At Omega Recovery we view addiction as a self-medicating symptom of some other underlying distress. That underlying distress can be different in each person: childhood trauma, psychiatric imbalance, physical pain, toxic relationships, existential crisis, habituation to addictive medication, personality disorders, unresolved bereavement, internalized shame, etc. For each person, those issues can come together to form a unique “perfect storm” of active addiction. But meaningful recovery is not just detoxing the person from the substances or the addictive behavior; it’s understanding and then treating the issues that led to the self-medication and also helping the struggling addict develop a better sense of Self–and to re-write and reframe their “story” in a more healthy and meaningful way.
Further, we understand that addiction corresponds very highly–by some estimates, over 70% of the time–with other mental health disorders, primarily anxiety and depression; that in those cases, the addiction is the result of a person who is attempting to self-medicate the anxiety and/or depression, but then became hooked or dependent on the alcohol, substances or behaviors that were providing some relief for the depression and anxiety. But what the field of psychology is beginning to understand–and what we embrace at Omega Recovery–is that many of these underlying stressors (anxiety, depression, isolation, fear, low-self esteem, a sense of emptiness) are culturally based and byproducts of our modern Western society.
According to Dr. Steven Ilardi, the University of Kansas psychologist, researcher and author of The Depression Cure (Da Capo, 2009) “Americans are 10 times more likely to have depressive illness than they were 60 years ago…and a recent study found the rate of depression has more than doubled in just the past decade”. Globally, things aren’t much better; according to the World Health Organization (WHO) 450 million people worldwide are directly affected by mental disorders and disabilities and that by 2030 depression will top the list of all other health conditions as the number one financial burden around the world.
Why? Why are we getting more stressed out, more depressed and more addicted?
Dr. Ilardi thinks that he’s found the answer: Increased rates of depression and other mental health woes like anxiety and addiction are a byproduct of our modernized, industrialized and urbanized lives. Our love affair with the gadgets and comforts of being a highly technologically evolved society have put us on a never-ending treadmill of overworking, under-sleeping and hyper-stressing as we exhaustedly lunge towards the “American Dream”.
What happens when we work longer hours in soul-crushing cubicles to buy things that we don’t need? According to Dr. Ilardi: “We’ve been engineering the activity out of our lives. The levels of bright-light exposure-time spent outdoors have been declining. The average adult gets just over six and a half hours of sleep a night. It used to be nine hours a night. There’s increasing isolation, fragmentation, the erosion of community.”
Thus, according to Ilardi, “We feel perpetually stressed.”
Dr. Ilardi had found that certain societies-such as the American Amish and the Kaluli people of Papua New Guinea, had essentially zero rates of depression or other mental health disorders. But how can this be? We are all essentially wired the same way–have the same DNA. And these cultures that were much more mentally healthy than ours certainly didn’t live stress-free lives. Indeed, by many measures, it is a lot more difficult living as a hunter-gatherer in New Guinea or working from-morning-to-dusk as the Pennsylvania Amish do.
So then how and why are they so mentally healthy? Answer: Their lifestyle.
Therapeutic Lifestyle Changes
The more Dr. Ilardi looked at the commonalities of these mentally healthy societies, the more he was able to tease out certain common variables that he was then able to operationalize in his groundbreaking research dubbed the Therapeutic Lifestyle Changes (TLC) Project. He took clinically depressed subjects and then incorporated several of these therapeutic lifestyle changes into their lives for several weeks.
The results? They experienced phenomenal outcomes: people who had suffered from mental health, anxiety, and depression for many years saw amazing–and measurable–improvements. Indeed, these improvements were statistically significant, not only when compared to control groups, but also when compared to people who had been treated only with depression medications.
And what were these magical lifestyle changes? Getting regular daily exercise; getting plenty of natural sunlight; getting ample sleep every night; eating an Omega-3 rich diet; being involved in some type of social activity where social connections were made; and participation in meaningful tasks that leave little time for negative thoughts or rumination.
Along with traditional psychotherapy, we’ve incorporated those “Therapeutic Lifestyle Changes” into the clinical protocols of Omega Recovery. Unplugging from our devices, developing a sense of healing community, physical exercise, immersing oneself in nature–those things alone can be more therapeutic than sitting for an hour in a therapist’s chair and venting about your life.
Of course, there is value to traditional psychotherapy, which our master’s level clinicians also do at Omega Recovery–but there is something even more special, more healing–and more transformative–when combined with nature immersion, somatic and experiential therapies, and the above-mentioned Therapeutic Lifestyle Changes.
Indeed, outdoor nature immersion, also known as “Adventure Therapy” has been researched as OBH (Outdoor Behavioral Healthcare), more typically associated with adolescent wilderness-style programs, but which also applies to the nature immersion and adventure therapy we are doing at Omega. So hiking the Greenbelt, kayaking, biking, mindfulness walks at Zilker Park, exercising with their clinical group at the Town lake YMCA…all of these activities can be incredibly grounding and can help restore a person to a more balanced and emotionally and psychologically healthy way of being.