In the movie Trading Places, two wealthy businessmen (Randolph and Mortimer) make a $1 bet. They bet over whether a change in environment (from living on the streets to rubbing elbows with the wealthy) will make a drastic difference in a Billy Ray’s life. In the end, it was in fact spending time among the rich and famous that changed Billy Ray’s life.

Sure, it was only a movie. However, the idea that one’s environment has a significant influence on a person’s character has been long known. In fact, within the mental health field there is a little known type of therapy called milieu therapy. This therapeutic service focuses on a person’s environment as a means of creating change.

However, you’ll notice that most addiction treatment centers and drug rehab facilities use this type of therapy – whether consciously or unconsciously. In the environment of one of these facilities, there is a feeling of calm and ease. There are professional staff members who know how to handle your physical, emotional, and psychological concerns. There are guidelines and rules that protect your sobriety and general well being. Essentially, you reside in a safe community in order to stay sober and well during your stay.

There’s no question that having a safe place to live affects a person’s psychological state. They might feel more at ease, more confident in their sobriety, and healthier in general. The absence of drugs or alcohol and being with others who are also getting sober can make a big difference.

Although safety may not seem like a big deal, especially to someone who has been on the streets and who knows how to handle danger, there is a certain kind of psychological safety that can be hard to find. With the right psychological safety, a person can feel more at ease to grow and learn. They can be more vulnerable. They might be more willing to open up to others, particularly to professionals who are trained to support them. Having that kind of safety can facilitate one’s ability to grow, learn, and change.

Someone without this kind of safety might find their defenses naturally go up. They might resist treatment, avoid participating in groups, or even leave the facility. In fact, many people develop unhealthy coping tools because of a chronic feeling of danger, worry, fear, and anxiety. And one coping tool for fear used by many is substance abuse. However, with a safe environment, there’s a chance that a person might naturally relax and lose the need to have to use defenses and unhealthy coping tools.

However, having a dependency upon a certain drug will keep a person using substances despite the environment. For this reason, addiction treatment facilities address the dependency with medical treatment, allow time for a withdrawal period, and then provide a safe environment in which a person can heal.

Whether you’re in recovery or not, there are some things to be learned about milieu therapy. You might change your own environment by only spending time with those who help you feel safe. You might create a feeling of safety in your own home. You might look for a new job to avoid spending time with coworkers who drink. Or you might talk with your therapist (or sponsor) about ways to build safety in your life so that you can open, grow, and heal. Changing your environment might make a significant difference in your life and in your recovery.

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