Recovery Unplugged: Understanding the Physiology of Addiction and Sobriety

by Jill Gleeson

EDGE Media Network Contributor

Saturday May 23, 2020

Recovery Unplugged: Understanding the Physiology of Addiction and Sobriety
  (Source:Prostock-Studio/Getty Images)

It's one of the biggest clichés in addiction treatment: a rehabilitation or 12-step meeting shrouded in a haze of cigarette smoke, its attendees clutched to coffee as a crutch down the path of sobriety.

But what you put into your body directly relates to recovery, according to Paul Pellinger, co-founder and vision leader of Recovery Unplugged, a national addiction care organization with locations all over the country — and the importance of physical well-being shouldn't be minimized.

"If the disease of addiction is a physical, mental and spiritual disease, which I believe it is," Pellinger says, "then the solution should also be physical, mental and spiritual. But the physical aspect is often ignored. People love to talk about addicts' mental and spiritual states all day long: go to therapy, go to meetings, pray, meditate, all of that stuff. But when we talk about the physical aspect, it usually just refers to the physical detox of the drug being removed from your body. That's what the most focus is usually on."

Dealing with Detox

The physical symptoms of substance withdrawal can be excruciating. Alcohol withdrawal can cause delirium tremens (DTs), a serious condition that may include seizures, hallucinations and violent tremors. Coming off benzodiazepines such as Valium can also cause life-threatening withdrawal symptoms, like an elevated heart rate and high blood pressure, as well as delirium. Recovery Unplugged's compassionate staff understands the complexities of detox, while also providing medical supervision to ensure clients are safe and supported as their bodies begin to heal.

But the connection between the body and recovery goes far beyond the effects of detox.

"Often, clients will say, 'You know, I still feel anxious,'" says Pellinger. "Well, do you think it could have anything to do with the 14 Red Bulls you drank in a day? It's important to know that what you consume — whether it's sugar, carbs, caffeine, nicotine — can directly correlate to your recovery and how well you're enjoying it or not. And getting some cardio is also important because it releases endorphins and increases the same serotonin levels as drugs. Music has the same effect, causing the brain to release dopamine."

Why Music Matters

For Pellinger and Recovery Unplugged's staff and clients, music is the key to affecting long-lasting change. It helps break down emotional walls, allowing those in treatment to connect deeply with each other, their therapists and themselves. It's part of the treatment process from the client's first day, when they're picked up in a Recovery Unplugged van playing their favorite song on the sound system, to the last, when they walk out with an MP3 player loaded with what the team calls "musical prescriptions." Should clients feel themselves backsliding, listening to these songs can immediately and viscerally recall the tools learned during their time at Recovery Unplugged.

Just how powerful is music? Pellinger tells the story of the client who went home with an MP3 player loaded with "I Got This," a song Richie Supa, Recovery Unplugged's director of creative recovery, had written about the phrase addicts commonly use to reassure themselves all is well.

About seven months into his recovery and tired after a long day's work, the client considered skipping that night's NA meeting. Then he thought, "I got this," which reminded him of Supa's song and provided the motivation to go to a meeting. He shared his experience and the power of that song. His story inspired other participants to use music as a motivational reminder the next time they were feeling stuck in their recovery process.

"We focus more on affirmation, versus confrontation," Pellinger says of Recovery Unplugged, which has locations in Tennessee, Florida, Northern Virginia and Texas. "We focus on recovery triggers versus relapse triggers, making recovery more of a payoff than getting high. Music can be used as a catalyst to engage all aspects of recovery, including physical well-being. If you're going to tell someone, 'just start walking a mile or two a day, it'll help you,' do you think that's the first time they ever heard that? They know that. What can be an affirmative trigger? Music! Have you ever seen anybody running without earbuds? Music amplifies the positive changes starting to take place, which eventually carry over to all aspects of someone's life."

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Jill Gleeson is a travel and adventure journalist based in the Appalachians of Central Pennsylvania. Find her on Facebook and Twitter at @gopinkboots.