I was never a very spiritual person growing up. No one in my family mentioned spirituality, even though we grew up in Israel, arguably one of the most spiritual places on earth… But although we were surrounded by religious and spiritual symbols, the topic simply didn’t come up much. I remember asking my father once whether he believed in god, and the conversation turned to agnostic principles very quickly. In my family, rituals were celebrated but principles were muted. I actually resented religion (and probably still do) for many years because of the ongoing conflicts that I was surrounded by, which I was aware were based on differences in religious beliefs. I hated the wars and the religions associated with them.
Nevertheless, religion and spirituality are topics that are difficult to avoid within the helping professions. Hard as I try, these concepts keep coming up in conversations with clients and are present in the undertone of many of the prevailing approaches to addiction help.
In my upcoming book, The Abstinence Myth, I argue that there are four major camps vying for control and “victory” in the battle to be recognized as the most important factor in addiction.
Each camp aims to identify the root cause of the addiction. By doing so, the camps’ supporters believe that they will be able to focus attention on the best method to achieve a “cure” for this problem that is claiming hundreds of thousands of lives. The four camps I identify are spiritualists and religionists, psychotherapists and traumatists, neuroscientists and biologists, and environmentalists and social scientists.
Each of these camps has had the benefit of brilliant minds and incredible insights over the years. However, I believe that this ongoing battle is a big reason for our inability to adequately address our addiction problem. That’s because the promise of finding a solution by focusing on one camp or another is inherently flawed. Focusing on one primary cause for all addictions discounts the reality that all camps matter and that each person is unique in a multifaceted problem like addiction.
But since there is value in each of the camps, I think it makes sense to discuss and use the elements of each that can make the difference for those struggling. In the end, they’re the ones who matter.
Camp #1 - Spiritualists and religionists
Spiritualists and religionists believe that there is a lack of deference to God and spirituality in one’s life and that this is the cause of addiction. The belief is therefore that putting a greater emphasis on these elements and giving more control of life over to god will help counter the underlying problem. But not all solutions are the same…
Religious vs. Spiritual
Religious individuals recognize a particular deity, or God, and belong to an established religious order. Those who are spiritual have a connectedness to the universe and an individual belief about their own soul or spirit without necessarily being tethered to a specific entity. Religion implies that you commune with specific others and have a divine belief system and worship together, while spirituality does not necessarily imply that.
Religion and spirituality are strong components of some programs and not others. For instance, while Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) defines itself as a spiritual program, it is heavily based on the early Oxford Group, which is a Christian organization, and the book Alcoholics Anonymous uses, called The Big Book, mentions God 134 times. The program also uses mostly Christian prayers, proverbs, and bible verses in its materials. A program such as SMART Recovery, on the other hand, does not include any explicitly religious or spiritual elements in its resources and approach.
As mentioned earlier (and in my book), I believe that each of the four camps has its place in recovery. Therefore, I believe that spirituality can play an important role in recovery from addiction for some people. Specifically, there are seven components of a spiritual practice that I believe can be crucial for recovery:
Giving You a Sense of Purpose
Humans search for meaning in life. Everyone’s reason for it may be different, but the common theme is the need for purpose. Several studies (1,2) have shown that when an individual has a greater focus on purpose in life, that purpose has a positive influence on addiction treatment outcomes. Some people see having a higher power as giving them something to belong to that is stronger than themselves. For others, like myself, purpose is found in a greater good or calling that drives daily actions. Either way, seeing a bigger picture can be an incredible contribution to successful recovery.
Making a Contribution
Research has shown us that giving to others actually makes us feel better (3). Helping other people as a way to help yourself, is what drives many people through to beating their addiction. Helping others helps you to feel good about yourself, whether it’s by giving money, shelter, or simply support. It’s what economist James Andreoli called “warm glow giving.” (4) You also get outside of your own head and your own insecurities when you are doing something for others. Sponsorship in AA, mentorship in your professional life, or volunteering in a homeless shelter or soup kitchen. Whatever you do, make sure that giving back is part of the equation and you’ll experience a more rewarding existence.
Bringing Mindfulness to Your Recovery
Mindfulness and meditation have long been shown to improve addiction treatment outcomes (5). Meditation can release muscle tension, decrease the activity of the sympathetic branch of the nervous system, and reduce heart rate and blood pressure. Living in the present moment and focusing on the now, not the future or the past, helps to center and focus thoughts while reducing stress and anxiety.
Prayer, meditation, or mindfulness are coping skills that can help replace negative behaviors. They also help you to accept things as they are, in the moment. Take time to be still and quiet in a busy, commotion-filled world and you’ll find that the path becomes easier.
Connecting to Something Greater Than Yourself
Bringing an isolated person back to the revelation that they are not alone, even when they are by themselves is a spiritual idea that helps many people in dealing with their addiction. Many people isolate when they engage in their addictive behavior, and that isolation can drive them farther into their addiction.
For those that do not believe in a God, per se, finding something greater is still attainable as long as you are open-minded, meditate or pray, help people, and keep searching for something bigger than yourself to believe in. It isn’t difficult to connect to the fact that there is much that is bigger than any one individual. I myself find that nearly anything I see can be considered as being “bigger than me.” My children’s school and the kids within it, humanity’s plight in dozens of areas of the world, and our relative insignificance in the universe are all examples of the existence of a greater presence than us. Acknowledging it can offer powerful release for some.
Many recovery programs and 12-step programs believe that recovery starts when you admit that you need help from something greater than yourself. Alcoholics Anonymous is famous for the phrase, “Let go and let God.” This is also one of the biggest hindrances to 12-step recovery for many, since identification with a religion, and “god,” is certainly not universal.
Establishing Yourself as Part of a Community
Addiction is isolating and lonely. Working your way back to being part of a community of people who are going about their daily lives and interacting with them is a significant step in getting your life back on track. Addiction has probably caused isolation due to bad behavior, dishonesty, and shame. Starting to connect with a community and build a relationship with yourself and others are some of the beginning steps of recovery. If you can give back by helping others, you can be even more involved in the community and kill two birds with one stone. If your spirituality brings you to a place where you commune together, it can be even more powerful.
Being grateful for the things that you do have and focusing on them brings positivity into your life. Beyond feeling positive emotions, practicing gratitude is associated with physical muscle relaxation as well. The act of being grateful can have a positive impact on your well-being. Grateful people find themselves less depressed and stressed and have a greater sense of belonging in the world (6).
Gratitude is also an important part of the discussion in a number of self-support groups including SMART Recovery and Alcoholics Anonymous. Practicing gratitude (even for a short part of each day) can help individuals notice the gifts and positive aspects present in their life and help refocus attention away from purely negative emotions. (7). Given short-cut attention biases in our thinking—like the confirmation bias—focusing on the good can take away some attention from the bad and change one’s point of view while reducing the associated stress.
Being accountable for your actions, to your higher authority or to your own sense of morality, helps you to stay the course and be a more purposeful and productive member of society. Remaining honest with your loved ones and yourself also helps to keep yourself accountable and being mindful and reflective on an ongoing basis can help greatly to develop that self-awareness and honesty. I’ve found that, with that opportunity for reflection in place, reductions in shame follow and increased opportunities for honest sharing with others grow.
Spirituality Can Be Very Important
Spiritual growth involves a connection to people, the world, and a higher purpose than oneself. It also may embody values like trust, faith, respect, self-expression, and self-acceptance. These are exactly the things that are needed in the lives of many an addicted person who may be struggling with self-loathing and isolation. But with a complex problem like addiction, it is likely that a complex solution incorporating elements from all the camps is needed, not just the spirituality and religion camp.
When I tell people that I believe addiction struggles stem from these four different factors, I often get asked “but which one is more important? I don’t think there’s a right answer to that question…
I believe that the mix of underlying issues in addiction end up being differentially psychological, biological, environmental, and spirituality for different people and at different times. Trying to simplify the answer beyond that simply doesn’t do it justice, and leaves many people outside of the existing treatment system altogether. This is why nearly 90% of individuals who struggle with addiction are not getting specialty help for it (a significantly greater gap between diagnosis and treatment than that experienced in cancer, for instance).
As the different camps fight about who has the right answer for addiction’s cause and ultimately the cure, millions suffer, because they primarily get the help for the aspects of their addiction that fit the beliefs of their provider.
This means that many current treatment providers typically only treat addiction with a single camp—the camp in which that provider specializes in. If you go to physicians, you get prescriptions for biology, go to 12-step meetings and you get spirituality, etc. In many cases, that approach will be purely focused on a single camp, although some providers have been recently incorporating two (e.g., Hazelden’s eventual incorporation of 12-step methodology and biologically oriented medications that allows for meetings and maintenance drugs).
By broadening our approach, we can help more people beat this problem. A single explanation can never fully illuminate a problem as complex as addiction, and there is rarely a single method of recovery. We should not exclude one or more from the possibilities. In my book, The Abstinence Myth, I discuss this issue in further detail. And now you can read the first chapter for free when you sign up here.
Copyright 2018 Adi Jaffe.
Waisberg, JL, Porter, JE. Purpose in life and outcome of treatment for alcohol dependence. Journal of Clinical Psycholoy, 1994; 33(1):49-63.
Martin, R. A., MacKinnon, S., Johnson, J., & Rohsenow, D. J. (2011). Purpose in life predicts treatment outcome among adult cocaine abusers in treatment. Journal of Substance Abuse Treatment, 40(2), 183-188.
Park, S. Q., Kahnt, T., Dogan, A., Strang, S., Fehr, E., & Tobler, P. N. (2017). A neural link between generosity and happiness. Nature Communications, 8, 15964.
Andreoni, J. (1990). Impure altruism and donations to public goods: A theory of warm-glow giving. The economic journal, 100(401), 464-477.
Zgierska, A., Rabago, D., Chawla, N., Kushner, K., Koehler, R., & Marlatt, A. (2009). Mindfulness meditation for substance use disorders: a systematic review. Substance Abuse, 30(4), 266-294.
Algoe, S. B., & Haidt, J. (2009). Witnessing excellence in action: The ‘other-praising’emotions of elevation, gratitude, and admiration. The journal of positive psychology, 4(2), 105-127. Charzyńska, E. (2015). Sex differences in spiritual coping, forgiveness, and gratitude before and after a basic alcohol addiction treatment program. Journal of religion and health, 54(5), 1931-1949.
Ward MM, Ullrich F, Matthews K, et al. Who Does Not Receive Treatment for Cancer? Journal of Oncology Practice. 2013;9(1):20-26.