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How Alternative Alcohol Therapy Enhances Rehab

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Alternative alcohol therapy is a category of holistic treatments, similar to homeopathic therapies in medicine. Alternative therapies tend to involve spirituality and intuition in addition to scientific research. This philosophy is based on the idea that addiction impacts all aspects of your being, disrupting the mind, body, and spirit.1

Many evidence-based addiction treatment programs use elements of alternative therapies for alcohol addiction to support this concept of healing the mind, body, and spirit simultaneously.2

How Evidence-Based and Alternative Alcohol Therapy Are Researched

In behavioral health, the two types of research are quantitative and qualitative.

Quantitative Research

Quantitative research involves numbers, measurement, and is associated with describing and understanding facts related to psychology. This is the research method used in clinical studies and population surveys, like the census.

In quantitative research, data is compared, analyzed, and reported through statistical analysis. The ability to measure data in quantitative research helps to remove the biases of the researcher.3

Quantitative research uses specific methods to select a random sample to accurately represent the population that is studied.

Types of quantitative research include:

  • Experimental research
  • Quasi-experimental research
  • Surveys
  • Correlational research

A key feature of quantitative research is that it assumes that reality can be fixed and measured.3

For a treatment to be considered evidence-based, it needs to be proven successful through quantitative research. Research into these treatments may look into:

  • How many people studied completed treatment
  • How long after treatment participants maintained sobriety
  • Which measurable recovery outcomes were observed, such as longer periods of sobriety compared to a control group, higher levels of perceived happiness, or lower rates of relapse

Quantitative data can be translated into trends, percentages, and hard numbers. Common evidence-based methods backed by this kind of research include cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT), dialectical behavior therapy (DBT), and family therapy.

Qualitative Research

Qualitative research involves observations that cannot be measured in a concrete, data-driven way. This research tries to understands data from the perspective of the informant (i.e., the person being studied or researched).Alternative alcohol therapy is supported by subjective research.

Qualitative research is collected from interviews and observations of the participant. Information may be gathered using: 3

  • Journals or logs
  • Focus groups
  • Case studies
  • In-depth interviews

Data is analyzed through the eyes of participants and in their language. For example, while a survey given in an evidence-based study may be multiple choice, a qualitative study may ask participants to express their emotional and mental experience during treatment in writing.

A key feature of qualitative research is that it assumes that reality is dynamic and fluid. Qualitative research aims to understand how an individual subjectively experiences reality.3

In qualitative research, the group of people studied is not chosen at random, so the results of cannot be generalized apply to a significantly broader population.

Alternative addiction therapies have generally shown to be beneficial in qualitative studies, some of which studied the combination of evidence-based and alternative treatments.

How Alternative Alcohol Therapy Is Used

Many inpatient centers and intensive outpatient programs (IOP) use alternative addiction therapies, from morning yoga sessions to animal-assisted therapy. When you enter treatment, your schedule includes required evidence-based therapies.4 It also includes alternative therapies, which are typically encouraged but not required.

Your treatment team may work with you to identify specific alternative therapies for alcohol addiction to include in your treatment plan. Or you may choose a program based on the availability of these resources.4

Body-Based Alternative Alcohol Therapy

Body-based alternative treatment approaches are based on the theory that a healthy, calm, and relaxed body can support cognitive healing and motivation in recovery.1

Alcohol addiction can have observable impact on your body, such as organ damage and changes in brain chemistry. 6

Research also indicates that traumatic experiences can cause an acute physical response, as well as a chronic response. For example, individuals with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) may experience physical pain sensations they felt during a traumatic experience—like a natural disaster or physical assault—during flashbacks. Trauma is considered a causal risk factor for developing addiction. 7

Body-based treatments are intended to reconnect a person to their body and help them re-experience the benefits of a mind-and-body connection.8

Body-based practices bring your awareness to your body so that you have a keener ability to control your reactions to triggers before they become overwhelming.

Body-based alternative therapies for alcohol addiction include the following.


Yoga is a movement-based practice that involves bodily postures and breathing techniques that set the mind up for clear and focused meditation. Yoga originated in Northern India over 5,000 years ago. Practicing yoga is reported to:9

  • Reduce stress
  • Encourage spiritual growth and introspection
  • Support flexibility in the body and mind

The word “yoga” means union, and this practice aims to create harmony between your body, mind, emotions, and spirit.

When practicing yoga, you mindfully connect your breathing to your body. This synching requires you to bring awareness to both your breathing and your bodily sensations and movement. With practice, you begin to notice the relationship between breathing, the states of your body, and the state of your mind.9

As you notice this connection, you become more aware of mental and physical changes. Yoga practices in alcohol addiction recovery are considered one way to develop:

  • Mindfulness skills
  • Relapse prevention skills
  • The ability to identify and respond to triggers
  • A daily practice to connect with one’s higher power according to Alcoholics Anonymous principles
  • Gradual reduction in pain and discomfort symptoms that may be related to relapse

Tai Chi

Tai Chi originates from the practice of Qi Gong, which is rooted in the belief that disharmony in the qi—or life force energy—causes physical and mental illness. The philosophical term “tai chi,” the oldest known use of which is found in The Book of Changes over 3,000 years ago.

The philosophy of tai chi is based on the Taoist belief that a natural balance must exist in all things, include physical and spiritual matters. The Book of Changes uses the phrase this way: “in all changes exists Tai Chi, which causes the two opposites in everything.”

Tai Chi is a traditional Chinese martial art that is sometimes referred to as “shadow boxing.” The discipline involves slow, controlled, rhythmic movements that require focused attention.10

Practicing the slow, controlled movements of Tai Chi may support:

  • Concentration
  • Patience
  • Discipline
  • Physical awareness

These factors of mind and body are considered by Tai Chi practitioners to be key elements to the personal work required in the process of addiction recovery.

Cardiovascular Exercise

The benefits of cardiovascular exercise, often shortened to cardio, are well documented. Cardio may be a factor in a healthy brain and balanced neurotransmitters and may even help reduce depression and anxiety.1

Your treatment plan may explicitly include cardiovascular exercise according to your physical abilities. Many alcohol addiction treatment programs incorporate low-impact or moderate cardio into group activities, such as nature walks. Some centers offer gyms, swimming pools, and access to outdoor recreation like hiking trails.

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If you begin doing more exercise that is not part of what you have discussed with your treatment team, let them know. If you are being monitored for a medical condition, receiving medication, or receiving other therapies, your team may make adjustments or see how you progress.

Massage Therapy

Massage therapy relaxes the nervous system, calms the heart rate, and increases blood flow. The relaxing effects of massage can translate into lower anxiety and other positive emotions, such as hopefulness and motivation.8

Detoxification from alcohol can be painful and involve imbalanced and irregular body states such as an increased heart rate.6 Massage therapy can help reduce heart rate and counterbalance some challenging and painful conditions associated with alcohol withdrawal.11

Many individuals self-report that management of pain symptoms is one of reasons why they started or continued to misuse alcohol. Finding ways to manage pain in treatment and afterward can be an important part of recovery. Massage therapy is available in some treatment programs and from a licensed massage therapist in clinical and private settings that are not specific to addiction treatment.

Progressive Relaxation

Progressive relaxation is a mindfulness practice that involves intentionally activating and relaxing your muscles. Progressive relaxation is typically performed in these steps:

  1. Sitting or lying in a comfortable position
  2. Tensing a chosen body part
  3. Holding the tension—usually for a set period of time, such as while you count to 10
  4. Releasing the tension
  5. Tensing the next chosen body part
  6. Repeating the process throughout the body

As the name implies, the technique typically “progresses” either from the toes upward or from the head downward through the entire body until you’ve flexed and released the major muscle groups of your whole body, including your face and scalp.

When you release the tension, you bring awareness to the contrast in sensation between tension and relief.

Progressive relaxation is a somatic technique used to identify and release the physical places where mental symptoms such as stress, anxiety, and emotional pain have manifested. It may be combined with other body-based or mindfulness techniques, such as in somatic experiencing therapy, but can also be done on your own without a guide. This type of therapy may also be used to treat trauma.

Many individuals find progressive relaxation to be a helpful tool for falling asleep, which can be difficult for individuals experiencing withdrawal.

Mind-Based Alternative Alcohol Therapy

A reactive mind can both lead to addiction and be an effect of addiction.7 This concept of a “reactive mind” describes a mental state of: 5

  • Confusion
  • Denial
  • Rigidity, or black-and-white thinking
  • Intolerance to pain, distress, discomfort, and errors
  • Defensiveness and protectiveness
  • Catastrophizing, or assuming the “worst case scenario” in all cases
  • Distortion where the importance of events, emotions, and interactions may be minimized or maximized

Mind-based alternative therapies support a calm mind that is able to reorient itself in reality. These therapies are often practiced in combination with evidence-based treatments, including cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) and dialectical behavior therapy (DBT).

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Meditation is the practice of focused attention. There are many styles of meditation and types of meditations you can perform. Meditation has been shown to activate beneficial brainwave patterns associated with the experience of: 1

  • Calm
  • Relaxation
  • Discernment
  • Confidence

A consistent mediation increases your ability to tolerate discomfort, identify instinctive behaviors you wish to change, and develop an observing mind that watches your mental processes occur before reacting to them. Many practitioners describe meditation as creating a space between observing your own thought and reacting to it, allowing you to choose your response and identify if your reactive mind is thinking reasonably for your situation.12

Meditation encourages curiosity about your experience by exploring the relationship between your thoughts, emotions, and bodily sensations.

Types of meditation that may be used in an addiction recovery program include:

Mindfulness is also a component of DBT treatment, which is often used for individuals with co-occurring mental health conditions and addiction.


In biofeedback sessions, you are hooked up to electrical sensors that measure vital signs such as your heart rate, muscle tension, brainwaves, breathing, sweat glands, and temperature. Then, through biofeedback, you identify how your thoughts relate to changes in these bodily functions that you can see in real-time. You can learn how commands from the brain change multiple body functions.13

For example, you can identify what type of thoughts put your body in a state of fight-or-flight. Then, you practice intentionally leaving the fight-flight state and watch your body respond in real-time.

How Effective Alternative Therapies for Alcohol Addiction Are

More research is needed to determine the efficacy of alternative therapies. For example, research demonstrates that yoga was beneficial to participants of qualitative studies who were in alcohol addiction treatment. However, the results of current studies on the subject are not statistically significant.15

A substantial body of research is ongoing on the benefits of meditation on the brain.1,14 However, alternative therapies tend to be subjective in their efficacy. For example, while active participation is all that is typically required to see progress in certain evidence-based therapies, you may need to feel connected to or empowered by a particular alternative therapy to see results. Many alternative alcohol treatments—like meditation—have also only been shown to be beneficial when practiced consistently over time.

You can experiment with different types of therapies and explore which ones work for you. You may find that a particular kind of treatment is an excellent fit for your recovery and well-being. Alternative therapies are an excellent complement to treatments that have shown to be effective through research.

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  1. Weil, A. (2011). Spontaneous Happiness. Little, Brown and Company.
  2. Alcoholics Anonymous World Services, Inc. Alcoholics Anonymous Big Book (4th ed.). (2002).
  3. Goodwin, K., & Goodwin, J. (2016). Research in Psychology, Methods & Designs. Wiley & Sons, Inc.
  4. Prentiss, C (2007). The Alcoholism and Addiction Cure, A Holistic Approach to Total Recovery, How to Heal the Underlying Causes, How to End Relapse, How to End Suffering. Power Press.
  5. Corey, G. (2013). Theory and Practice of Counseling and Psychotherapy. Cengage Learning.
  6. Miller, W.R., Forcehimes, A.A., &  Zweben, A. (2011). Treating Addiction: A Guide for Professionals. The Gilford Press.
  7. Mate, G. (2008). In the realm of hungry ghosts: Close encounters with addiction. Toronto: Knopf Canada.
  8. Levine, P.A. (2005). Healing Trauma, A Pioneering Program for Restoring the Wisdom of Your Body. Sounds True, Inc.
  9. McGonigal, K. (2009). Yoga for Pain Relief, Simple Practices to Calm Your Mind & Heal Your Chronic Pain. New Harbinger Publications, Inc.
  10. Chaline, E. (1998). Tai Chi, a step-by-step guide to achieving physical and mental balance. Sterling Publishing Co., Inc.
  11. Reader, M. Young, R. & Connor, J. (2005). Massage Therapy Improves the Management of Alcohol Withdrawal Syndrome. The Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine, 11(2), 311-313.
  12. Stahl, B. & Goldstein, E. (2010). A Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction Workbook. New Harbinger Publications.
  13. Khazan, I. (2019). Biofeedback and Mindfulness in Everyday Life: Practical Solutions for Improving Your Health and Performance. W.W. Norton & Company.
  14. Burke, A. (2004). Self-Hypnosis, New Tools for Deep and Lasting Transformation. Crossing Press.
  15. Hallgren, M., Romberg, K., Bakshi, A.S., & Andreasson, S. (2014). Yoga as an adjunct treatment for alcohol dependence: A pilot study. Complementary Therapies in Medicine, 22 (3). 441-445.
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