How Spirituality Can Help in Addiction Recovery

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Spirituality can Help in Addiction Recovery

By:  Rick Fannin

How Spirituality Can Help in Addiction Recovery

The idea of using spiritual practices to help people stay away from alcohol and drugs is not new. In fact, spirituality is the fundamental principle of Alcoholics Anonymous and all of the different 12 step groups. The tools of spirituality are open for anyone to use no matter which path they choose in recovery.  It is recommended that the individual experiments with these spiritual practices until they find what works best.  Spirituality can help in addiction recovery, improve emotions and relationships, help you achieve long-term sobriety, and even repair the brain from the damage caused by addiction.

Spiritual Practices Defined

Spirituality can be defined as an inner path enabling a person to discover his/her being. Spirituality is "the quality of being concerned with the human spirit or soul as opposed to material or physical things. This shift in priorities allows us to embrace our spirituality more profoundly. "Spirituality leads one to search for and discover meaning in life, and goes beyond a merely material experience" and "can bring a person to inner peace even in the presence of adverse circumstances" (1).

Spiritual practices then might be described as those that help the individual discover who they really are. These practices can be tools that allow the individual to develop within their religion, or the person can follow a more personal journey. Some people use these spiritual tools almost purely to benefit their life today rather than trying to achieve some type of transcendence.

Spiritual practices may include meditationmindfulnessprayer, the contemplation of sacred textsethical development, and acts of service and kindness for others. Love and/or compassion are often described as the mainstay of spiritual growth.  Within spirituality is found "a common emphasis on the value of thoughtfulness, tolerance for breadth and practices and beliefs, and appreciation for the insights of other religious communities, as well as other sources of authority within the social sciences."

Benefits of Spiritual Practices in Recovery

There are numerous benefits from incorporating spiritual practices in recovery.  These benefits include:

  • Coping Skills: Several studies suggest coping skills derived from spirituality help in addiction. For instance, individuals battling substance abuse disorders reported that spirituality was a source of "inner strength" that helped reduce "cravings." Spirituality was found to facilitate abstinence following treatment. It helped patients better cope with the challenges and impulses associated with disorders (1).
  • Emotional Regulation: Several studies have observed that higher levels of spirituality correlate with better emotional regulation and reduced levels of fear.  This is important in addiction recovery as relapses often happen during periods of strong negative emotions or fears.
  • Quality of Life: Spirituality has been found to enhance health and quality of life. One study that reviewed 200+ other studies found that spirituality was linked with physical and functional status, reduced psychopathology, and better emotional wellbeing. Patients with strong religious faith reported higher levels of life satisfaction, greater happiness, and fewer negative psychosocial consequences, even after traumatic life events (1).
  • Resiliency and Hardiness: This study found that spirituality provides resilience against uncertainty and life stressors. Exemplifying the "hardiness" that characterizes people with spirituality, another study found that non-spiritual people had lower quality of life and satisfaction than spiritual people (1).
  • Overall Wellness: Studies have suggested that spirituality contributes to reduced stress levels and lower levels of anxiety, depression, suicide, and substance abuse (1)
  • Improved Relationships: Improved interpersonal functioning and It can make the individual a much better mother, father, son, daughter, worker, friend, or community member.
  • Improved Mood: Spirituality helps individuals lift their moods without the need to resort to alcohol or drugs. Spirituality means enjoying a natural high that has no adverse side effects.
    When people first give up an addiction to mind-altering substances, it can appear as if their life now has no meaning. The spiritual path can give real meaning to the person's life.
  • Purpose In Life: Experiencing a "spiritual experience" has been shown to increase an overall feeling of purpose in life, which helps to contribute to the continued addiction recovery process (5).
  • Healing from Trauma: In a study of military service members with PTSD, higher spirituality correlates with reduced substance use and risky behaviors and emotional regulation (2).
  • Protection from substance abuse: Spirituality has also been found to act as a protective factor against addiction—some studies associated spirituality with a lower likelihood of substance use across life stages.
  • Repair Dopamine Levels in the Brain: Activities like prayer, meditation, and reliance on a higher power activate dopamine release, similar to drug use, and may help to explain, from a psychobiological perspective, the effectiveness of reliance on higher power on addiction recovery (4).
  • Addiction RecoveryStudies have documented the importance of spirituality to maintaining recovery. There is evidence that spirituality helps against remission among alcoholic individuals, helping to facilitate recovery and prevent relapse.
  • Improved Abstinence Rates: Studies show that 82% of individuals who experience this spiritual experience during treatment were completely abstinent at the one-year follow-up compared to 55% for those who didn't encounter this spiritual experience (10).

Importance of Gratitude in Addiction Recovery

It is claimed that those who are grateful for their recovery will never relapse back to addiction. This is because those who do return to alcohol or drugs will usually have done so after becoming disillusioned with recovery or when they took their sobriety for granted. Developing an attitude of gratitude is very helpful in addiction recovery.

Gratitude is a positive emotion experienced in response to a situation or response to something received (2).  Gratitude is both a temporary feeling and a dispositional trait.  The momentary feeling of gratitude is experienced after obtaining a positive outcome.  A dispositional trait, or "attitude of gratitude," is the recognition that there is an external "Higher Power" source for the goodness of life and a general tendency toward "noticing and appreciating the positive in life" (3).  Brain scans have shown that certain areas of the brain are associated with experiencing and expressing gratitude, and the regular practice of gratitude creates lasting changes in the prefrontal cortex that heighten sensitivity to future experiences of gratitude (4).  Research studies have found the positive bio-psycho-social phenomena of gratitude correlates with significant aspects of wellbeing, better emotional regulation, improved life satisfaction, vitality, optimism, hope, improved resiliency, lower depression, improved sleep, improved physical health (5), less stress, post-traumatic growth, improved social support (5) (6).  These research studies also found significant benefits for those recovering from drug or alcohol abuse.  They found that people in recovery that are more grateful were more successful at sustained abstinence from drugs or alcohol and reported greater satisfaction with life (2) (5) (7).

The stress-coping model of addiction proposes that drugs or alcohol are used as a coping response to stress or in order to avoid the emotions associated with painful life challenges (6).  We used drugs or alcohol to numb out the pain and avoid the stress of dealing with life for those who struggle with addiction.  However, we cannot deny the reality that the unmanageability caused by our drug or alcohol use has created a more stressful and painful life than the one from which we were attempting to escape.  With this reality, many of us finally step out of denial and into treatment and recovery.

In recovery, we learn to stop avoiding our problems.  By learning and applying new coping skills, we begin to solve these problems, if they are solvable, and accept and heal from the issues we cannot solve.  Research studies have found that as our gratitude improves, so does our ability to cope.  This positive emotion broadens our thought-action cognitive processes, improves behavioral activities, and facilitates adjustment to daily challenges (2).  This research found that individuals with higher levels of gratitude are more likely to utilize coping strategies that target problems and are less likely to emotionally or physically disengage and deny or avoid the problem.

Healing Power of Forgiveness in Recovery

Addiction recovery requires dealing with emotions often covered up for years by substance abuse. Emotions are a reaction to a situation, trauma, abuse, a conversation, or an event, and in the case of repressed emotions, they are usually painful.

At the heart of almost every addiction is a gentle person hiding from emotional pain. If this is the case for you, it may take a long time to recognize who you hold responsible for your pain. Often it is someone close to you, which makes it hard to confront. It is easier to pretend the person who was supposed to love you the most didn't hurt you. You may take on the blame yourself, at first, and assume it was your fault.

The beginning of the addiction recovery process typically begins with a wide range of emotions, some of the strongest being feelings of shame and guilt. For example, the pain you may have caused others in the form of mental stress, money problems, or physical hurt. Self-forgiveness is a helpful way to cope with these powerful, negative emotions, making it an integral component of the overall recovery process.

Guilt and shame are natural parts of human life, so you mustn't beat yourself up further for being unable to relinquish these emotions. Your conscience helps you determine your personal value system and unites us as a human race, so it would be a negative thing for you never to experience these emotions at all. The recovery process will ask you to come face to face with these feelings and ultimately to forgive yourself if you wish to complete treatment successfully.

Learning to forgive in recovery is necessary to find true happiness in recovery. This is because there will be little progress if full of bitterness and resentment.  The person not only has to let go of their grudges against other people, but they also have to learn how to forgive themselves. Shame and guilt can be crippling and overwhelming in recovery.  If the individual cannot forgive their own transgressions, they will not feel that they deserve happiness in life. The effect of this is that they will constantly self-sabotage their own efforts to find happiness.

In order to develop the ability to forgive themselves, they will also need to offer the same forgiveness to other people – by doing so, it will lighten their load in life because holding onto a grudge can be hard work. It is usually impossible for people to immediately let go of all the animosity they have towards people who hurt them in the past. Forgiveness is a process, and the most important thing is that the individual is aiming towards this.

Creativity as a Spiritual Practice

Some people see creativity as a form of spiritual practice, and the creative process is fundamentally a spiritual one. When the imagination is in flight, we are moved to give form to this inner life. Creating charges us with energy. We are grounded in our bodies, yet the creative act takes us beyond ourselves. We exit the world of reacting and enter the delicious world of creating, where we lose track of time. By acting, we bring spirit into matter. By acting, we love our creations into being. And creativity is vital for wellbeing, not just for artists and arts professionals, but for everyone, in their own way. When we engage our creativity, we engage our spirituality.

Creativity is inherently connected with spirituality. Along the creative path, we confront many aspects of ourselves and meet many growth opportunities. On this road, we face attitudes and behaviors affecting our creativity. We learn to change perceptions, overcome obstacles, stay in touch with our bodies, identify and listen to our intuition, and to gain more insight and trust in our path as creative and spiritual beings.

When we are creating from what arises in the heart, we are in touch with animating power. When we are present and living in connection with the moment, the portal between the inner life and the deeper universal well opens. While deeply and creatively engaged in our present, we are simultaneously creating our future.

Mindfulness as a Spiritual Practice

Mindfulness is a spiritual practice that involves purposely paying attention to the present moment. This means that the individual is completely focused on what they are doing now and not thinking about the past or worrying about the future. When the person is doing something they really enjoy, they will be naturally mindful. The problem is that for the rest of the time, people can be lost in their heads. It is not necessary to sit in a certain position or learn any mantras to be mindful. The individual can be mindful no matter what they're doing so long as they remember to focus on what is there right now. By doing this, the individual will be able to turn almost any activity into a spiritual one.

If you believe that spirituality is a subjective experience involving meaning-making and a connection with something greater, then indeed, a dedicated mindfulness practice often becomes a spiritual practice. From this point of view, one can ascribe to any particular religious tradition or to none at all, and enjoy a deep spiritual life.

Fortunately, research is illuminating the correlation between spirituality, wellbeing, and quality of life among healthy individuals and those suffering from illnesses.  Practiced correctly, mindfulness can lead to insight into the human condition and free us from our inner struggles and conflicts in life. If there is anything spiritual about mindfulness, then it is the ability to free us from the grasp of our own ego. This is the lofty goal of most spiritual traditions.

Spiritual Practices and Religion

References to the importance of spirituality in protecting individuals from excessive drunkenness date back to early religious texts and have been part of the research literature on harmful drinking and addiction since the early 1940s. Over the past 70 years, we have learned that religiosity and religious affiliation are not sufficient to protect against the development of addiction, but that spiritual experiences and spiritual practices, including prayer and mindfulness meditation, may be helpful in reducing hazardous drinking and in the treatment of addiction.

It is important to be mindful of the differences between spirituality and religious practices and that "spirituality and religious practice are neither exclusive of one another nor do they automatically reside simultaneously in an individual" (16).  You may have heard someone describe themselves as "spiritual, but not religious." With the phrase generally comes the presumption that religion has to do with doctrines, dogmas, and ritual practices, whereas spirituality has to do with the heart, feeling, and experience.  Likewise, you may have witnessed a regular churchgoer, but one who certainly appeared to lack a life aligned with spirituality.   A recent study found that about a quarter of U.S. adults (27%) now say they think of themselves as spiritual but not religious.

Group Percentage
Religious and Spiritual 48%
Spiritual but not Religious 27%
Neither Religious nor Spiritual 18%
Religious but not spiritual 6%

Certainly, in 1939, the creators of Alcoholics Anonymous and the 12-step movement were mindful of the importance of spirituality, regardless of religious affiliation.  The Alcoholics Anonymous Big Book states, "The Spiritual life is not a theory.  We have to live it." And it further states, "We practice these principles in all of our affairs." From this perspective, recovery is more about having a spiritual connection and living a life that is in alignment with this spiritual factor, as opposed to being a member of a particular religious affiliation.  Living a life that is in harmony with the universe and aligned to our core values and beliefs is a very powerful factor in our ability to remain not only abstinent but live a life of joy and serenity as well.


  1. ASERVIC. ASERVIC White Paper. Association for Spiritual, Ethical, and Religious Values in Counseling. [Online] 4 22, 2018.
  2. Sue. D. W., Sue. Counseling the Culturally Diverse: Theory and Practice, 7th Edition. Hoboken, New York: John Wiley & Sons, Inc, 2016.
  3. The role of twelve-step-related spirituality in addiction recovery. Dermatis, H. Galanter, M. 2016, Journal of Religion and Health 55(2), pp. 510-521.
  4. Spiritually integrated cognitive processing therapy: A new treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder that targets moral injury. Pearce, M., et al. 2018, Global Advances in Health and Medicine, Vol. 7, pp. 1-7.
  5. Drug addiction, love, and the higher power. Sussman, S., Reynaud, M., Aubin, H., & Leventhal, A. M. 2011, Evaluation & the Health Professions, 34(3) , pp. 362-370.
  6. Belief, behavior, and belonging: How faith is indispensable in preventing and recovering from substance abuse. Grim, B. J. and Grim, M. E. 2019, Journal of Religion and Health, Vol. 58, pp. 1713-1750.
  7. Gratitude and drug misuse: Role of coping as mediator. Leung, C. and Tong, E. M. W. 14, s.l. : Substance Use & Misuse, 2017, Vol. 57, pp. 1832-1839.
  8. Gratitude predicts psychological well-being above the big five facets. Wood, AM, et al. s.l. : Personal Individual Differences, 2009, Vol. 46, pp. 443-447.
  9. Gratitude and the brain: Trait gratitude mediates the association between structural variations in the medial prefrontal cortex and life satisfaction. Kong, F., Zhao, J. and Yu, X. 6, s.l. : American Psychological Association, 2020, Vol. 20, pp. 917-926.
  10. Gratitude, abstinence, and alcohol use disorder: Report of a preliminary finding. Krentzman, A. R. s.l. : Journal of Substance Abuse Treatment, 2017, Vol. 78, pp. 30-36.
  11. Willis, T. A., and Filer, M. Stress-Coping Model of Adolescent Substance Use. [book auth.] Ollendick. T. H. Advances in Clinician Child Psychology. New York: Plenum Press, 1996.
  12. Gratitude, insecure attachment, and positive outcomes among 12-step recovery program participants. LaBelle, O. P. and Edelstein, R. S. 2, s.l. : Addiction Research & Theory, 2018, Vol. 26, pp. 123-132.
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