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Five Common Misconceptions About Mindfulness in Addiction Recovery

Five Common Misconceptions About Mindfulness in Addiction Recovery

In recent decades, meditation — especially mindfulness meditation — has gone from a sort of fringe practice to the mainstream. Workers practice mindfulness to boost their productivity and reduce stress, and mental health professionals regularly incorporate it into their treatment methodologies. Mindfulness is an integral part of dialectical behavioral therapy, or DBT, a method of therapy used to treat tough conditions like borderline personality disorder, eating disorders, and suicidal depression. Mindfulness can help people cope with physical pain and emotional distress. It can give them insight into their thinking and behavior. While mindfulness is frequently in the media, there are many persistent misconceptions about it. This is partly due to conflicting information and partly due to people conflating mindfulness with other forms of meditation. Here are some popular misconceptions about mindfulness.


“Mindfulness means having no thoughts.”


Perhaps the biggest misconception about mindfulness and meditation in general is that the goal is to empty your mind entirely. This may even sound pretty appealing. If you struggle with any mental health issue, you may feel like your thoughts are constantly attacking you and you would welcome even a temporary break from your own mental chatter. Unfortunately, mindfulness doesn’t work that way. For one thing, stopping your thoughts is nearly impossible. Thinking is what your brain does.


For another thing, flipping the “off” switch is not necessarily the best way to deal with painful thoughts and emotions. On the contrary, sometimes the best thing you can do for yourself is to become more aware of your thoughts and emotions. This way, you can better distinguish between challenging emotions and you have more insight into how thoughts and emotions are connected. Our most challenging emotions are often caused by irrational thoughts. Seeing your mental life more clearly is a big asset in therapy.


Finally, while mindfulness meditation doesn’t stop your thoughts, it does change your relationship to your thoughts. We tend to take our own thoughts far too seriously. In reality, thoughts are sort of like guesses about the world. Instead of reacting to them as if they are all true, we should ask whether they are true. Mindfulness helps you take a more realistic view of your own thoughts.


“Mindfulness means blissing out.”


While there are forms of meditation that are intended to help you cultivate certain states of mind — including bliss — mindfulness is not one of them. The problem with blissing out is that at some point, you have to come back. In that way, you would be substituting the escapism of drugs and alcohol with the escapism of mediation. Mindfulness is rather about cultivating awareness and acceptance. Research shows that people who are more accepting of their negative emotions are less likely to suffer difficulties like depression as a result of emotional stress.  


“Mindfulness makes you passive.”


One criticism of mindfulness you often hear is that it makes you passive. Since the whole point is to let go of attachments, be less judgmental of yourself and others, and be more accepting of situations beyond your control, it’s easy to make the mistake of thinking that you might become inert or willing to accept bad things that you might be able to change.


However, that’s not quite how mindfulness works. There’s a difference, for example, between being judgmental and having judgment. The former is a sort of ego-reinforcing exercise and the latter is a form of discernment. Often, our behavior and emotional reactions result from years of habit and conditioning and we aren’t even aware of it. This is perhaps nowhere more obvious than in addiction. Mindfulness allows you to distinguish between what you really want for yourself and others instead of allowing yourself to keep going on autopilot, which is really far more passive.


“Mindfulness is just a way to relax.”


If you look at a group of people practicing mindfulness meditation, it probably seems very peaceful. They’re all sitting there quietly, relaxed, perhaps with their eyes closed. Indeed, mindfulness meditation can be quite relaxing and practice even begins with some deliberate relaxation. Even if mindfulness meditation were just a way of relaxing for 30 minutes a day, you would probably still get a lot of benefit from it.


However, there is far more to it than that. As discussed above, mindfulness is more about becoming aware and accepting whatever is going on in your mind. This is quite often the opposite of relaxing and can be quite intense. When your defenses are relaxed, troubling thoughts, emotions, and memories might come up, in which case, the last thing you are thinking about is relaxing. This is a space where you can experience these things and learn not to be afraid of them. This is also why it’s typically a good idea to learn mindfulness meditation under the guidance of a trained instructor or therapist, who can help you out when troubling emotions and memories arise.


Mindfulness is just something to do when you feel like it.


Finally, a lot of people seem to have the idea that mindfulness meditation is something you do intermittently as needed, the way you might take the occasional mental health day off work or bathe your dog. To get the most out of mindfulness meditation, you need to practice every day, even if it’s just for a few minutes. Our brains are highly adaptable, but they only change through persistent effort. Occasional meditation might be a nice thing to do on a hike or after a stressful week, but it won’t change your relation to your thoughts. The real value of mindfulness is being more aware and less reactive, and that takes consistent effort, especially on the days when you don’t feel like it.


Mindfulness is everywhere these days, but it is often mischaracterized and therefore generally misunderstood by the public. Mindfulness isn’t thoughtless, blissing out, or passivity. Nor is it a panacea for everything wrong in your life. It can help you become more aware of what’s going on around you and inside your own head, making it great for addiction recovery because it can improve your relationships and make you more aware of the connections between your thoughts, feelings, and behaviors. At The Foundry, mindfulness is one of several modalities we use to help our clients break their dependence on drugs and alcohol. To learn more about our program, call us today at 1-844-955-1066 or explore our website.

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