How to Use Holistic Health Concepts to Enhance Your Life in Recovery

How to Use Holistic Health Concepts to Enhance Your Life in Recovery


Yesterday we looked at how to surrender and get started on a path of personal growth in recovery. Today we want to further define that path of growth and see how the idea of “holistic health” can play a part in it.

“What does “holistic” mean anyway?

Don’t be thrown off by the term “holistic.” It just means “whole.”

The idea of creative recovery is that we are going to treat the whole disease of addiction, and not just one narrow aspect of it (as is done in traditional recovery).

Drug addiction and alcoholism affect the “whole” person. It is a holistic disease. People suffering from addiction suffer physically, mentally, emotionally, socially, spiritually, etc. The disease affects them in so many different areas. It destroys entire lives; the entire person.

People who are suffering from addiction may suffer a physical death long before they suffer a total spiritual death. They may still have strong faith and belief but still end up killing themselves due to their addiction.

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In other words, the “spiritual death” that eventually occurs due to drug or alcohol addiction is not always the only problem that addiction or alcoholism brings with it. There are other kinds of problems and some of them are terminal or fatal issues as well.

A holistic solution needs to address all of the issues that addiction creates. If your physical health is terrible in recovery then it would be good if your recovery program sought to repair the damage that you did during active addiction.

What good is recovery if you are dead? What is the point of eliminating drugs and alcohol, only to find spirituality and then suddenly die? What kind of life (or death) is that? The point of recovery is to live. In order to do that you may need to grow healthy in all areas of your life. This includes overcoming the “spiritual death” that you experienced in addiction, but it also includes so much more than that. I had a friend for example who got clean and sober but then continued to smoke cigarettes and was overweight. Addressing those physical problems was not his top priority and eventually this narrow approach to recovery killed him. He justified this lack of growth because at least he was not using his drug of choice any more. But recovery demands more and if you want to live the good life in recovery then you have to keep growing and push yourself to seek better health in all areas of your life.

The one dimensional view of recovery is all wrong

Recovery works best when you address all of the problems that your addiction created in your life–poor health, lack of exercise, crushed spirituality, isolated, etc.

Therefore I find it strange that traditional recovery programs focus only on the spiritual aspect of recovery. They argue that the solution is spiritual and if you just fix this one aspect of the disease then everything else will magically fall into place. If you are to ask people in AA or NA if their program enhances your physical health, they would probably say “oh yeah, it most definitely does!” But then ask them to show you which step in their program gives direction for this, and they are stumped.

Suddenly they are making leaps of faith and assumptions about their program, stating that some things are just obvious, and that people who come to the meetings will hear suggestions about pursuing better health, and so on. Well if AA believes physical health to be important, why is it not in the 12 steps? Either it is or it is not important, and traditional recovery programs are decidedly one dimensional. Their entire focus is on the spiritual transformation that they feel is necessary to bring about a change in personality that is sufficient to overcome addiction.

This approach may work well for some people but I believe that I saw it fail for people like my friend in the example above. AA and NA are structured as a “spiritual solution” for addiction and nothing more. This attitude that they have (the problem is strictly spiritual!) is the also what allows many recovering addicts and alcoholics to further justify their nicotine addiction. I read once that the number one killer of recovering alcoholics is lung cancer. Go to any AA meeting and you will find people out in the parking lot before and after, standing in circles and smoking. The scary thing is that it is pretty much the entire meeting in some cases! Alcoholism and addiction tend to produce many nicotine addicts, and not everyone automatically drops this addiction when they become clean and sober.

Read the traditional recovery literature and see what it has to say about this “lessor addiction.” Not much, if anything at all (I have read both the NA Basic Text and the AA Big Book and can recall nothing about cigarette smoking in them). These programs do not advice people to quit, nor do they advise people to hang on to nicotine as a crutch in early recovery. The programs do not address smoking because they are only concerned with the spiritual solution. Find God, and the rest will take care of itself.

In my opinion this is a major flaw with traditional recovery. The one dimensional focus on the pursuit of spirituality is not, in my opinion, the optimal approach to recovery from addiction. There are too many holes, too many unanswered questions, and not enough emphasis (or none at all) on some concepts that could prove to be extremely helpful for many struggling addicts.

Spirituality is just one part of the holistic approach. You could say that the other parts are physical health, mental, social, emotional, and even financial.

Traditional recovery ignores most all of these in order to focus on a spiritual experience. My thought is that the spiritual experience can be better attained with a more holistic approach, one that goes beyond traditional definitions of religion and spiritual practices. For example, what is spiritual? Is it limited to prayer and meditation? Is it possible that your spirit can be nurtured in other ways? I have found that the answer to that question is “yes,” which makes the one dimensional approach a real problem.

Traditional recovery is lacking options. Creative recovery restores those options by encouraging you to pursue holistic health, not just spiritual growth.

The kicker is that when you pursue and achieve holistic health in your life and make positive changes, your spirit will benefit anyway (as an unintended consequence in most cases).

This then begs the question: What is the holistic path in recovery? If a narrow focus on spirituality is not the best approach, then what is?

Physical health: the foundation of your holistic path in recovery

It is my belief that your physical health should be the foundation of your recovery effort.

I did not used to believe this. In the beginning I showed up to rehab, went to AA and NA meetings as instructed, and I listened and did what I was told. I was learning from others that the solution was spiritual, and so I ignored the idea that my physical health could be an important part of recovery.

I remember that when people would suggest exercise to me (such as the therapist did at the rehab I was living at), I would ignore their suggestion and instead focus on the spiritual journey. I could not figure out why my therapist thought that exercise could possibly be important to my recovery journey. Did he not know that the solution was spiritual?

This was my attitude, because I was zeroing in and focusing on what I as being taught in the meetings.

Eventually though I started to exercise. I started running with my dad on a regular basis, and built up some decent distance. I never stopped this new habit of running and I continue to run to this day.

What I discovered in doing this (after perhaps months or even a full year of running) is that exercise matters. It is important for my recovery. In fact, it is extremely important for my recovery and it helps me on a number of different levels.

Not only that, but I believe that exercise is spiritual as it is like a meditation of sorts. In fact, I have heard monks say that exercise is superior to meditation in every way, and that every person who is seeking God should exercise rather than meditate if they are able to do so. This is a profound concept that is completely lost in a traditional recovery program that suggests nothing about physical health or physical activity.

There are other physical aspects of health that can also be part of an holistic approach. Quitting smoking was one good example and proper nutrition and diet could be another one. There are plenty of people in addiction recovery who struggle with weight loss and if they were to achieve this it would indirectly help them to remain clean and sober. This is the kind of personal growth in recovery that helps to prevent relapse in the long run, but a one dimensional program that focuses only on spiritual growth would never think to address this issue.

Think about the recovery process and how sobriety starts. It starts with the physical. First you have to physically remove alcohol from your body. This is step one. If you have not removed the alcohol from your system then you are definitely not in the state of recovery. You are still in addiction.

Traditional recovery programs would have you believe that a spiritual awakening could occur even while you are still drinking, thus leading you to sobriety. I would call this wishful thinking. Better to get clean and sober first, then create and orchestrate your own spiritual awakening by taking positive action. This is the idea behind creative recovery, that you can create your own recovery, create a new life for yourself. You still have to surrender and make a decision, but this is going to be true of any recovery program. No one can change their life unless they surrender first.

Think too about how important this physical aspect of recovery is. My friend died young because he neglected his physical health in recovery. I have also noticed another phenomenon in my recovery journey that has to do with people getting sick.

Getting sick is a huge trigger for relapse. Many of the people who I know who have relapsed in recovery did so because they first got sick. The two seem to go hand in hand quite well together. For one thing, people who get sick can be prescribed medication and some of the medications out there can lead people directly into a relapse. I have known more than one alcoholic who became addicted to painkillers in their recovery journey, and it led them back to drinking. Also keep in mind that painkiller addiction can, in itself, be just as bad (or worse) than alcohol addiction.

People who fall ill in recovery get slowly wore down over time, and this can lead to relapse. Because they are sick this may isolate them as well, removing them from their potential support systems.

It is just something that I have noticed over the years, this tendency for the sick or ill to relapse.

Now realize that a focus on physical health in recovery deals with this problem directly. People who try to exercise and eat healthier and quit smoking are not going to get sick as much, nor are their illnesses going to be as debilitating.

All things flow from your physical health and well being, in my opinion. If you are of strong physical health and you are in good shape then this will help translate into strength in other areas of your life. If you have the discipline to get into good shape, to quit smoking, and to improve your diet then that discipline can help you to overcome other difficult challenges in your life.

There is a saying that “you are a spiritual being having a physical experience in a body.” If that is true then the foundation of your recovery is that physical body. Without that vessel the spirit is gone, at least from this physical realm.

So if your goal is to recover from addiction and live a good life here on earth, you need to take extremely good care of your physical body. Your physical health matters a LOT and in many ways it is the foundation for all other types of growth you may experience, including spiritual growth.

It is my belief that your physical health must come first in recovery. It is the platform by which all other growth can occur.

Emotional stability as one of your main priorities

If you are clean and sober in your recovery and you are also working on improving your physical health, what would the next logical area be for you to tackle?

My thought is that your emotional stability is the next most important thing. This would be greatly affected by your relationships as well.

Creative recovery is about building the life that you really want. If there are big causes of stress in your life then you will need to eliminate those before you can find peace and serenity.

Physical health is important so that you don’t die. But emotional health is important so that you do not return to self medicating. Most people who relapse do so in a moment of emotional upset.

In our addiction, we tend to medicate our emotions away. If we feel fear or anger or sadness, we medicate that away with our drug of choice. Over time, this becomes our normal way of living. We are no longer used to feeling those negative emotions.

In recovery we are going to have to feel some negative emotions at times, and deal with them without relapse. This is going to be a challenge but there is no need to make the struggle more difficult than it needs to be.

Therefore, an important part of recovery is in learning how to say “no” to the drama in your life, and learning how to limit it. You may have to make some hard decisions in order to limit the emotional chaos that is allowed into your life.

In my opinion this has to be one of your main priorities. In essence you are protecting your serenity by saying “no” to chaos and misery. If you allow too much drama into your life then that drama can push you closer to relapse.

Spirituality and how it can tie into other areas of your life

Spirituality is still an important part of the creative theory of recovery, but it is no longer so narrowly defined. For example, I discovered in my own life that distance running was a powerful form of meditation.

In many ways I think we tend to let others define our idea of what is “spiritual.” This is a mistake and can lead us astray in recovery. Eventually we need to find what works for us and what nurtures our own spirit, regardless of what other people say is helping them to do so.

We can take suggestions and try new things in recovery and this is the essence of staying open-minded. The important part is that you critically assess what is working for you and what is not. Discard that which is not and embrace the path that calls to you. Do not let other people define spirituality for you.

In my recovery journey, the people who tried to define the spiritual path all relapsed. The people who were most sure of their faith all relapsed. I used to question myself constantly because I did not think that I was as “spiritual” as others were in recovery. Well, most all of them have since relapsed. I am still clean and sober, and still willing to define my own spiritual journey in my own way. For me, physical exercise is a huge part of this. I am sure many would disagree, but I don’t care too much about their disagreement. My journey has already netted me 11 plus years of continuous sobriety, and it just keeps getting better.

Find what works for you and then do it. Do not let others define your path. Creative recovery is not exactly “recovery for the masses,” as is traditional 12 step recovery. This is the alternate path, the road less taken, and so it may be heavily questioned by the mainstream.

When I was in my second and third year of sobriety I used to get questioned all the time. People begged me to come back to traditional recovery, to their narrow one dimensional approach. I now realize that they did this out of fear for themselves, not for me.

Social health and avoiding isolation

Another aspect of holistic health would be of the social variety. Part of my journey in creative recovery has been to connect with others and try to help them on their own journey.

Without this human interaction you will tend toward isolation. I believe that some of this is OK, but too much of it could be dangerous. I am by no means a social butterfly or anything but I have found unique ways to connect with others in recovery, outside of traditional methods (online venues versus in-person meetings).

Some people have social anxiety and so isolation comes naturally. I believe that such people can still reach out and connect with others if they get creative. The Internet allows one such opportunity to do so.

Mental challenge/education and learning

Recovery is nothing if not a learning process. You have to learn how to deal with life again without self medicating. So naturally there is a strong emphasis on learning new things.

You can see a faulty attitude towards learning from a mile away in early recovery. Someone who is shut out to the possibility of learning new things is destined for relapse. They are simply not ready to be sober yet.


How many areas of health are you pursuing growth in today? Is your recovery one-dimensional?


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