Complementary Therapy for Addiction: “Drumming Out Drugs”

Often, these problems take a while to show up after a vet returns home, and may be initially mistaken for readjustment. Untreated co-occurring disorders can lead to major problems at home and work and in your daily life, so it’s important to seek help.

Avoid High-Risk Situations

How do you feel at the end of the day? You’re probably hungry because you haven’t eaten well. You’re probably angry because you’ve had a tough day at work or a tough commute home. You may feel lonely because you’re isolated. You don’t have to be physically alone to feel lonely. And you’re tired. That’s why your strongest cravings usually occur at the end of the day. Here’s another way of looking at high-risk situations:

How can you avoid high-risk situations? Of course, you can’t always avoid these situations. But if you’re aware of them, they won’t catch you off guard, and you can prevent little craving from turning into major urges.

Take better care of yourself. Eat a healthier lunch so you’re not as hungry at the end of the day. Join a 12 step group so that you don’t feel isolated. Learn how to relax so that you can let go of your anger and resentments. Develop better sleep habits so that you’re less tired.

Make a list of your high-risk situations. Addiction is sneaky. Sometimes you won’t see your high-risk situations until you’re right in the middle of one. That’s why it’s important that you learn to look for them. Make a list of your high-risk situations and keep it with you. Go over the list with someone in recovery so that you can spot any situations that you might have missed. Make the list and keep it with you. Some day that list may save your life.


This report is based on information acquired from observations of drumming activities in substance abuse programs; interviews with program directors and counselors about the effects and experiences induced; a pilot program introducing drumming for recovering addicts; and on-line discussions and published material on drumming effects. Because of confidentiality issues, the programs observed did not permit interviews with clients. Clients’ perspectives were provided by the directors and counselors involved in the program.

The following summarizes research done during 2001 on programs in Pennsylvania, Virginia, Wisconsin, and Missouri. Participant observation was carried out in the first 2 locations; interviews and published material were used for descriptions of activities and assessment of their effects at all sites.

Mark Seaman and Earth Rhythms of West Reading, Pa

Seaman is recovering from addiction; he began drumming as a way to express himself and become part of a community. He was searching for natural altered states of consciousness. His engagement with drums led to a personal transformation and an involvement with the recovery industry through counselors he knew at the Caron Foundation in Wernersville, Pa.3 They wanted to expose adolescents in substance abuse treatment to drumming. The counselors said that these shut-down, angry, disenfranchised youth came alive as drumming gave them an avenue of expression. Initially, his programs were closely tied to the therapeutic process. Now, however, they are offered as recreational activity, and use drumming to create healing energy.


Seaman’s programs begin with his drumming as people enter the room. They pick up drums and are free to play them as they choose. He then introduces warm-up exercises to make people feel comfortable with the drums, teaching people how to hit the drums without emphasizing anything technical. A vocal element is introduced to engage the group in coordinated chanting/singing activities to get their energy going. He allows people to play spontaneously to lay the groundwork for nonverbal communication and asks participants to show how they feel through playing a rhythm on the drums. Call-and-response activities are used to connect the group. A subsequent activity gives each participant the opportunity to briefly use the drum to express feelings. The group engages in the creation of improvisational music that produces a feeling of great accomplishment and engages a “letting go” process through visualization. Seaman ends his program with an application of the Alcoholics Anonymous’ 11th step (meditation), using meditation music and a variety of percussion instruments to reinforce a visualization process to connect with a higher power. “I get people relaxed, give them permission to leave their body and go on a journey. I talk about forgiveness, acceptance and surrender. I work [on] release of guilt from the wreckage that they have produced through their addictions. The visual imagery connects with the inner child, to release baggage, to awaken true potential, to image contact with higher power that covers and embraces them in a space of joy and healing.”


The participants enthusiastically receive the drumming. Staff emphasized that the youths particularly need drumming when group dynamics are stressed because of conflict within the group, and when the group’s sense of unity and purpose is disrupted by a client’s relapse to drugs. Seaman finds that drumming pulls a group together, giving a sense of community and connectedness. The terminal meditation activity induces deep relaxation, eases personal and group tensions, and often leads to strong emotional release. Seaman suggests that drumming produces an altered state of consciousness and an experience of a rush of energy from the vibrations, with physical stimulation producing emotional release. Because addicted people are very self-centered, are disconnected, and feel isolated even around other people, the drumming produces the sense of connectedness that they are desperate for, he says. “All of us need this reconnection to ourselves, to our soul, to a higher power. Drums bring this out. Drums penetrate people at a deeper level. Drumming produces a sense of connectedness and community, integrating body, mind and spirit.” Seaman’s program is designed to induce a spiritual experience that is upbeat and fun. Meditation, “letting-go,” and “rebirthing experiences” allow people to leave behind the things they don’t want (e.g. their addictions) and engage the themes of recovery within the dynamics of group drumming.

Ed Mikenas and the Lynchburg Day Program

Ed Mikenas6,25 has a background as a musician, music therapist, and substance abuse counselor; he has also taken training from the Foundation for Shamanic Studies. He first discovered the positive effects of drumming for recovery when he worked as a substance abuse counselor at a group home for girls. Mikenas’ interest in drumming preceded this program, beginning with a concert for the Partnership for Prevention of Substance Abuse. Currently, his programs are provided in colleges, after-school programs, city programs, and psychology and addiction conferences. The drumming reinforces other programs for both prevention of and recovery from addiction in a community context. Drumming emphasizes self-expression, teaches how to rebuild emotional health, and addresses issues of violence and conflict through expression and integration of emotions, says Mikenas.


Drumming produces physiological, psychological, and social stimulation that enhances recovery processes. Drumming induces relaxation and produces natural pleasurable experiences, enhanced awareness of preconscious dynamics, a release of emotional trauma, and reintegration of self. Drumming addresses self-centeredness, isolation, and alienation, creating a sense of connectedness with self and others. Drumming provides a secular approach to accessing a higher power and applying spiritual perspectives to the psychological and emotional dynamics of addiction. Drumming circles have important roles as complementary addiction therapy, particularly for repeated relapse and when other counseling modalities have failed.

Drumming may reduce addiction by providing natural alterations of consciousness.8,18–19 Shamanic drumming directly supports the introduction of spiritual factors found significant in recovery from substance abuse.21,37–39 Because recidivism is widespread, treatment success may mirror the natural recovery rate,40 and current methods have little success,41 the use of drumming and other altered states of consciousness as complementary therapies with considerable promise is justified.

Drumming groups may also aid recovery by enhancing health through their effects on social support and social networks. The health implications of social support have been increasingly recognized.42–43 These forms of support are of considerable significance for well-being in an increasingly atomized society in which traditional family- and community-based systems of support have become seriously eroded. Thus, deliberate enhancement of social support is a potentially significant contributor to physical, emotional, and mental health. The social support available from community drumming circles is one such source. These social effects are not merely palliative but constitute mechanisms for producing psychobiological effects. Central to these effects is an amelioration of the stress response, a significant factor in drug use and recidivism.19

The use of drumming as part of substance abuse rehabilitation is far more widespread than the few cases reviewed here might suggest. Incorporation of drumming within Native American treatment programs has been repeatedly mentioned to me. A recent book reviewing the scope of research on the effects of drumming reports on programs in New York and California in which drumming is incorporated into addictions treatment.5 The Foundation for Shamanic Studies has several decades of experience in applying shamanic altered state of consciousness in both training and therapy.20 They have identified a variety of contexts in which shamanic approaches may be useful in reducing substance abuse.

The physiological effects of drumming and the positive effects of group drumming experiences on recovery that are attested to by counselors who have incorporated these activities into substance abuse rehabilitation programs provide a compelling rationale for the utilization and evaluation of this resource. Winkelman8 suggests a variety of ways in which the shamanic paradigm and altered states of consciousness can be applied to substance abuse rehabilitation.

Group support

As with other addictions, groups are very helpful, not only in maintaining sobriety, but also as a safe place to get support and discuss challenges. Sometimes treatment programs for co-occurring disorders provide groups that continue to meet on an aftercare basis. Your doctor or treatment provider may also be able to refer you to a group for people with co-occurring disorders.

While it’s often best to join a group that addresses both substance abuse and your mental health disorder, twelve-step groups for substance abuse can also be helpful—plus they’re more common, so you’re likely to find one in your area. These free programs, facilitated by peers, use group support and a set of guided principles—the twelve steps—to obtain and maintain sobriety.

Just make sure your group is accepting of the idea of co-occurring disorders and psychiatric medication. Some people in these groups, although well meaning, may mistake taking psychiatric medication as another form of addiction. You want a place to feel safe, not pressured.

Helping a loved one with a dual diagnosis

The best way to help someone is to accept what you can and cannot do. You cannot force someone to remain sober, nor can you make someone take their medication or keep appointments. What you can do is make positive choices for yourself, encourage your loved one to get help, and offer your support while making sure you don’t lose yourself in the process.

Seek support. Dealing with a loved one’s mental illness and substance abuse can be painful and isolating. Make sure you’re getting the emotional support you need to cope. Talk to someone you trust about what you’re going through. It can also help to get your own therapy or join a support group.

Set boundaries. Be realistic about the amount of care you’re able to provide without feeling overwhelmed and resentful. Set limits on disruptive behaviors and stick to them. Letting the co-occurring disorders take over your life isn’t healthy for you or your loved one.

Educate yourself. Learn all you can about your loved one’s mental health problem, as well as substance abuse treatment and recovery. The more you understand what your loved one is going through, the better able you’ll be to support recovery.

Be patient. Recovering from co-occurring disorders doesn’t happen overnight. Recovery is an ongoing process and relapse is common. Ongoing support for both you and your loved one is crucial as you work toward recovery, but you can get through this difficult time together and regain control of your lives.

Grant, Bridget F., Frederick S. Stinson, Deborah A. Dawson, S. Patricia Chou, Mary C. Dufour, Wilson Compton, Roger P. Pickering, and Kenneth Kaplan. “Prevalence and Co-Occurrence of Substance Use Disorders and Independent Mood and Anxiety Disorders: Results from the National Epidemiologic Survey on Alcohol and Related Conditions.” Archives of General Psychiatry 61, no. 8 (August 2004): 807–16.

Get more help

Helplines and support groups

Worldwide: Dual Recovery Anonymous offers 12-step meetings in various countries for people who are chemically dependent and also affected by a mental health disorder. Other peer support groups, such as Alcoholics Anonymous, Narcotics Anonymous, SMART Recovery, and Women for Sobriety can also be a good source of support as you go through recovery and most have worldwide chapters.