January 3, 2017

Changing the Brain: The Case for Incorporating Mind-Body Therapies into Addiction Treatment Programs

Changing the Brain: The Case for Incorporating Mind-Body Therapies into Addiction Treatment Programs

Mind-body therapies like meditation, acupuncture, and yoga have been practiced for thousands of years and offer practical methods to decrease stress levels and improve mood. But there’s more to mind-body therapies than meets the eye. While traditional medicine is slow to acknowledge the power of “intangible” treatment methods, new research shows conclusively that mind-body therapies act directly on the brain to alter its established neural connections for the better. Your ongoing meditation or yoga practice is more than a few quiet moments to yourself; your behavior is literally rewiring your brain to improve your ability to think and stave off the onset of some disease.

This is a crucial insight for addiction treatment providers. Addiction ravages the brain by redirecting our powerful neural reward system to prioritize the user’s drug of choice over the survival needs those systems were created for, namely food and reproduction. Introducing mind-body therapies into addiction treatment means going after the neurological disorder at its core and acknowledging the complicated biological incentives for substance abuse.

What does this mean for treatment practice or for an addict in recovery? At their core, mind-body therapies improve overall mental and physical health while improving brain function. These are practices that we should all engage in regularly, as a normal part of our days just like eating well and exercising.

There are three whole health practices that should receive special attention. These are meditation, yoga, and acupuncture.

Meditation not only reduces stress, but it also makes positive impacts on the brain by growing new gray matter. However, in order to gain this advantage of a calmer, healthier brain, you will have to meditate regularly. This is a commitment, but the results are worth it. Meditation decreases symptoms of depression and anxiety and can make you more willing to participate in other healthy activities.

Yoga also has tremendous health benefits and can be modified to fit your abilities and fitness level. Harvard university researchers note that yoga improves everything from heart health to body image. Other research shows the benefits of yoga to range from improving health in diabetic individuals to changes of consciousness that lead to a better overall sense of well-being.

Acupuncture’s goal is to restore and improve the body’s energy balance. Because of this, acupuncture addresses a wide range of conditions across the bio-psycho-social sphere. Those who use acupuncture report improvement of emotional issues, such as anxiety and depression, as well as physical problems, especially as a non-pharmaceutical tool for pain management. The best thing about acupuncture, for those with already busy schedules, is that it is passive. You simply go to the acupuncturist and lie on the table while the needles are inserted.

Attending to all aspects of our health, mind and body, is a good way to start off the new year. These whole health practices – meditation, yoga, and acupuncture – are good for addicts in recovery and all the rest of us who simply want to live fuller, healthier lives. What practices might you try to get the best out of 2017?

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About Constance Scharff PhD