Recovering from an addiction is one of the hardest things that anyone can do. After beating physical addiction, an addict must work through psychological addiction and cravings that can extend for months and years into the future. While cognitive behavioral therapy at a treatment facility can help you to combat psychological addiction, you must learn to cope with cravings and triggers on your own once you go home.
Mindfulness is an increasingly popular recovery therapy used in clinics and at home to help recovering addicts learn to cope and to fight cravings and triggers. If you or a loved one is recovering from an addiction, it is also an increasingly science backed technique to help people reduce stress, improve their chances of staying clean, and get back to their life.
However, while mindfulness can be valuable to recovering addicts who need regular help with their recovery, it cannot treat a substance use disorder on its own. Multiple reviews of mindfulness studies show that mindfulness on its own will not prevent or stop an addiction. If you or a loved one is still addicted, you need professional help and therapy to ensure that you have the tools to stay clean.
What is Mindfulness?
Mindfulness is a practice that typically utilizes guided meditation to help practitioners reach a specific state of mind. This practice of mindfulness involves actively working to achieve a non-judgemental state of mind where you strive to live in the present and to experience in the present. This practice is designed to get most of us out of our own heads and into enjoying life, which makes it more difficult to become caught up in worries, stress, and thinking about a substance.
Modern mindfulness was brought to the west by John Kabat-Zinn in the 1970s and since then it’s been adopted by doctors and physicians as an important tool for reducing stress, helping to manage anxiety, improving the quality of life, and even helping people to gain more control over how they live.
Mindfulness is used to help recovering addicts using two primary treatment options. Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) and Mindfulness-Based Relapse Prevention (MBRP). While the first is much more common, they are both used by addiction treatment facilities around the United States.
MBSR – MBSR is a well-studied and documented mindfulness program designed to reduce stress, reduce the reaction to stressful environments, and to help practitioners to cope with anxiety, stress, depression, and panic attacks. In addition to its use in addiction recovery, MBSR is used to treat people with medical disorders, and is frequently used as a complementary therapy for persons with anxiety, PTSD, panic attacks, and other anxiety related disorders.
MBRP – Mindfulness Based Relapse Prevention is an outpatient treatment typically following up in-patient addiction treatment and cognitive therapy. Patients attend mindfulness classes for an average of 8 weeks, take home homework, and learn to handle cravings, to accept their past in order to move forward, to reduce stress, and to deal with triggers using mindfulness based exercises. Studies show that this method is more effective than traditional Treatment as Usual (TUA) programs.
MBCT – Mindfulness Based Cognitive Therapy is a treatment method combining mindfulness with cognitive therapy to help patients prevent stress, depression, and anxiety. While traditionally used to treat patients with mental disorders, it is increasingly and successfully used to treat co-morbid patients suffering from both a substance use disorder and a mental disorder.
Mindfulness is typically taught using guided meditation, but can be taught using yoga, tai chi, or a number of other movement and breath based exercises. Because the goal is to control the mind, there are many practices that can influence mindfulness.
How Mindfulness Affects Cravings
Cravings typically begin as unconscious parts of the brain, where a stimulus or trigger creates a neural reaction that reminds the brain of a substance. This stimulus is known as a trigger because it kicks off a reaction resulting in the person wanting drugs or alcohol. In some cases this can happen without the person being aware of it, and in others it will be an obvious trigger such as the physical presence of drugs or alcohol.
Stress – The average human spends about 47% of their waking time actively thinking about the future and the past. This study, which was a joint effort between Cambridge and Harvard Universities showed that people who get lost in thought worry more, stress more about small things, and take less joy in their day to day life. Mindfulness is proven to reduce this because it helps practitioners to get out of their head and stop thinking about what could go wrong or what has gone wrong and instead to live in the moment. Because mindfulness encourages a non-judgmental outlook, it also helps to prevent practitioners from creating stress for themselves.
Attention Bias – In one study, mindfulness practitioners were shown to exhibit a lower attention bias to their substance (in the case of the study, alcohol) than peers not practicing mindfulness. This means that recovering addicts practicing mindfulness are less likely to be plagued by recurring thoughts of their substance when maintaining a consistent mindfulness program. Because mindfulness focuses on the present, patients are more able to avoid incentive salience (the brain’s reward system) trapping them into a loop of thinking themselves into a relapse.
Environment – Because most environmental triggers are linked to the past, mindfulness can directly reduce the impact of these triggers. By changing the thought focus to the present through therapy, patients can positively interact with a formerly negative environment.
While mindfulness shows a significant decrease in stress, cravings, and substance use after treatment, it must be maintained in order to continue to be effective. Follow up trials suggest that when patients stop practicing mindfulness, the benefits go away and they are just as likely to return to substance abuse as persons who did not participate in mindfulness treatment. In short, in order to be effective for the long-term, recovering addicts must continue practicing mindfulness.
Mindfulness can be a valuable complementary therapy for recovering addicts and can help to reduce stress, improve coping mechanisms, and reduce cravings. However, studies show that the longer it is practiced, the more effective it becomes, meaning that an initial 8 week program is not enough for long-term treatment.
For anyone recovering from substance abuse, mindfulness can help as one component of a balanced program of recovery.
If you or someone you love is struggling with addiction, please call Lighthouse Treatment Center today for help. We are happy to provide a no-cost, no-obligation consultation with one of our experienced treatment advisors. Help is available now.