How Mindfulness Helps with Addiction Recovery
Much like any other treatment for mental health disorders, there’s no one-size-fits-all path for addiction recovery. The best thing you can do for your sobriety, as well as your mental health, is to look at your options like a menu: you don’t have to choose everything, but you need to pick something. But the most successful people who have achieved long-term sobriety take multiple methods and integrate them into their lives. Therapy and 12-step programs are extremely beneficial for those trying to maintain their sobriety, but what about mindfulness?
You’ve most likely heard about mindfulness in recent years as it’s gained more mainstream attention. Unfortunately, there are a lot of misconceptions about what mindfulness actually is. When many people hear of mindfulness, they think of Buddhism or sitting in a robe on a mountain top while meditating. In reality, mindfulness doesn’t have to be a formal practice, but it can be. There’s actually quite a bit of research available that has found that mindfulness actually changes how the brain functions, and this can be extremely beneficial for anyone in sobriety.
What is Mindfulness?
Jon Kabat-Zinn is known as “the father of Western mindfulness”. Kabat-Zinn was originally a scientist who ended up becoming fascinated with the practice of mindfulness, which is a teaching that originated in Buddhism. What many people don’t realize is that you can adopt a mindfulness practice in a completely secular way and reap the benefits. Jon Kabat-Zinn first started testing out Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) in pain management clinics where pain medications weren’t working well enough for people with chronic pain. In the groups who used MBSR, there were significant decreases in pain, but in a very interesting way.
The issue that most people don’t realize is that it’s not so much our pain, but it’s our relationship to our pain. The mind is typically in one of two states: attraction or aversion. We want the good and push away the bad. When we give all of our attention to trying to push away our current experience, it actually makes things worse. With mindfulness, we become aware of what we’re feeling while simply letting it be. Kabat-Zinn describes mindfulness simply as “Paying attention, on purpose, in the present moment and without judgment.”
MBSR therapy has since been used to help treat people with depression, anxiety, addiction and more. It’s even been proven to help people with PTSD and ADHD. One of the biggest misconceptions about mindfulness is that it’s about stopping your thoughts, but this isn’t the case. Even the most experienced monks who have been practicing mindfulness for hours a day for years can’t stop their thoughts. Mindfulness is about noticing your thoughts but not becoming attached to them.
The other major misconception about mindfulness is that you get immediate results. It’s called a practice for a reason. Imagine wanting to lose weight or build muscles. If you only went to the gym once or twice, you wouldn’t see results. This wouldn’t be a rational reason to give up because you’d acknowledge that it’s going to take time to get the results you want. It’s the same for a mindfulness practice. Some studies show that practicing even 5 to 10 minutes a day will begin improving your mental health, and you don’t even have to go to a gym to do it.
Starting Your Mindfulness Practice for Addiction Recovery
There are an endless amount of ways to start practicing mindfulness, but typically it starts withs simply focusing on your breath. It’s important to realize that it’s not a competition, but you can turn it into a game if that helps. Set a timer for a minute or two, and then sit there and focus on your breath. When a thought arises, gently bring your attention back to your breath. If you have to do this 100 times in a couple of minutes, don’t worry, that means you had a perfect practice because it’s about noticing thoughts and not stopping them. For some people, it’s helpful to count their breaths up to 10 and then start over.
When you do this, you’re training your attention. Studies show that it strengthens your prefrontal cortex, which is responsible for focus as well as many other things like emotional regulation and self-awareness and impulse control. Eventually, you’ll start to see that you notice your thoughts of substance use, anxiety or depression before they spiral out of control. And this won’t only happen during your practice, but you’ll start noticing it throughout your day.
This is also great for managing cravings. Dr. Judson Brewer is a world-famous psychologist and neuroscience researcher who has developed the most effective method for quitting smoking, and it’s rooted in mindfulness. He specializes in addiction and habit formation, and he’s done studies showing that mindfulness helps decrease cravings. One of the specific mindfulness practices he teaches is called R.A.I.N. This practice involves recognizing what’s happening, accepting it, investigating the experience and noting what’s going on. He refers to this as “riding the wave” of the craving as you watch is crest and then subside.
Mindfulness Comes in Many Forms
Many people who come from 12-step programs realize they’ve already developed a mindfulness practice. Programs like AA and NA teach you to respond rather than react. A lot of this comes through step work and lessons taught in meetings. You begin to see how your thoughts affect your behaviors. These programs teach you how to pause before acting and think through the consequences. Mindfulness helps you develop this natural “pause button” as well. Maintaining your sobriety is all about maintaining awareness of the present moment to regain control over your life.
If you or someone you love is struggling with addiction, allow Ethos Recovery to help. Not only do we have therapists who specialize in addiction as well as mental health disorders, but we also teach people the benefits of 12-step programs and mindfulness. For more information about how we can help, contact us today or call 323-942-9996.
Author – Chris Howard
Chris Howard is the Founder and Director of Ethos Recovery. He has a B.A. in Psychology from UCLA and has served as a community advocate/mentor for men and women in recovery since 2010.