Before I get into this subject, I need to first clarify something. Some people draw a distinction between spirituality and religion, others see them as the same thing, and others still do not believe in either concept. Throughout this article when I refer to spirituality I am talking about what works for you, what you believe. It is not the purpose of this article to disabuse anyone of their own particular beliefs, only to discuss if it may be applied to recovery from addiction.
This subject is a controversial one when it comes to matters of the brain and behaviour, because there exists a wide gulf in the approach to it by practitioners of addiction recovery. A significant majority of the population identifies as having some form of spirituality, but when it comes to the academic community a large proportion do not identify as having any kind of spirituality. Surveys have identified that 51% of therapists have a bias against spirituality, and only 43% of psychiatrists identify as being spiritual (Drobin, 2014). It is perhaps then unsurprising that there exists a relationship that borders on openly hostile between faith based treatments such as the 12-step programs of Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous, and practitioners of psychotherapy who insist on empirically proven techniques. Empirically demonstrating the efficacy of spirituality is difficult to accomplish because there exists a wide disparity in the definition of the subject, and a reluctance by the academics who conduct empirical studies to measure something that they themselves discount in their personal beliefs. There are however some studies, and it is the results of what has been demonstrated in these that will be discussed here.
First, there is the impact of spirituality on the development of addiction. Spirituality is inversely relational to the development of depressive symptomology, which is a predictor of substance use disorders. Spiritual people are less likely to turn to drugs and alcohol to begin with (Katsogianni & Kleftaras, 2015). Prayer and appropriate religious practice has also been shown to be an effective stress coping mechanism (Schafer, 2000) and stress too is a predictor of later substance use (Cornelius, Kirisci, Reynolds, & Tarter, 2014). The evidence is quite clear that spiritual people are less likely to develop addictions (Treloar, Dubreuil, & Miranda) and many predictors of the development of addiction.
Measuring the effect of spirituality on the treatment of an established addiction is more difficult because spirituality encompasses a wide range of concepts including morality, self-actualisation and motivation, and these factors may vary independently within the wider context of spirituality. Further complicating the matter is the fact that different practitioners may measure success differently. For example, the 12-step programs are abstinence programs and measurement of success is therefore logically based on complete abstinence. A clinical therapy based program may not consider discreet instances of substance use or relapses to be a failure however, as long as these do not amount to the clinical criteria for a substance use disorder.
So what do we know? First, spirituality protects against some of the conditions that may lead to the development of addiction, which are also some of the conditions that may lead to barriers to recovery from addiction. Second, the nature of both spirituality and addiction is that they are significant factors in the lives of most people. When dealing with something as encompassing as addiction, it would therefore seem short-sighted at the very least to ignore spirituality in treating it, as both significantly contribute to the overall mental and emotional state of the person. A word of caution though is merited. Spirituality may serve as a buffer from the effects of stress, but questioning ones’ spirituality may actually worsen it. If a person believes spiritually and begins to interpret their circumstances as abandonment or that their circumstances are a form of punishment or retribution, this can result in negative outcomes (Lehrer, Woolfolk, & Sime, 2009).
So where to from here? If you are a spiritual person and you find strength in that, then absolutely use that in your recovery. If you are on the fence and this article tips you over to becoming a spiritual person, then that potentially could be beneficial for you. If you are not spiritual, it is good to understand that for some spirituality can have tangible benefits, but do not try to bang your square peg into a round hole, spirituality is as much about belief as anything else, and if you do not believe you are unlikely to receive the same benefits from it. If you view your addiction as a punishment or abandonment by your higher power though, it might be better to try and separate your spirituality from your recovery, or find a way to reframe it.
A note on the authors beliefs: I was raised a catholic, and have since been a lifelong atheist. Spirituality does not work for me, but it can work for the right people in the right circumstances. Those choices are individual choices and only you can decide if you think it will be of benefit to you.
Drobin, F. (2014). Recovery, Spirituality and Psychotherapy. Journal of Religion and Health, 53(3), 789-795. doi:10.1007/s10943-013-9800-4
Katsogianni, I. V., & Kleftaras, G. (2015). The Spirituality, Meaning in Life and Depressive Symptomatology in Drug Addiction. The International Journal of Religion and Spirituality in Society, 5(2), 11-24. doi:10.18848/2154-8633/cgp/v05i02/51104
Schafer, W. E. (2000). Stress management for wellness. Belmont, California [etc.: Thomson-Wadsworth.
Cornelius, J., Kirisci, L., Reynolds, M., & Tarter, R. (2014). Does stress mediate the development of substance use disorders among youth transitioning to young adulthood? American Journal of Drug & Alcohol Abuse, 40(3), 225-229. doi:10.3109/00952990.2014.895833
Treloar, H. R., Dubreuil, M. E., & Miranda, R. (2014). Spirituality and treatment of addictive disorders. Rhode Island Medical Journal, 97(3), 36-38.
Lehrer, P. M., Woolfolk, R. L., & Sime, W. E. (2009). Principles and practice of stress management. New York: Guilford.