Complementary and Alternative (CAM) Therapy

Complementary and Alternative (CAM) Therapy

Complementary and alternative (CAM) therapy is an umbrella term that refers to a wide range of therapeutic practices that are often utilized to treat mental health disorders, addictions, and even physical health conditions. Complementary and alternative therapies are experimental in nature and often fall outside of mainstream medical practices. These treatments and techniques are frequently used in conjunction with other therapies.

What is Complementary and Alternative Therapy?

Complementary and alternative (CAM) therapy is a term that designates a diverse selection of therapeutic practices. CAM therapies can provide enormous relief to people suffering from mental health conditions and substance use disorders. CAM practices often utilize unconventional techniques that aim to address the whole person, rather than just their disorder. 

For this reason, patients with mild to severe conditions often find that complementary and alternative therapies resonate with them in a deep way. To understand the nature of these practices, it can be helpful to look at the term “complementary and alternative” itself.

The word “alternative” refers to the fact that CAM healthcare falls outside of mainstream medical practices. CAM treatments are experimental in nature and most of them are not supported by a large body of research. Instead, they originate from other sources, ranging from spiritual practices to traditional healing practices. In this sense, CAM medicine exists as an alternative to scientific medical techniques.

The word “complementary” indicates the way in which CAM medicine is generally used. People who successfully use CAM medical techniques most frequently do so in conjunction with other therapies that are more recognized by the medical establishment. CAM therapies are designed to compliment, reinforce, and support the evidence-based therapies that are offered at treatment centers.

Complementary and alternative therapies are ideal for people who are pursuing evidence-based therapies, such as cognitive-behavioral therapy or dialectical behavioral therapy. While evidence-based therapies are likely to provide the best guarantee of successful recovery from a mental health disorder or addiction, complementary and alternative therapies can supplement these treatment modalities. 

CAM therapies are suitable for people who want to do everything in their power to ensure their long-term health and recovery. They also often appeal to people who value spirituality or have a connection to a specific religious or cultural tradition. CAM therapies complement scientific therapies and offer people a chance to treat their mind, body, and spirit.

Complementary and alternative therapy, or CAM therapy, goes by many names. While “complementary and alternative” is currently the preferred and most frequently utilized term in the context of mental health and addiction treatment centers, it is not uncommon to hear variations of the term. Common alternative names for this diverse set of treatment practices include:

  • Complementary Medicine (CM)
  • Integrated Medicine
  • Integrative Medicine (IM)
  • Holistic Medicine

Origins and History of Complementary and Alternative (CAM) Therapy

To understand the origins of complementary and alternative therapy, it is essential to look back at the history of medicine in general. Many of the techniques utilized in CAM therapy date back thousands of years and find their origin in many traditional practices. A high percentage of these traditional practices are derived from indigenous cultures and ancient civilizations. These widely practiced healing practices often made use of spiritual principles and religious philosophies.

The fact that these traditional practices are now considered “alternatives” is a relatively new development. Before the 19th century, the medical establishment as we know it today was not well-regulated. Surgeons and pharmacists trained as apprentices rather than at universities. During this time, however, an elite population of university-trained physicians was beginning to emerge. By the 20th century, a standardized set of medical practices had emerged. 

This branch of medical science, known sometimes as biomedicine, Western medicine, conventional medicine, and mainstream medicine, was notable for stressing evidence-based and research-backed treatment methods. Before the development of mainstream medicine, clinical practices were not always informed by biological or physiological principles. By the mid-20th century, biomedicine had become the orthodox approach to treating health conditions, at least in the Western Hemisphere.

With the rise of orthodox biomedicine came a new understanding of traditional healing practices. Medical professionals, intellectuals, and the media worked hard to discredit these traditional healing practices. The science-based medical establishment dismissed people who used these healing techniques as “irregular practitioners.” As Western medicine continued to develop, traditional healers and practitioners of what came to be known as “alternative medicine” were increasingly marginalized.

During the 1960s and 1970s, however, the counterculture movement and new age movement caused people to reconsider the role of alternative therapies. An increasing distrust of authorities in general, including medical authorities, caused people to seek alternatives to the mainstream approach. Many people began to have doubts about the harmful side effects of pharmaceutical drugs prescribed by mainstream doctors. The West also began to reconsider its tendency to dismiss other cultures as merely “superstitious” or “unscientific.” 

Cultural relativism and increased cultural sensitivity led many people to once again take seriously the contributions of indigenous and non-Western medical practitioners. Over time, biomedicine came to be understood as merely one of many possible frameworks under which a person could practice medicine. Alternative practices that do not follow the scientific mainstream grew to be more widely established, and efforts to implement these practices alongside mainstream practices became more accepted.

Types of Complementary and Alternative (CAM) Therapy

Complementary and alternative (CAM) therapy includes an enormous assortment of treatment practices, inclusive of every medical technique that falls outside of the medical mainstream. For this reason, there are inherent difficulties in listing every type of CAM therapy that is available. Individuals seeking CAM therapy specifically can, if they so choose, experiment with healing practices from a wide variety of cultural traditions. However, outpatient treatment centers that offer CAM therapy most frequently utilize techniques that can be roughly divided into two types: natural products and mind-body practices.

Natural Products

Natural products are used as alternatives to mainstream prescription medications. There are many reasons why people are reluctant to rely exclusively on pharmaceutical products. Many people are concerned about the potential side effects. However, there are also widespread concerns about the addictive potential of many prescription medications. Concerns about the addictive nature of prescription drugs are especially common among people receiving treatment for substance use disorders. For this reason, people often opt to rely on nature products as much as possible. Though it is not recommended to avoid medically necessary prescription drugs, natural products can supplement these medications, speed up the healing process, and have a number of therapeutic benefits on their own.

Common natural products used in CAM therapy include:

  • Natural vitamins
  • Natural minerals
  • Herbs and botanicals
  • Probiotics
  • Special diets

Mind-Body Practices

Mind and body interventions are a diverse set of techniques that are designed to integrate a patient’s mental state with their bodily awareness. These holistic practices are based on the idea that the mind and body can profoundly affect each other. Mind-body theories assert that physical health conditions are often manifestations of negative emotional and cognitive processes, and that mental health conditions are often derived from unhealthy physical states. This notion of the interdependence of mind and body is, in fact, backed up by science, which has long recognized that addiction and depression can be treated to an extent through physical exercise. Examples of CAM mind-body treatments, however, are distinct insofar as they are designed to directly treat the mind-body relation. Some types of CAM mind-body practices include:

  • Chiropractic and osteopathic manipulation
  • Meditation
  • Yoga
  • Acupressure and acupuncture
  • Tai chi
  • Qi gong
  • Movement therapies
  • Hypnotherapy
  • Music and expressive arts therapy
  • Healing touch
  • Relaxation techniques, including deep breathing, guided imagery, and progressive muscle relaxation (PR)

A variety of other CAM techniques exist that do not fall as neatly into these two categories. Examples include:

  • Traditional healers and shamans
  • Ayurvedic medicine
  • Homeopathy
  • Traditional Chinese medicine
  • Naturopathy

Many of these CAM therapies have become mainstream practices for everyday people. Practices like yoga and meditation are often utilized to relieve stress, insomnia, depression, and anxiety by people who are not necessarily enrolled in a treatment center. Complementary and alternative medicine can be an excellent resource for people who are working to manage their emotional distress or unhealthy behaviors without recourse to formal treatment centers.

How Complementary and Alternative (CAM) Therapy Works?

Complementary and alternative (CAM) therapy is designed to help support people on their recovery journeys. Individuals who are suffering from a substance use disorder or mental health condition can do so by enrolling in an outpatient treatment center. At treatment centers, trained and dedicated staff and clinicians begin by evaluating a new patient to determine their needs. After this initial assessment, mental health and addiction experts produce an individualized treatment plan that is designed to address all of a person’s unique issues. 

Treatment plans generally make use of a wide variety of treatment modalities, including approaches as various as prescription drugs, talk therapy, support groups, and skills training. Each of these evidence-based treatment approaches is intended to address a different aspect of a given patient’s mental health disorder or addiction. At most treatment centers, these treatment modalities will be emphasized before alternative therapies are considered.

Complementary and alternative therapy is generally prescribed in conjunction with these other evidence-based treatment approaches. While mainstream treatment modalities can zero in on and improve distinct aspects of a person’s mental and physical health, they do not offer the holistic benefits of CAM therapy. Complementary and alternative techniques emphasize the connection between a person’s body and their mind. 

Traditional practices like yoga and meditation can help people feel more whole and unified. Music and expressive arts therapies allow people to deal with difficult emotions that are not always easy to articulate in a talk therapy session. While people working to recover from substance use disorders and addictions stand a lot to gain from mainstream therapeutic techniques, supplementing them with CAM therapy can help them tackle difficulties that escape the grasp of scientific methods.

Complementary and Alternative (CAM) Therapy Techniques/Practices

Complementary and alternative therapy techniques can serve three different purposes: they can directly treat a physical or mental health disorder; they can help address the deficiencies or side effects of a more mainstream treatment approach; and they can help people improve their quality of life during treatment and beyond. The following non-exhaustive list covers many of the most common complementary and alternative therapy practices:

  • Acupressure
  • Acupuncture
  • Alexander Technique
  • Aromatherapy
  • Art therapy
  • Ayurvedic Medicine
  • Biofeedback
  • Breathwork
  • Chromotherapy and light therapy
  • Crystal therapy
  • Cupping
  • Detoxification therapy
  • Fasting
  • Herbal medicine
  • Humor therapy
  • Hypnotherapy
  • Juice therapy
  • Massage therapy
  • Meditation
  • Nutritional therapy
  • Pet therapy
  • Prayer
  • Reiki
  • Yoga

What to Expect During Complementary and Alternative (CAM) Therapy?

Before beginning complementary and alternative therapy, it is often a good idea to talk to your treatment provider about your unique situation. Your treatment provider can help assess the state of your mental and physical health and help design a treatment plan that suits your needs. While the foundation of most mental health and addiction treatments is covered by mainstream evidence-based therapies, your treatment provider may offer complementary and evidence based therapy as well. 

If they do not, and you are interested in pursuing this type of treatment, feel free to bring it up during your initial discussions. Even if they do not offer it at your specific outpatient program, there is a high likelihood that they can recommend a provider for the treatment you’re interested in.

During the course of your complementary and alternative therapy treatment, you may be asked to engage in exercises or lifestyle changes that feel new and perhaps a little uncomfortable. Sitting in silent meditation, for instance, may sound easy, but for people with busy minds it can feel like the most difficult thing in the world. 

Certain movement therapies that fall under the umbrella of CAM can feel embarrassing for first-timers. Yoga, tai chi, and even acupuncture and massage can make people self-conscious who are used to having total control. You may also be asked to begin a special diet, take specific supplements, or avoid certain foods entirely. These life changes may require a bit of a mindset adjustment.

Ultimately, however, CAM therapies are designed to make people feel relaxed, whole, and connected to nature. Certain CAM therapy treatments may feel natural to many people. Pet therapy, for instance, is based on research that shows that people who spend time with dogs are less likely to suffer from depression, addiction, and other mental health disorders. 

Humor therapy, also known as laugh therapy, may also feel easy. Laughter promotes endorphins and raises serotonin, helping people improve their well-being and lower their susceptibility to emotional distress. While pursuing these kinds of treatments in a systematic and methodical way may seem different, the chances are high that you’re already practicing alternative therapies to some extent in your own life.

Goals and Benefits of Complementary and Alternative (CAM) Therapy

The purpose of complementary and alternative (CAM) therapy is to offer people who are recovering from health conditions a set of tools beyond that which is offered by the medical establishment. The reasons that people choose to make use of CAM therapy are too long to list. Some common goals people have when beginning CAM therapy include:

  • Avoiding the side effects of prescription drugs
  • Getting back in touch with ones heritage
  • Exploring the rich cultural wealth of indigenous or ancient healing practices
  • Avoiding drugs entirely while treating a substance use disorder
  • Reinforcing the effects of mainstream medical techniques
  • Using treatments entirely derived from nature
  • Receiving treatment that is person-centered, rather than emphasizing a person’s illness or condition
  • Experiencing the benefits of mind-body integration

Nonetheless, it is important to recognize that because CAM therapy is outside of the medical mainstream, many of its practices are not well-researched. While word-of-mouth testimony might paint an enticing picture of a specific treatment practice, it is generally wise to do a little research to ensure that a specific treatment is right for you. Talking to a mental health or addiction expert can often be a great way of getting dependable information.

A number of CAM therapies, however, have a growing body of research that supports their benefits. A few example of CAM therapies that are becoming increasingly accepted in the medical community include:

  • Acupuncture. Acupuncture treatment has been shown to help opioid addicts get through withdrawal with fewer negative side effects.
  • St. John’s Wort. Taking a dietary supplement derived from this naturally occurring plant can lessen the effects of mild depression over the short term.
  • S-Adenosyl-L-methionine (SAMe). SAMe, an amino acid found naturally in the body, is available in over-the-counter pills. Taking this dietary supplement has been shown to decrease the symptoms of depression.

Effectiveness of Complementary and Alternative (CAM) Therapy

Ultimately, the effectiveness of complementary and alternative (CAM) therapy is difficult to measure. This is in part because of the nature of CAM therapies, which are defined intrinsically as being not evidence-based. As such, the majority of scientific studies on the efficacy of CAM therapeutic practices aim to debunk these practices, or at best the results are inconclusive. 

Nonetheless, in actual practice many addiction experts and mental health clinicians advocate on behalf of CAM therapy. People who work in the field of addiction treatment and mental health disorders who have first-hand experience of these treatment modalities working are likely to stand behind them.

Even scientists who doubt the efficacy of complementary and alternative therapy understand that even though these therapies are not based on the same biomedical model as mainstream therapies, they are often quite effective. A number of reasons for the mysterious efficacy of CAM therapy have been proposed. The most prevalent explanation is the placebo effect. 

The placebo effect is a term that refers to a common phenomenon: when individuals receive a treatment that they believe will benefit them, they will experience those benefits whether or not the treatment had therapeutic value in itself. Multiple studies have confirmed this seemingly miraculous phenomenon. Patients who receive a pill composed  entirely of sugar who are told that it lessens depression tend to report back weeks later a lessening of their symptoms. 

Even people with physical conditions like cancer often report subjective improvements after receiving placebo treatment. While pointing out the placebo effect may sound like a way for scientists to dismiss the effects of alternative medicine, the fact remains that the placebo effect is an effect, and often a very powerful one.

Ultimately, the greatest source of CAM therapy’s effectiveness is the fact that patients enjoy it. While mainstream evidence-based therapies like cognitive-behavioral therapy and pharmacological interventions may decrease symptomatology, it is common for people to react negatively to being treated like patients. 

Complementary and alternative therapy offers people a chance to be treated like whole and complete human beings, giving them chances to express themselves and connect to nature. CAM therapy often not only feels less clinical and sterile, it is generally derived from rich cultural traditions to which patients feel a particular connection. 

Individuals engaged in CAM therapy may therefore be significantly more likely to remain committed to the treatment process. If their commitment to treatment includes engagement in evidence-based practices as well, individuals pursuing CAM therapy improve their chances of recovering from their conditions.

Complementary and Alternative (CAM) Therapy in Mental Health and Addiction Treatment

Complementary and alternative (CAM) therapy can be effectively utilized to treat people suffering from a variety of mental health conditions and substance use disorders. Because so many unique treatment methods fall under the umbrella term of CAM therapy, there are treatments available for every mental health condition available. These treatments can also be personalized to fit the unique circumstances of the patient. Common conditions that are often treated with CAM therapy include:

  • Major depression
  • Anxiety disorder
  • Eating disorders, including bulimia and anorexia nervosa
  • Attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)
  • Sleep disorders, including insomnia
  • Postpartum depression
  • Anger management disorders
  • Tics
  • Bipolar disorder
  • Personality disorders
  • Obsessive-compulsive disorder
  • Post-traumatic stress disorder
  • Schizophrenia and psychotic episodes
  • Substance use disorders

Outpatient treatment centers can utilize CAM therapy for people suffering from substance use disorders, whether they are trying to recover from active addiction or rebuilding their lives in early sobriety. A variety of CAM interventions have been shown to help people maintain their sobriety and reduce cravings. Examples of CAM interventions that have been shown to help people with drug and alcohol addictions include:

  • Vitamin B1. Not only does this vitamin address nutritional deficiencies that are common among long-term alcohol abusers, it can also help mitigate the symptoms of acute alcohol withdrawal.
  • Hypnotherapy. A side-by-side comparison of people who were trying to quit smoking showed that hypnotherapy combined with nicotine replacement therapy was more effective than behavioral therapy.
  • Mindfulness meditation. This practice, derived from Buddhist traditions, can help addicts reduce their cravings and recover their peace of mind in early recovery.
  • Yoga. Yoga has been shown to reduce the cravings that cigarette smokers experience, and some addiction experts have surmised that these benefits extend to other substances as well.
  • Acupuncture. Even compared to placebos, acupuncture has been shown to decrease relapse rates among people recovering from opioid use disorders. Electric acupuncture had an even more potent effect.
  • Art therapy. Expressive therapies like art and music therapy can support people recovering from drug and alcohol addiction. These treatments build social skills, increase people’s commitment to the treatment process, improve relationships, and decrease stress, depression, anger, and anxiety.

Finding Complementary and Alternative (CAM) Therapy Near Me

For people who are experiencing acute suffering due to a mental health condition or substance use disorder, complementary and alternative therapy can be an essential supplement to other therapeutic practices. Mental illness can make people feel like there is something wrong with them. 

Even evidence-based mainstream treatment methods often perpetuate this feeling by making individuals feel like patients. Complementary and alternative therapies avoid this by treating every person holistically. Outpatient treatment programs offer a wide variety of CAM therapies in an effort to help patients feel whole, complete, and connected to themselves and the world around them. 

NuView Treatment Center, an outpatient treatment center located in West Los Angeles, offers complementary and alternative (CAM) therapy for people who suffer from substance use disorders, anxiety disorder, major depression, and other mental health disorders. Our dedicated clinicians have experience helping people develop the tools they need to recover from severe emotional distress. They are trained in techniques for managing the symptoms of addictions. 

Getting CAM treatment at NuView Treatment Center can help people suffering from addictions develop the tools they need to develop sobriety, avoid relapse, and begin to lead healthy and productive lives without the crutch of drugs and alcohol. Recovery is only a step away: reach out today.

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