What Is Addiction Therapy, and Does It Work?

Addiction is a chronic disease that can be extremely difficult to treat, because it impacts the brain in complex ways, making it difficult to control compulsions. There’s more involved than detox, because an addict may face years of cravings and stressors that have a powerful effect on the brain’s physiology, and specifically, its reward center. Its job is to regulate pleasure, but addictive drugs trigger powerful feelings of pleasure that motivate one to repeat drug use, no matter how damaging it may be. Long-term use can reprogram the brain and overpower addicts with the desire to repeat the sensation drugs and alcohol provide — and that’s what makes it so hard to overcome addiction and the cravings that come with it, which can last for years, even after treatment.

The good news is that addiction therapy can help, and there are many forms to choose from.

Addiction therapy

Addiction therapy delves deeply into the roots of addiction. It seeks out its original causes, because addiction is frequently a manifestation of deep-seated mental issues, such as depression or anxiety. Addicts seek relief by “self-medicating” with drugs and/or alcohol.

Addiction therapy confronts these comorbidities, helping the addict to understand and cope with them, thereby removing the need to use addictive substances as well as temptations that can lead to relapses. Addiction therapy teaches recovering addicts to develop some form of relapse response strategy in case the compulsion to use becomes too strong. Nevertheless, a relapse can happen at any time and under any circumstances, but having one doesn’t necessarily mean returning to “square one” of addiction treatment.

Addiction therapy can be divided into two categories, including evidence-based treatment and alternative therapies. Therapy generally emphasizes evidence-based treatments, which are tied to a body of data indicating their effectiveness. However, the power of addiction often makes it necessary to turn to alternative approaches, many of which have proven effective for patients battling this mental illness. Behavioral therapy is an evidence-based treatment that seeks to help addicts combat addiction by investigating its root causes, altering behavioral patterns accordingly, and giving substance abusers the tools they need to cope with stressors and cravings.  

Forms of behavioral therapy

Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), an evidence-based treatment, is the most commonly recommended addiction treatment option. CBT seeks to alter behavior by modifying negative thoughts that lead to destructive behaviors. Relapses often occur when an addict lacks the coping strategies necessary to deal with cravings, so through CBT, patients are taught to overcome negative impulses that lead to relapses. Patients learn to recognize high-risk situations, and develop practices that help them avoid harmful scenarios as well as what to do when it’s not possible to avoid such situations.

Some patients respond better to family therapy, another valuable evidence-based approach that seeks to break the hold addiction has on individuals and mitigate the damage it does to families. Perhaps most significantly, family therapy helps family members recognize enabling behaviors and how to avoid feeding into them. Desirable outcomes include:

  • Helping addicts understand how their actions harm those closest to them
  • Providing family members with strategies that allow them to express their feelings and frustrations
  • Establishing an ongoing mutual support situation for patients and family members  

Family therapy can help lay a positive groundwork for recovering addicts who are attempting to return to their daily lives. It’s a valuable form of treatment, especially when you consider how easy it can be for family members to innocently and unknowingly enable a relapse. The entire family learns to understand the interrelationship between emotions, thoughts, behaviors and external influences.

In some cases, it may be necessary to seek help for an addict through alternative treatments, which may include:

  • Mindfulness therapies addicts learn to stay present in the moment, recognize negative behaviors, and understand how to avoid them
  • Art therapy – patients use creativity to express themselves through art, which is then discussed with a therapist
  • Biofeedback – helps patients by monitoring their physiological reactions to psychological stressors; treatment includes a device that measures and provides feedback from neural brain waves

Does addiction treatment work?

People often equate the effectiveness of addiction treatment therapy with relapse rates — in other words, if a patient suffers a relapse, treatment is deemed to have been ineffective. However, this is a short-sighted and inaccurate model by which to judge addiction therapy, because the chronic nature of drug addiction means the threat of relapse is not just possible, it’s entirely likely. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), drug addiction relapse rates are similar to those of other chronic illnesses, including diabetes, hypertension and asthma.

The objective of treatment therapy is to help patients to return to a normal lifestyle in all aspects. According to the NIDA, most patients who enter and stay involved with treatment programs do eventually cease using drugs or alcohol, and turn away from negative behaviors related to their addiction. The important thing to remember is that, like other chronic diseases, addiction can be managed effectively — and addiction therapy can help.