” has the potential to correct distortions that exist in the thoughts of addicts, quieting the mind and opening the door to another way of coping with stress and worries. Here are some important things to remember:
- Spirituality and Power – Addiction recovery is often about giving up reliance on personal will power, and surrendering to the power of the collective. This is why group processes are so effective. Spirituality takes this concept to another level by teaching patients how to not only relinquish power to control, but also how to “[join] with a higher power in order to increase personal power,” according to Kissman and Maurer.
- Spirituality and Transformation – Successful and lasting addiction recovery involves personal transformation. Addicts who once identified themselves as weak or powerless learn how to reframe their identity. This change comes as a result of the metaphors and stories that are characteristic of many spiritual practices. The stories give voice to individual struggles, and provide the spiritual component of “interconnectedness between individuals” by “[breaking] the emotional isolation” that often fuels addiction.
- Spirituality and Cognition – Our brains are fascinating, and have the incredible ability to focus on the past, the present, the future, or realms of thought that aren’t even real. Kissman and Maurer’s research reveals that “present-moment awareness… facilitates a cognitive focus on positive aspects of everyday life” which “clears the mind for self-nurturing and coping.” In a world where suffering and despair may threaten to take over, self-nurturing is a skill that can improve cognitive function. Spirituality can clarify the “cognitive distortions” that can trigger substance abuse.
Addressing The Skeptics
Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) has now been around for over 80 years. Since the program’s inception in 1935 in Akron, Ohio, scientists and AA enthusiasts have gone back and forth about the credibility and success rate of the program’s spiritually-based 12-step method. To be fair, collecting data and publishing the findings of AA groups in peer-reviewed medical journals has been quite difficult because of the expectation of anonymity that is the very basis of the groups’ operation. Even with this challenge, scientists have found ways to measure the success of the program. The numbers cannot be denied. When discussing the skepticism that academicians have directed toward the spiritual components of AA, Thomas McClellan, Ph.D., Director of the Treatment Research Institute at the University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, says that because of the data, “professionals with such attitudes owe AA an apology.” Robert Fiorentine, Ph.D., Director of Research Training at the UCLA Drug Abuse Research Center, agrees, saying that “recent evidence [indicates] the effectiveness of the Twelve Steps in assisting in recovery.” In 1998, the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism published a study called Project MATCH, which looked at 21 personal characteristics that could serve as reliable predictors of how well people would do when engaged in specific types of treatment. The findings of the Project MATCH study were fascinating. A total of 806 clients were randomly assigned to one of three different treatments. When total abstinence – fully giving up alcohol – was the desired outcome, the spiritually-based 12-step method held a “statistically significant advantage” over the other 2 treatments – Cognitive Behavioral Therapy and Motivational Enhancement Therapy.
If you or someone you know is suffering from addiction, exploring spiritual treatment options might be worth a try. If your interest is piqued, give us a call today to find out more about how we can support you through your own transformation.