- Written By Granite Recovery Centers
- Clinically Reviewed By Cheryl Smith MS,MLADC
- April 15, 2021
When someone is recovering from an addiction, they are in one of the most stressful and vulnerable periods in their life. The recovering addict may feel scared, unsure, guilty, angry – there are a lot of emotions to cope with. The person may feel isolated and alone as well. After all, many of the friends and activities that the recovering addict previously enjoyed may be connected to his addiction. Rather than risk a relapse by associating with possible triggers, the recovering addict will try to avoid certain situations, but that has the painful side effect of increasing his sense of isolation.
Given what a vulnerable state the person in recovery finds himself in, it’s no wonder that many people in this position turn to religion. After all, religious communities are welcoming. One key facet of many religions and spiritual traditions is a lack of judgment as well as compassion and kindness.
When a person struggling with recovery walks into a church, mosque, or temple, for example, they will feel welcomed. People are sympathetic and kind. In some cases, addiction support groups, such as Alcoholics Anonymous, will meet in church buildings.
All of these things can be helpful to those in recovery who come from a religious background or who are open to such things. For others, however, taking part in religion doesn’t feel right. A recovering addict may be an atheist, for example, or they may have grown up without a faith tradition. In that case, it seems hypocritical and inauthentic to take part in something that they don’t believe in.
While turning to religion or becoming more involved in faith tradition are valid ways of finding support during recovery, it is not necessary. Many people who are not religious at all have overcome addictions and found sobriety. While there is nothing wrong with turning to religion for comfort during a challenging time, it is also possible to achieve one’s goals without taking part in religion.
How Religion Can Help With Recovery
According to studies produced by the National Institute of Health, there is a vast body of research in the psychiatric and psychological fields that has shown that religion can be a source of resilience, hope, and comfort for those struggling with recovery from addiction. Those who are religious or who consider themselves to be spiritual seem less likely to use drugs or suffer from a relapse.
There are many possible reasons for this. For some, there is comfort from a belief in a higher power. For others, it is being part of a community of like-minded individuals that is the major factor. Peer pressure can be a positive thing when it comes to avoiding drugs and alcohol. Some ways in which religion can help those who are in recovery include:
- Providing a community of supportive and welcoming people
- Receiving verbal affirmations from fellow believers that help the recovering addict feel loved and accepted despite potential relapses
- Helping the believer to find a moral and ethical system that is structured, familiar, and understandable
- Obtaining a sense of comfort and peace from having faith in a higher power.
The recovering addict feels that, even if life is chaotic, a higher power is in control and will provide guidance and help. Because of the positive associations between religion and recovery, many popular programs, including 12-step programs, incorporate faith in a higher power. The most well-known of these programs include:
- Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) – The first program of its kind, it is for those who are struggling with alcohol addiction.
- Narcotics Anonymous (NA) – A program for those attempting to recover from drug addiction.
- Al-Anon – A program for those who have loved ones who are alcoholics.
- Alateen – A program for the children of alcoholics.
- Nar-Anon – A program for those whose loved ones are dealing with drug addiction.
While all of these programs refer to a ‘higher power’ or ‘god’ as part of the 12 steps, one thing to note is that none of them subscribe to a particular religion. For that reason, any faith should be welcome by these groups. Additionally, one tenet of many groups is to let members know that they can choose what to take with them and leave the rest behind. That allows those who do not believe in god to be able to participate and feel welcome.
In addition to incorporating the belief in a higher power into the 12 steps of these programs, activities such as prayer and meditation might be encouraged. Despite the spiritual component intrinsic to these plans, many non-believers have also found them helpful perhaps because of the real sense of community that is built when a recovering addict commits to a group of others in the same situation.
Potential Downside to Religion and Recovery
While religious belief is often seen as overwhelmingly positive when it comes to recovery, there can be some negative consequences for devout believers.
A focus group on spirituality and substance abuse recovery discovered that in some cases people who were very religious felt more guilty or ashamed than their non-religious peers. They struggled to see themselves as moral beings because of their issues with addiction.
This flies in the face of the reality that addiction is a disease that alters brain chemistry. However, when those in recovery are educated about the real changes in neurochemistry that occur during addiction, they experience a sense of revelation. Instead of blaming themselves, they can understand the real causes of addiction. Therefore, it is very important that treatment programs be comprehensive and give recovering addicts complete information.
Spirituality Is Not Necessarily Religious
In discussing faith-based programs, it must be noted that not everyone fits into neat boxes. There are many people who do feel they are spiritual even though they are not religious.
Recovery is a journey in which a person’s beliefs and values are an integral part of the process. Because addiction is often based on impulsive behaviors, techniques that help a person reflect and take a pause before acting are useful. Often, spiritual techniques such as meditation can help.
In many cases, while a recovering addict might feel that spirituality is important, they may not be religious.
According to the Pew Research Center’s Religious Landscape study, almost 23% of Americans consider themselves to be unaffiliated to any particular religious tradition, yet many will still engage in practices of a spiritual nature.
Studies have been done on the role of spirituality in health care. One area in which a spiritual outlook helped patients was when it came to dealing with suffering. Often, pain, trauma, and suffering are felt to be meaningless. Yet those with a spiritual outlook could find a deeper meaning that gave them comfort. Other possible benefits of having a spiritual outlook include:
- Decreased levels of stress
- Increased optimism
- A more relaxed approach to discouraging news
- Better physical and mental health
- Better self-awareness
- Greater sense of peace
Taking part in activities that focus on spirituality can help recovering addicts feel more centered whether or not the spirituality is religious in nature.
While Religion and Spirituality Are Options, They Are Not Necessary for Recovery
There are many recovery programs that are not based on faith in a higher power. These programs may focus on empowering recovering addicts to help themselves. While techniques like meditation may still be used, they are divorced from any faith-based meaning and instead are centered on scientific explanations.
While both religion and spirituality can certainly be used in treatment programs, they are not necessary. In fact, the one thing that can be emphasized is that treatment should never be a one-size-fits-all methodology.
Each individual is unique, and the best treatment programs that optimize an addict’s prognosis for recovery are programs that treat each person as an individual. Secular counselors and therapists have many tools that can be used, and non-faith-based programs can offer meaningful support systems.