When it comes to religion and spirituality, the field of mental healthcare has historically taken pains to keep these realms separate and distance itself. But there’s one major exception: Addiction recovery.
Until recently, recovery from addiction to substances has almost always involved elements of spirituality. And today, even with greater access to secular options, many people still find spirituality central to achieving sobriety.
But just how and why does spirituality help in recovery from addiction? Where does it fit into the recovery process, who benefits the most, and are there secular alternatives? Do you really need to believe in a higher power to put an end to your addiction?
Are There Benefits To Spirituality in Recovery?
Studies on the role of spirituality in recovery reveal an interesting contradiction. On the one hand, many of the benefits people experience in faith-based recovery programs are achievable in a secular context1. On the other hand, spirituality seems a legitimate way to access these benefits—and can be an important factor for some people in and of itself.
In a study of 236 people in recovery from drugs or alcohol, spirituality was linked to better outcomes, and found to have the following benefits:
- Increased coping skills
- Greater resilience to stress
- An optimistic life orientation
- Lower levels of anxiety2
More broadly, spirituality and religion are now being acknowledged and sometimes incorporated into mainstream psychology and psychiatry, where they’ve long been ignored or considered separate spheres. Mental health clinicians can no longer deny that when a patient values religion or spirituality, overlooking its role in mental health would be a mistake.
That said, there are upsides and downsides to spirituality in recovery.
When Spirituality Helps
When spirituality helps in recovery, proponents often cite common elements3, including:
Increasing strength and resilience
Whether through “surrendering to the will of God,” or learning greater acceptance of life’s slings and arrows through meditation practice, spirituality in recovery can increase resilience and coping skills.
Finding meaning or purpose
For many, faith provides a sense of purpose in life, which is a common need among people overcoming addiction. Carl Jung linked alcoholism with a “spiritual thirst of our being for wholeness4.” Spiritual practice is a way to pursue that wholeness without substances.
The road to recovery inherently involves self-healing. A connection to a higher power, or any type of spiritual practice, can give a person a structure through which to rebuild a positive connection with themselves.
Building community and relationships
Naturally, being around others who share your values and support your goals provides a sense of belonging. Participating in religious or spiritual communities can help people form connections with others.
If religion or spirituality is already a part of your life, or if any of the above resonates with you, it may be worth exploring ways that you can weave those elements into your recovery.
When Spirituality Hinders
On the other hand, there are many reasons why one might opt out of the more spiritual side of addiction recovery.
The value of the tool depends on how it’s used
Like any other method or tool, the usefulness of spirituality in recovery depends on how it’s applied. One could use faith to bolster one’s optimism and patience, or one could become rigid and judgemental towards oneself for not living up to a set of spiritual standards. The latter usually hurts more than helps—and the program you choose can be a factor in this.
There is a need for more secular options
The percentage of the US population that consider themselves religious is declining rapidly, and fell below the majority for the first time in 20205. At the same time, 73 percent of treatment options in the US incorporate some kind of spirituality6. While this may not be a dealbreaker for all atheists and agnostics, this might limit recovery options for some.
Religion can traumatize
Some people have experienced abuse within a religious context, or grew up within a religion or spiritual practice that they’ve worked to distance themselves from. For such individuals, faith-based recovery approaches may be triggering, or difficult to stick with.
Faith-based programs can be more rigid
As is the general trend in medicine, addiction recovery is getting more personal, and personalized. Secular or evidence-based programs often offer more options to customize treatment to a person’s needs.
The Curious Case of AA: Is a Higher Power Needed?
When it comes to spirituality and recovery from addiction, Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) is an especially interesting example. Popular, free to join, and helpful for many, AA is probably what comes to mind when most people think of alcohol recovery. And although it claims not to be a religious organization and to welcome all, belief in some kind of “higher power” is requisite of membership.
Studies have shown that, for some, AA can be as effective as evidence-based therapies like cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT)7. But is that success directly attributable to AA’s spiritual element, or is there something else going on?
Interestingly, while they don’t join AA at the same rates as believers, studies have shown that atheists and agnostics who do join AA seem to achieve the same success rates as their more religious counterparts8. Researchers cited factors such as a sympathetic social network, long-term support, low expense, skill development, and motivational structure in helping people achieve sobriety through the program.
So, despite AA’s claims that it works in spiritual ways, could it actually be more about the community, camaraderie, coping skills, and (free) coffee? In other words, do you really need to be spiritual to achieve recovery through a group model?
Secular Spotlight: The Sinclair Method
For those who prefer a recovery program without a spiritual aspect, there are a growing number of options, including SMART Recovery and LifeRing. Many of these offer similar elements to AA, without requiring a belief in a higher power. But there are other secular approaches that step further away from the AA model, and may actually achieve greater success by doing so.
The Sinclair Method (TSM) takes a science-based approach, using the medication naltrexone to help people gradually change their brain chemistry around alcohol. The goal is something called “pharmacological extinction,” in which a person achieves a permanent end to their cravings for alcohol. TSM has a 78 percent success rate, and may actually “cure” addiction for some people—something long considered impossible, especially within AA.
More generally, medication is a desired but vastly underutilized option. There are now several FDA-approved medications to treat addiction, but it’s estimated less than 9 percent of those who could benefit from them actually receive them9. Broader use of medication could make recovery a much more flexible process, and make spirituality more of an individual choice than a requirement in recovery.
The Bottom Line on Spirituality in Recovery
The science is clear: There is not just one path to recovery, but many. The question of whether and how spirituality fits into recovery from addiction isn’t just one for science to study—it’s also a personal one to be discovered. At the end of the day, it’s best to choose the recovery approach that you know will fit your beliefs, and give you the support you need.
If you’re looking for flexible options for alcohol treatment, Ria Health offers a completely customizable online program—including medication, coaching, group support, recovery skill development, and digital tools. The whole thing can be done from an app on your smartphone, and you don’t need to subscribe to any ideology to join. Learn more about our approach.