Mindfulness, whether simple mindfulness meditation, medical practices like Mindfulness-based Stress Reduction, or mindfulness as part of Tai Chi or Yoga, is a powerful tool in helping people to recovery. In fact, many addiction treatment programs include yoga, mindfulness, and meditation as separate practices, cognitive behavioral therapy more and more often incorporates mindfulness techniques and meditation, and mindfulness is increasingly recognized as a positive complementary therapy for persons in behavioral therapy.
While mindfulness will not, on its own, treat addiction, it can help you.
Here, you can think of mindfulness and mindfulness practices as part of your toolkit, some of what you use to stay clean or sober, and one of a range of new tools and skills you’re learning to help you live a good life without drugs or alcohol.
Meditation is a core part of mindfulness, but it is just one of the tools in mindfulness. Here, mindfulness meditation usually consists of 15–90-minute sessions, where you sit, focus on breathing, and allow your mind to wander nonjudgmentally. Meditation is a practice where you set aside time to clear your mind, to allow the body to rest, and to train the focus.
This can help your recovery in two ways. The first is that it allows you to learn how to focus the thoughts so you can stop focusing on stress, worry, and negative thoughts. The second is that it gives you a time out, space to relax, and space to observe your thoughts and to get to know yourself. That can be important, especially as you’re rebuilding yourself coming out of addiction.
Most people spend a significant time worrying about both the future and the past. That’s especially true with addicts, with many of us spending over half of our active time thinking about what could go wrong, what has gone wrong, and feeling generally bad about those thoughts. Mindfulness helps you to stop thinking those thoughts and to instead pay attention to what’s right in front of you, the act of driving a car, the music on the radio, talking to someone next to you, getting absorbed in your work or your hobby instead of your thoughts. That can help you to avoid creating stress for yourself, reduce the overall level of stress, and eventually, allow you to let go of stress more quickly, because you’re not focusing on it, you’re focusing on the things you actually want to be doing.
If you’re the kind of person who eats a meal too fast and barely remembers it, spends half an hour in the shower and it feels like a few minutes, or blanks out while taking public transport or driving in a car with others, you’re probably not very good at staying in the present moment. The reason might be spacing out, it might be worrying, it might be daydreaming – eventually, whatever the cause, it reduces your quality of life because you’re not paying attention to the things that actually bring you joy. That might mean things as small as how your keyboard feels under your hands or what breakfast tastes like when you take a few minutes to savor it or how much more connected you feel to friends when you’re actively engaging with them, but it will matter in every case. Eventually, noticing the present moment and being present in it will help you to find more joy in those things and to need substances as an escape less and less.
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People with substance use disorders tend to have issues with obsessively holding onto thoughts, often negative ones. That might mean cravings, it might mean feelings of hurt, it might mean “this one thing and then everything will be better”. However, it’s not healthy or good for you to focus on those things. Mindfulness can help you to actively recognize that thoughts are just thoughts, they don’t mean anything but the meaning you give them. And, that can be incredibly freeing, whether you’re thinking about using, being paranoid, or caught up in something being negative. Letting go of those thoughts, refocusing on something pleasant or real, and deciding how you feel and want to feel instead of letting that thought carry you away can be incredibly powerful in balancing your overall mood. And, that will reduce your need to self-medicate, to use to feel better, or to look for coping mechanisms outside of yourself.
Good breathing will help you to calm down, to relax, to sleep better, and to feel more attuned with yourself. Taking time to focus on breathing and to actively control your breathing can help you to move past cravings, to put your focus elsewhere, and to make it through difficult periods. It’s not a magic fix, but it is a practice you can use to calm down, to sidestep cravings, and to control your emotions.
Attention bias is the phenomenon where you have something at top of mind so you notice it everywhere. For example, when you buy a new car and suddenly you’re seeing that car everywhere, even though you never noticed it before. People do that with substances as well, and if you’re biased towards something like alcohol, you’re going to see, hear, and smell it everywhere. That’s incredibly bad for your sobriety, especially because it means each time you see it, it will continue to trigger further attention. Mindfulness helps you to pay attention to the present moment, removing substances from the top of mind bias. In one study, active mindfulness practitioners were significantly less likely to show this type of attention bias than persons with a similar period of sobriety who were not practicing mindfulness.
Finally, mindfulness can help you to reduce associations with places and things that might result in triggers. If you’re paying attention to what you are doing now, how you feel now, and the now, you’re less likely to experience flashbacks, reminders, and past events when moving through places or feelings where you used to turn to drugs or alcohol. Therefore, mindfulness can help you to reduce the impact of triggering events and places – although it won’t be a cure.
Mindfulness is a tool that you can use to help your recovery. It is not a cure for addiction it is not a replacement for behavioral therapy, and there is no evidence that mindfulness alone has any benefits for people who want to recover. However, it can add value to an existing treatment plan, helping you to learn skills and mindsets that make recovery easier.