Considering the Holistic Approach to Alcohol Addiction

Considering the Holistic Approach to Alcohol Addiction

holistic approach to addiction

My belief and my direct experience in alcoholism recovery is that people should consider the idea of the holistic approach to recovery.

Now what does this term really mean: “Holistic?”

The idea of holism is that we consider the “whole person” rather than just one aspect of that person. Traditionally in addiction recovery programs we only look at one aspect of recovery, that being spirituality.

But addiction is complicated. Recovery is complicated as well. Many people try to deny this, because they very much want for the solution to be simple. If recovery is simple then they can wrap their mind around it much easier. If the solution is dead simple then this gives people peace of mind. It reduces their anxiety.

But my experience is that this is not accurate. Addiction is not simple, in fact it is a complicated monster. How so, you ask? Because it affects so many different parts of our lives.

Sure, the addiction itself is fairly simple and straightforward. We drank because we liked to get drunk. No argument here with that.

But just look at how far reaching the effects of that addiction really are. Look at how our drinking affected our relationships over the course of the years. Look at how our addiction slowly changed our physical bodies, our daily habits of exercise. Look at how we may have picked up additional habits (such as cigarette smoking or using painkiller drugs more often). Consider how our addiction changed our emotional balance. And so on.

Our addiction did not just rob us spiritually (though it certainly did that as well). In fact, our addiction affects our entire life and every aspect of it.

So the disease is not one dimensional. It affects many areas of our lives. Therefore the solution should address all of these areas as well.

When I became clean and sober I had a lot of problems left over from my disease. Some of those problems were definitely “spiritual,” but not all of them could be solved through the push for a more spiritual life. Some of what I needed lay outside the realm of spirituality. And so my belief is that recovery is best described as being holistic. We need to broaden our approach if it is to be most effective for us.

Why the spiritual approach is limited

The spiritual approach to recovery can be helpful for most people but it also has its limitations.

For example, how many people who are following a spiritual path get encouraged to exercise? I am sure that it does happen but it is definitely not the focus if you are in a spiritual based program. And yet this was one of the biggest keys in my own recovery journey, that of daily exercise. It has had a huge impact on my life in recovery and it has helped me to stay sober over the years a great deal. But this is not something that they would lead you to believe is important if you are working a spiritual program of recovery.

There are all of these areas of your life that can improve in recovery. You have your physical health and well being, for example. You have your emotional balance. Your mental acuity and ideas. Spirituality is still a category to consider, it is just not the only one. Your social life is important too in recovery and the positive influences that you may hang around with. Eliminating toxic people is important as well and could be a category unto itself in some situations.

My belief is that you should not just sit in AA meetings every day for the rest of your life and expect for that to keep you sober. It takes more than that to recover. Of course if you really pay attention in the meetings they will tell you that, and you will realize that recovery takes some additional work.

And I think most people in AA who are realistic realize that there is a holistic component to recovery. That they have to go above and beyond the spiritual element alone that is taught to them in AA. I think most people realize this deep down, that recovery requires a more well rounded approach that may go beyond what the big book of AA suggests. Spiritual growth is helpful but it is not the only direction that we can grow in.

Your recovery can be stronger if you go beyond mere spiritual growth. I know plenty of people in recovery (my peers at the time) who were “more spiritual than I was” but they did not always remain sober or have the best experience in recovery. In many cases they had a downfall that was outside of the spirituality “category” but would definitely fall under the holistic approach.

What does it mean to follow a holistic recovery program? What do you do?

So what do you do if you follow a holistic program of recovery? How is it different from a spiritual approach?

In my experience you become more open to the idea of personal growth in different areas of your life.

When I first got sober I was being taught this very rigid idea of: “Go to AA meetings every day, practice these principles, become more spiritual.”

I was told that the only real growth that mattered in my life was spiritual growth and the connection with my higher power.

For some reason this felt wrong to me at the time. It felt like it was a mistake because it was too narrow. And I would even hear people speak at the meetings sometimes about their real life, about things that they were doing outside of spirituality, and some of those things seemed to have a hugely positive impact on recovery. For example, the person at an AA meeting who is reporting how they just finished a college degree, or ran a marathon. Why are these things not relevant to recovery? And of course the people in mainstream recovery would get defensive at this point and say “oh, those things are important, they really are.” But their program does not talk about them, it does not encourage them, it does not make a plan for things like that. Their program only focuses on spiritual growth and development, it does not create a plan for people to grow in other ways (physically, mentally, emotionally, socially, etc.).

So I reached a point in my sobriety where I decided to branch out. I wanted to test the idea that positive action and personal growth in general could be used for relapse prevention.

In other words, I did not believe that spiritual growth was the only sort of personal growth that could keep a person sober. That did not make sense to me. So I decided to test this theory out by actually living it.

At the time I had been attending AA meetings all along, so I stopped doing that entirely. The meetings were not a good fit for my recovery and I wanted to see if I could overcome that traditional “dependency” that I felt was so common in mainstream recovery. Not that attending daily meetings is such a bad thing, but that attending daily meetings to me felt like a dependency. If I enjoyed the meetings more then this may have not been such an issue, but I felt like I got more benefit out of doing other things (exercise, connecting with people online, etc.).

For me, the holistic path in recovery meant that:

1) I had to (at least briefly) shun traditional approaches in recovery in order to explore new paths. That doesn’t mean that you can never attend another meeting. It just means I had to shake up my own approach in order to discover what truly worked for me.

2) I had to take suggestions. I had to talk with a wide variety of people in recovery who were sober. I had to get ideas from them about what sort of things helped them in recovery. And you have to dig a bit deeper. Of course they are going to tell you “go to meetings and read the big book.” But go a level deeper. What do they do in their day to day life? Find what really makes their recovery tick, etc.

3) I had to take action. I had to take suggestions and then implement them, carry them out, follow through. For example I started exercising every single day even though it felt like a burden to do so. I stuck with it until it became second nature to me. Someone suggested that I go back to school. I had to follow their advice, take action, and follow through with things. And I had to do these things not only in terms of spiritual suggestions, but also in terms of my mental health, my emotional health, my social world, and so on. All areas of my life. Holistic.

After living this way for a while you tend to fall into certain patterns. Those patterns become habits and those habits can be either “good” or “bad” depending on how you label them.

The long term outcome of those habits will determine whether they are good or bad. In the short term a lot of bad habits feel pretty good, right? That is what got us into trouble in the first place. But many of the great rewards of recovery will only come if you find the discipline to establish long term healthy habits of living.

That is where the daily practice comes in.

Finding a daily practice that works for you

In order to create recovery and take action that leads to a better life you will need to establish what I call “the daily practice.”

These are the specific things that you do every single day in order to build a better life for yourself.

Part of my daily practice is to get up every morning and start writing about recovery. I rarely have a day when this does not happen, when I don’t wake up and write for an hour or so. I am constantly exploring recovery using the written word.

Another part of my daily practice is to do physical exercise every single day. Now this is not something that I could have predicted would become important to me. When I first started exercising in recovery I did not see the point to it, to be honest. In fact I believe that I had followed through for a few weeks and I still did not really see the benefits. But I continued to stick with it and eventually the benefits of daily exercise started to really kick in for me. And after that it was like a big light bulb going on in my head and I realized that this was really an important part of my recovery. It transformed my recovery in a way that I never could have predicted. And I never could have realized these benefits after just one week of exercise. I had to be “in it for the long haul” before I could make that transformation and realize the full benefits of what I was doing.

Because the benefits of exercise are so delayed, this leads us to another good point. You are going to need to know what things to do, because the benefits of doing these things are not always immediate. Someone might tell you to meditate and you might say that this is slightly helpful but it did not really do much for you. Therefore you might try meditation once or twice and then give it up as being useless.

But what if you forced yourself to meditate every day for 30 days in a row? Is it possible that you might discover massive benefits to meditation after doing so for 30 days continuous that you would not necessarily discover after only trying it once or twice?

I will give you a hint:

The answer is “yes.”

This is why the idea of the 30 day trial is so powerful.

If you get a suggestion from someone in recovery and you really look up that person and think highly of their sobriety, then you should take their suggestion seriously. The way to do that is to give that suggestion a chance to really work in your life. For most things that will mean giving the idea at least a 30 day trial.

Maybe someone has suggested that you go to AA meetings. In this case you would not just go to one or two meetings and then declare them to be useless. Instead, go to 30 meetings in a row over the next 30 days and then make an evaluation (actually, the traditional wisdom is to do 90 meetings in 90 days, but the principle here is the same).

Your goal in recovery is to find the daily habits that will lead you to a better life in recovery.

You will become a certain person over the next 5 to 10 years. What you become will be based on the things that you do each day. Add up all of your actions and that will dictate the person that you turn into over time.

You have the power to affect this outcome. Who you become after the next 5 years will be a direct result of the daily habits you form. If you look back at your years in addiction then you can see how this daily habit idea can generate real consequences.

The idea in recovery is pretty simple. Stop drinking and taking addictive drugs. Then start taking positive action in your life every single day.

The day itself is your multiplier.

One day at a time. That phrase should have real meaning for you in recovery. Every single day is a huge opportunity. It is not just a day where you scrape by and manage not to drink again. The day is a bigger opportunity than that.

You have to build something. You create a new life for yourself through your daily actions. Don’t just assume that things will get better by not drinking. This is a classic mistake that causes many people to relapse eventually. They get sober, maybe sit in meetings each day, and expect for things to get better. This isn’t how it works. You need to put in the work if you want the rewards. You have to create the daily habits that will lead you to a better life.

Do you want to be happy and healthy in recovery? Then you need to work for it. Eliminate the garbage from your life. Eliminate the toxic relationships. Eliminate the bad habits (such as smoking for example). Eliminate the negative stuff that may be left over from your addiction.

Just clearing away the negative parts of your life will require new positive habits to be formed. But then you want to go even further in terms of your daily habits. What are the “winners” in recovery doing with their lives? What do they do on a day to day basis, the people who have been sober for years and decades? Emulate them. Steal their ideas. Take their daily habits and try them on for size. Give them a fair chance to work in your life by doing a 30 day trial.

And as always, take what you need and leave the rest. But make sure you give these positive habits a fair chance to work in your life before you discard them. I almost gave up on the idea of daily exercise because it was not producing results quickly enough for me.

Synergy effect when you are taking care of all parts of yourself and your life

Here is a buzzword for you: “Synergy.”

Even though it sounds a bit hokey, this is an important concept.

Synergy means that the total is greater then the sum of the parts, because everything is working so well together.

What does that mean for your recovery?

It means that if you take positive action in all of these various areas of your life, then certain things can work together to enhance each other.

For example, I was not able to quit smoking cigarettes in my recovery until I was already in the habit of daily exercise. I had to have the exercise piece in place before I could fully let go of my nicotine addiction. One area of personal growth enhanced and helped me out in another area.

The discipline that I learned from daily exercise helped me to develop the discipline needed to quit smoking. The two goals worked well together and enhanced each other. This is synergy. Knowing about this concept can help you to choose goals for yourself that may work well together, as opposed to goals that have you “fighting against yourself.”

Relapse prevention done right is personal growth and a holistic health approach

In my experience, the key to achieving long term sobriety is always about personal growth.

This is as true in AA as it is when using a holistic approach outside of traditional recovery programs.

In other words, you have to ask yourself:

“Am I making progress every day? Am I taking positive action every day? Am I growing in my recovery?”

If the answer is “yes,” then I don’t think it matters too much what recovery program you are in, or whether or not you attend meetings every day, or what recovery philosophy you follow.

The key is that you have a daily practice that works for you. That you take positive action every day that keeps you moving forward.

What about you, have you found the holistic approach to be helpful in your own life? Or do you generally just use a “spirituality only” approach in your recovery? Let us know in the discussion forums. It only takes a second to register!


  1. ** If alcoholism is really a disease, then A.A. sponsors are
    ** guilty of practicing medicine without a license. They are
    ** also guilty of treating a life-threatening illness without
    ** having any medical education or training. They have never
    ** gone to medical school, and never done an internship or
    ** residency, and yet they presume to be qualified to make
    ** life-or-death decisions in the patients’ treatment. That
    ** is what you call quackery.

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