December 15, 2023

Using faith in addictions counseling, recovery groups help heal ‘from the inside out’

In this photo from 2015, counselor Andy Martin leads an afternoon group session at GraceWay home in Albany, Ga., a home for women working to overcome addiction. (CNS photo/Michael Alexander, Georgia Bulletin)

In this photo from 2015, counselor Andy Martin leads an afternoon group session at GraceWay home in Albany, Ga., a home for women working to overcome addiction. (CNS photo/Michael Alexander, Georgia Bulletin)

(Editor’s note: This is the fourth in an occasional series of articles addressing mental health, including the role of faith in seeking wholeness. The final topic will address the role of spiritual direction and other Catholic resources in seeking mental wholeness. See the first part here, the second part here, and the third part here.)

By Natalie Hoefer

For years, Sophie’s life followed the same frustrating pattern.

“Every morning, I would walk the dog and ask God to help me manage my eating,” she says. “And every evening, I would be asking for forgiveness because I had blown it.”

For Sophie, a member of St. Monica Parish in Indianapolis using an alias for privacy, the inability to control her eating affected her everyday life and quality of living—one of the signs of the mental illness known as addiction.

Addiction is a “chronic brain disorder,” according to the American Society of Addiction Medicine (ASAM). It typically takes one of two forms—substance use disorder such as drugs and alcohol, or behavioral addiction such as overeating, gambling, viewing pornography and more.

The organization notes that addiction “doesn’t happen from having a lack of willpower or as a result of making bad decisions.” But it can have devastating effects on a person’s physical and mental health, relationships and career.

In this article, two Catholic counselors—Jonathan Chamblee of Novella Counseling, LLC, and Amanda Beikes of Central Psychological Services, LLC, both in Indianapolis—discuss the causes of addiction, ways it can be managed, and the role faith can play in healing. (Related links: Resources exist in central and southern Indiana to help manage addiction)

The ‘feel-good, reward chemical’

Search for “addiction” in Google, and the screen fills with links to sites and articles on drugs and alcohol.

But ASAM states that behavioral addictions “can occur with any activity that’s capable of stimulating your brain’s reward system.” It lists activities like gambling, eating, shopping, viewing pornography, video gaming and using the internet.

So, a person enjoys good craft beer or engages in a hobby frequently. Does that mean they’re addicted? It depends.

Signs of true addiction generally include “an inability to stop [the activity or substance], increased tolerance, intense focus on the substance or activity, lack of control, personal problems, health issues and withdrawal,” according to information on Cleveland Clinic’s website (

What makes addiction particularly difficult to address is that it changes the brain’s chemistry.

“Over time, the substances or activities change your brain chemistry, and you become desensitized to their effects,” the site notes. “You then need more to produce the same effect.”

The chemical causing this effect is dopamine. Chamblee, a licensed clinical social worker, calls it the “feel-good, reward chemical.”

And with gambling, pornography and internet addiction, he says, “It’s often paired with a fear of missing out, that feeling of, ‘Wouldn’t it be terrible if I won the next game or if it was the next scroll that was going to be mind-blowing?’ ”

Dopamine plays the chemical role in addiction. But what causes a person to turn to a substance or activity for relief in the first place?

‘It makes it harder to avoid’

There is no simple answer to that question, says Chamblee.

“Addiction can be its own problem, or it can be a symptom of something bigger, or both,” he says.

The root causes are just as complex, but Chamblee and Beikes agree that such causes can be traced as far back as the womb.

“Children of parents with addiction or substance use disorder can be born with a genetic predisposition,” says Beikes, a licensed clinical social worker and licensed clinical addiction counselor.

“Also, when there’s exposure [to addictive behavior] in a household growing up or when there’s less parental supervision of kids dabbling in substance abuse, [addiction] can become a learned behavior.”

Childhood trauma or abuse can also play a factor, says Chamblee.

“There’s a high correspondence between childhood trauma and addiction,” he notes. “Childhood trauma happens when the brain is forming. … That doesn’t mean you will be addicted, but it makes it harder to avoid.”

He and Beikes both note another common aspect of addiction, a factor exacerbated during the COVID-19 pandemic: isolation.

“We were made for social interaction,” Beikes says. “When people are isolated, they start feeling more depressed, and addiction plays a part in escape.”

Chamblee agrees.

“When people feel isolated, that addiction is much more likely,” he says. “That’s why it was so prevalent during the pandemic. If people feel connected with good relationships with family and the community, then addiction is easier not to succumb to.”

It’s that sense of community that make 12-step programs so helpful for those with addictions.

‘We are still the image of God’

Twelve-step recovery programs are designed to help individuals attain long-lasting freedom from substance or behavioral addiction.

The 12 steps “outline a path to spiritual progress through a series of actions designed to elicit … a complete mental, emotional, and spiritual shift in perception,” according to

One of the benefits of such programs is that they “involve restoration with the community, like making amends to those harmed by addiction, having a sponsor, having a group you can be honest with,” says Chamblee. “Those are incredibly powerful.”

Sophie, a member of Overeaters Anonymous, has found this to be the case.

“Having the support of other people that have the same illness and addiction that I have, I am able to acknowledge my powerlessness over food,” she says.

Combining a recovery program with counseling provides a good “both/and” solution for many people in treating addiction, says Chamblee.

“With counseling, it’s often going back to a trauma, often in childhood, and addressing those wounds,” he says.

He also notes that combining the Catholic faith with counseling “can bring hope and God’s grace into the situation.

“I just don’t think there’s the same response or equal footing in secular counseling, that no matter how much we’ve fallen or have addiction or other issues, we are still the image of God. … No matter how much we have messed up, that doesn’t fundamentally define who we are and why we matter.”

Beikes, a Catholic who welcomes involving faith with counseling if a patient wishes, agrees.

“Healing is from the inside out,” she says. “If we can bring God into the healing process, that benefits other areas like personal relationships and job.”

And while 12-step-programs “say they’re not based on religion, they definitely have a spiritual aspect” in their call on help from a “higher power,” Beikes says.

“I do believe people increase in faith as they get sober because they realize there is a greater being playing a part in their strength, courage and commitment to staying sober.”

Such has been the case for Sophie with her overeating.

‘My faith walk is so much stronger’

It is the 12-step combination of community support and faith that makes Overeaters Anonymous work for her, she says, adding that she knows the “higher power” recovery programs refer to is God.

“I realized that, while I was praying for help in the morning, I was still trying to manage my food all by myself without asking for help from other people,” says Sophie. “And for me, I can’t do my faith by myself. My Christian walk has to be with other people, and finding a solution for overeating had to come from other people.”

While she still begins each morning in prayer, Sophie says that time “includes acknowledging the majesty of our God and asking for the presence of the Holy Spirit to help me not eat the foods that I have discovered make me crazy, and at the same time to stick with the food plan that I’ve created for the day.”

The first three of the 12 steps epitomize for Sophie the faith involved in working the program: admitting powerlessness, believing in the ability of a higher power to restore sanity, and deciding to turn one’s life and will over to that higher power.

“And it applies to other things in my life I’m powerless over,” she notes. “If I invite God into that situation, then I can trust he’s got this.”

The results have been profound for Sophie. Yes, she lost the weight she desired, she has kept it off for several years, and she physically feels better.

But more importantly, she says, “My faith walk is so much stronger, since I’ve been able to give my addiction over to God.

“By practicing every day handing my food over to God, it just has allowed me to trust him with everything in my life, at a much deeper level than I had before.” †

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