Spirituality and Recovery

May 13th, 2024

By P. Casey Arrillaga, LCSW, LCDC

Of the many factors that go into recovery from addiction or any other mental health disorder, few are as puzzling or controversial to some people as spirituality. Despite this, countless people say it is the most important part of what helps them get and stay better. This post will look at what research can tell us about what role, if any, spirituality can play in your recovery or that of someone you love.

When it comes to recovery from addiction or any other mental health disorder, we can say two things for certain. First, spirituality is not strictly necessary. Second, it can be incredibly helpful, and for some people it will make all the difference. Let’s look at each of these facts in turn.

First, what makes people think if might be necessary in the first place, and are they right? The number one reason people focus on spirituality in recovery is that spirituality is the basis of 12 Step recovery. Twelve Step fellowships are the most successful method of recovery from addiction seen in human history, and their ideas and methods have proven effective at combatting all sorts of other mental health conditions. Twelve Step has not only saved millions of people from the horrors of disease, it has helped many of these go on to live better lives than they dared imagine. Since one of its tenets is helping the next person who suffers, it is natural that many who recovered through this method tell others about what worked for them. Thus, if spirituality was the lynchpin of their recovery, and especially if they have tried and failed using other ideas, such people may tell anyone who will listen that spirituality is the only way a person can get better. From a scientific perspective, however, they are wrong.

They are not wrong that spirituality helped them, only in saying that a person cannot recover without it. There are countless people who have gotten better from addiction and mental health conditions without any outside help. While some of these people may have leaned on spirituality as an aid, many simply found their way out without anything more than their sheer determination. Others used therapeutic techniques that involved no spirituality. Yet others joined one of the recovery fellowships that doesn’t rely on a spiritual solution, such as SMART Recovery or LifeRing Secular Sobriety. Thus, it is clear that spirituality is not something people need in order to recover.

Nonetheless, it also cannot be denied that spirituality can be incredibly helpful to recovery. Even if the evidence of 12 Step recovery’s success was not abundant all around us, there would still be solid scientific evidence that it can be of great benefit, especially in recovery. These benefits include both protective factors, which are those things that help people avoid addiction in the first place, and curative factors, which are the things that help a person who has an addiction to get their lives back.

Protective factors include religious mandates against excessive substance use or any at all, and faith communities that reinforce moderation and provide social support to cope with stressors when they might otherwise use alcohol, other drugs, or compulsive behaviors to get by. The help of such protective factors is no small thing, because some people are at high genetic, psychological, and cultural risk for addiction. They need every advantage available to avoid falling prey to this deadly brain disease.

Curative factors that spirituality offers include infusion of meaning and purpose into lives that have been torn apart by addiction, a means to rebuild or replace damaged social relationships, reconnection with self and a higher power through daily spiritual practice, and both tools and a new frame of reference to cope with the trials and tribulations of life.

For all these reasons, at Windmill Wellness Rach, we offer both 12 Step and SMART Recovery meetings, so that clients can explore both spiritual and nonspiritual options for their recovery. We stay aware of each client's attitudes towards spirituality and how much they do or don’t want to make it part of their recovery journey. We honor all attitudes and orientations so that each client can find the recovery path and resources that work best for them.

It is notable that the benefits of spirituality are not exclusive to people who are recovering from addiction or other mental health issues. These benefits are equally available and helpful for family members of those trying to recover. In fact, there are many 12 Step recovery groups  that have been formed by and for family members of those who have addiction or another mental health condition. These groups use the same spiritual basis and help family members just as much as the person who has the disease. Even without such a fellowship, all the protective and curative factors can be beneficial for family members.

The Bottom Line

Spirituality may not be necessary for recovery from addiction or any other mental health condition, but it can be so helpful that some people consider it indispensable to their personal journey. While implementing spirituality can be a highly personal decision, if you try it out, you will be in the company of millions of others who have reaped the benefits.

About The Author

P. Casey Arrillaga is the Team Leader for Education at Windmill Wellness Ranch, and he is the author of books including “Realistic Hope: The Family Survival Guide for Facing Alcoholism and Other Addictions”.

Sign up for our FREE Family & Friends Course

Created specifically for those who have loved ones that struggle with addiction.