When a person is addicted to alcohol or drugs, as well as other process addictions (sex, food, gambling, shopping), their mind is highly preoccupied with attaining the substance, using it, and recovering from it. This process can be quite consuming, and often individuals are left with little time for the present moment. In fact, the present moment (if sober) becomes more and more frequently a place to avoid, as that is where the shame and guilt set in.
Over the past few decades, mindfulness-based therapies have become increasingly widespread and recognized as effective in the treatment of substance use. The practice of mindfulness, defined as a non-judgmental awareness of the present, is a fantastic tool to help a person become more in touch with the present-state they so often attempt to avoid and to learn to cope with painful emotions and stressors that may have contributed to substance use.
Utilizing the concept of mindfulness for treatment of addiction, the emphasis lies on relapse prevention. One of the most important goals in relapse prevention is the discovery of why a person uses, which is most often driven by emotions; whether fear, insecurity, anger, or anxiety. Mindfulness techniques in relapse prevention aim to increase self-awareness of these emotional triggers and subsequent compulsive, automatic behaviors related to substance use.
Cravings are cognitive responses to stimuli, also known as “triggers,” and are comprised of a complex system of environmental cues and cognitive responses. Mindfulness meditation can be utilized to disrupt this automatic system by providing heightened awareness of the initial craving and intervening before the action (self-medication with drugs or alcohol) takes place.
In relapse prevention, the goal is to identify and modify deficits in coping skills, increase self-efficacy, and focus on a balanced lifestyle that sometimes includes inserting a more positive activity in the space addiction once held. Mindfulness can take the form of more traditional approaches, such as meditation, yoga, and deep-breathing techniques, or can involve someone’s favorite calming activities, such as listening to relaxing music, taking a walk, or journaling.
Practicing balance in emotional responses and avoided automatic reactions can greatly reduce stress and anxiety, which are common triggers for substance use. Furthermore, when a person learns to experience nonjudgmental responses to feelings and thoughts, a sense of compassion or self is learned, rather than the abusive self-talk that is commonly associated with addictive behaviors.
Mindfulness and meditation can quite simply cause a person to feel better and more relaxed in general. The reasons for the improved moods associated with these methods are in-depth and backed by scientific studies. For example, mindfulness and meditation help to lower the stress hormone cortisol and streamline the body’s ability to rid itself of toxins, such as lactic acid, that build up in the muscles and blood and impact neurotransmitter receptors, which can lead to improved mood.
There are numerous reasons to incorporate mindfulness into one’s recovery, with the first step being to allow for the present moment to exist, without judgment, without need to escape from the feelings of that moment, and just let it be.