Yoga and Substance Abuse Prevention

People in a yoga class
Photo by eventspaceportland

In recent years, yoga has been increasingly used as a supplement to traditional addiction treatment programs.  As rates of prescription drug abuse rise, the practice is now also receiving attention as a useful preventative tool in a complementary approach to substance abuse.

The integration of yoga and mindfulness practices into rehabilitation programs is part of a movement to emphasize prevention and individualized care while helping patients embrace healthier lifestyles.  In this type of approach a variety of tools are offered, these usually include traditional treatments such as 12 step programs and counseling, but may also include yoga, meditation, art, journaling, or nutrition and health education.  Each person is able to choose the combination of tools that work best for their unique needs, rather than being pushed through a set program in a set amount of time.

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This paradigm shift has reached the physicians at the American Pain Foundation, who have begun to speak out in support of complementary practices as a way to prevent new drug dependencies.  Dr. Guerra, a pain management specialist, stated that many people who depend on narcotics to treat pain often “end up in worse pain being on the medication than if they weren’t.”  This is not only a result of user error, but of pain medications being over or mis-prescribed.

The medical director of one rehabilitation facility suggests the success of the complementary approach may signal a shift in the mainstream approach to health and wellness.  She has seen a movement “away from the concept of taking a drug to change the way you feel, whether it is an illegal, prescription or over-the-counter drug, [towards] safe, natural and non-habit-forming alternatives.”  For some, yoga and meditation practices may be the very tools they need to establish healthier patterns and life choices.

Adding yoga to a recovery or prevention plan makes sense physiologically too.  Research has shown that our bodies respond to yoga by boosting our levels of the feel-good brain chemicals like GABA, serotonin, and dopamine.  These are the very neurotransmitters targeted by prescription mood altering medications for depression and anxiety, and are responsible for feelings of contentment and relaxation.  These neurotransmitters also control how rewards, or reinforcing behaviors, are processed in the brain.  This neural reward system has been attributed to the onset of substance abuse behaviors.  When increased levels of these chemicals in the brain are derived from a regular yoga practice, the reward system reinforces your desire to practice yoga!

While it may take more than yoga to break patterns of addiction once they have been established, yoga is a valuable tool to bring the body and mind back into balance, and to help establish and maintain new healthy patterns.

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