We’ve all heard a lot about mindfulness in recent years. It has gone from a fringe practice to a common, even obligatory wellness practice. It has even been incorporated into mainstream treatments for addiction and other mental health issues. Treatment modalities such as mindfulness-based cognitive therapy, or MBCT, and dialectical behavioral therapy, or DBT, use mindfulness to help clients become more aware of their thoughts and emotions in general and better tolerate challenging emotions. Mindfulness meditation is often incorporated into addiction treatment programs, too. There are a number of reasons mindfulness is such a powerful addition to any recovery program, including the following.
Mindfulness reduces stress and anxiety.
One of the most publicized benefits of mindfulness practice is that it can reduce stress and anxiety. This is crucial for two reasons. First, having an anxiety disorder such as generalized anxiety, panic disorder, social anxiety disorder, or PTSD, significantly increases your risk of addiction. If you want to have a long recovery, you must find effective ways to manage your anxiety. Second, most people identify stress as their biggest trigger of cravings. Therefore, learning effective ways to manage stress will also reduce the number and severity of drug and alcohol cravings.
One of the first clinical uses of mindfulness meditation was to reduce stress. Programs like Herbert Benson’s relaxation response and Jon Kabat-Zinn’s mindfulness-based stress reduction, or MBSR, are perhaps the two most prominent examples. If mindfulness were only about spending 20 or 30 minutes a day sitting quietly and relaxing, that in itself would help reduce stress. However, there’s more to mindfulness meditation. Perhaps the most important effect in terms of stress and anxiety is that mindfulness trains you to stay in the present moment, rather than worrying about things that might happen. This effect will eventually extend into your regular life, not just when you’re deliberately practicing mindfulness.
Mindfulness improves metacognitive awareness.
Another useful aspect of mindfulness meditation is that it builds metacognitive awareness — or being aware of what you’re thinking about. This doesn’t seem like a big deal, but it is. Much of the time, our thoughts, beliefs, assumptions, and even emotions, lie beneath the level of conscious awareness. Other times, we get so swept up in some train of thought that we’re not even aware of what’s going on. Both of these can be barriers to insight and recovery.
Most treatment programs and therapists use techniques from cognitive behavioral therapy, the premise of which is that our thinking, rather than external events, is what causes disturbing emotions. If you adjust your thinking to be more objective, you will naturally suffer less, emotionally. The problem is that thoughts can be evasive and slippery. Practicing mindfulness will make you more aware of what you’re thinking and how it affects your emotions. This makes therapy much more effective.
Mindfulness improves behavioral awareness.
Part of the challenge of overcoming addiction — and bad habits, more broadly — is that a lot of our behavior happens on autopilot. If you’ve ever tried to quit smoking or quit biting your fingernails, you’ve probably noticed your body seems to engage in these behaviors without your consent or awareness. This automatic behavior happens on an even deeper level with addiction.
It’s hard to change your behavior when you’re not even aware of what your behavior is. Mindfulness helps you bring more attention to what you’re doing at any given moment. You are more aware of what you’re doing and also how you feel about it. For example, smokers who are asked to smoke mindfully are often surprised to discover that they don’t like the taste or smell of cigarettes or the feeling of smoke in their lungs. Getting off of autopilot through mindful attention gives you more control over your behavior.
Mindfulness changes patterns of avoidance.
Substance use is often a symptom of avoidant behavior. That is, you may use drugs or alcohol as a way of avoiding some kind of emotional stress rather than deal with it. While this offers temporary relief, it makes the problem worse in the long run and causes new problems to go with it.
Mindfulness is really the opposite of avoidance. Instead of trying to ignore or suppress a challenging emotion, you accept it and observe it without judgment. You notice what the emotion is like, what thoughts arise with it, where you feel it in your body, how it changes over time, and so on. Several studies have found that people who are more accepting of their emotions suffer less distress and fewer negative outcomes, such as depression when they’re under stress. This isn’t only limited to emotions like anxiety or pain from traumatic memories, but it can help you get through cravings, as well. This is sometimes called “surfing” a craving.
Mindfulness can improve your relationships.
Having strong relationships is one of the most important parts of addiction recovery. Social connection reduces stress, gives you a sense of purpose, and helps keep you accountable. Mindfulness helps improve your relationships in several ways. First, from a practical perspective, it helps you pay attention when someone is talking. We’re often too distracted by our phones or by our own thoughts to listen properly. Just making an effort to give someone your full attention will improve your relationship.
Second, one of the challenges of communicating is that we are often too reactive. We get angry, defensive, or critical and a conversation quickly devolves into an argument. When you learn to be more mindful, you’re aware of these emotional reactions within you but you don’t necessarily take them too seriously. You can entertain different interpretations and consider things from the other person’s point of view before you respond.
Mindfulness is not a replacement for therapy or treatment, but it can be a powerful addition to any recovery program. It reduces stress, helps you to be more aware of your inner life and outer behavior, and improves your relationships. At The Foundry, mindfulness meditation is one of many modalities we use to treat substance use disorders. For more information about our programs, explore our website or call us today at 1-844-955-1066.