Mindfulness: A powerful tool for addiction recovery

April 28, 2016 | by Joy Rumsey, LSW, CADC
Categories: Healthy Driven Minds

Treating addiction involves more than just avoiding drugs or alcohol. To quit for good and stay sober, you’ll have to make bigger lifestyle changes.

Think of it this way: If you’re considering gastric bypass surgery to lose weight and stay healthy, you’ll meet with more than a surgeon. Before and after, you’ll likely talk with a dietitian, personal trainer and therapist. That’s because the surgery itself isn’t an end all, be all. To stay well, you’ll need to retrain your brain to make healthy choices every day.

The same is true for addiction recovery. To heal successfully, it’s critical to address underlying issues that contribute to your condition.

One of the first steps we recommend during recovery is to incorporate mindfulness meditation into your daily routine. Mindfulness meditation can help you confront your feelings and cravings and take control of your actions.

What is mindfulness, and how can you practice it?

Mindfulness is not necessarily a religious or philosophical practice. It’s about how we allow ourselves to exist in the present moment and take it for what it is. It’s an awareness of our moment-to-moment thoughts, feelings, sensations and surroundings, and how to accept them without judgment. We don’t have control over the past, and we may not be able to control the future. We may not even have control over how we feel in the moment. We can control what we do with those feelings and how we choose to act on them.

Living in the moment occupies our mind, giving it less opportunity to dwell on unhelpful memories of the past or fears of the future. When we are not mindful, we use tremendous amounts of time and energy worrying about what is to come, and feelings of regret or guilt about what may have been.

Mindfulness meditation does not have to involve chanting while sitting cross-legged on the floor. You can practice it how it suits you. In our dual diagnosis program, we encourage patients to practice at least two minutes of mindful meditation daily. During the program, we use various methods, including:

  • Deep breathing exercises
  • Body scans (noticing the sensations in your body)
  • Using our five senses to observe what is happening in the room around us
  • Self-soothe techniques (for example, touching something squishy or smelling lavender).

We also encourage practices such as mindful eating (taking time to notice the textures and flavors of each bite), mindful walking outside (observing and describing the things happening around us), yoga or other exercise, or meditative prayer.

Some patients find it helpful to listen to guided meditations they find online or on podcasts. Dr. Kristen Neff has a number of guided meditations to help you notice how you experience stress in your body. Other patients benefit from guided imagery meditations, where they follow a script or a recording that takes them through various scenes (“Imagine you’re at the beach…”). 

How can mindfulness meditation help in addiction recovery?

Many of my patients who struggle with addiction feel a tremendous amount of shame, guilt and embarrassment. Their own past behaviors, others’ behaviors toward them, and the resulting consequences can lead to these emotions. Often, they’ve spent years with some form of self-medication to hide from these feelings. My primary goal is to help them focus on the present and control how they deal with specific feelings, including cravings.

If this rings true for you, you first need to recognize the feelings that are there. To experience a craving mindfully, which is to acknowledge the craving and your thoughts associated with it, and then accept those feelings, you can remind yourself that the craving will pass. By doing this, you can act more effectively in the moment.

You can’t change what you are unwilling to admit to yourself. In a sense, you need to return to reality. It’s difficult, but doable.

It’s also important to understand that substance abuse can cause changes in the brain, leading to poorer prognosis and increased difficulty. Fortunately, mindfulness meditation has been shown to change the brain structure for the better.

In one study, researchers discovered differences in brain tissue between participants who went through an eight-week mindfulness meditation program and those who didn’t. The group who meditated showed positive improvements in regions of the brain that involve mind wandering, emotional regulation, perspective, empathy and compassion. This group also saw positive effects in the amygdala, or the brain’s “fight or flight” reaction that controls fear and stress.

When you reduce the stress of addiction and withdrawal symptoms, your body can focus on healing instead of defense. Retraining your mind and remapping your brain through mindfulness meditation may kick-start your healing process.

How can you start a mindfulness meditation practice?

You may be doing it already without realizing it. For example, the “Serenity Prayer,” a poem that’s commonly used in substance abuse support groups, is a great example:

“God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
Courage to change the things I can,
And wisdom to know the difference.”

The words and meaning behind the Serenity Prayer speak to the core of mindfulness: building self-awareness, accepting our thoughts and feelings, and taking control of that which we are able in the present. This is true for everyone, and it’s especially relevant for people who struggle with addiction.

If you would like to learn how mindfulness meditation can help you, request an appointment online for a confidential assessment or call 630-305-5027.

Learn more about Linden Oaks Behavioral Health.

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