When it comes to recovery success from substance abuse, there is one thing most people do not acknowledge enough, and that is mindfulness.
Sobriety is a choice. When someone makes the choice to change his or her life by getting sober it is a deliberate act of the will. The decision to leave substance use behind is often motivated by things that involve pain, loss, and suffering. These are powerful motivators. But in the end, the decision to establish a sober lifestyle—to choose sobriety—belongs only to the person who gave up the substance.
Just as embracing recovery is a choice, remaining abstinent is also a matter of choice. Each hour of every day, the recovering addict must purposefully choose abstinence. Daily temptations or triggers are bound to threaten sobriety. In order to combat those urges, it is essential to have some effective coping skills at the ready. One of the most powerful of these is the practice of mindfulness.
When mindfulness meditation is combined with evidence-based recovery efforts, such as ongoing psychotherapy, MAT, and a 12-step recovery group, a powerful tool is added to the arsenal. The practice of mindfulness enhances continuing care protocols by providing a new way of directing thoughts that can help prevent relapse.
Substance Use Disorder and the Behavioral Response to Emotional Pain
Avoidance of uncomfortable or unsettling emotions or situations is a common characteristic among individuals who struggle with substance abuse. For these individuals, relying on alcohol or drugs becomes a self-medicating technique to avoid feeling, stress, anger, sadness, or fear. This maladaptive response to mitigating uncomfortable emotions lies at the very heart of most substance use disorders.
Once this response of using substances to help manage stressful or upsetting situations becomes a habit, the brain pathways will become altered. This establishes a connection between the emotional trigger (the stressor) and the disordered response to use the substance.
A key goal in addiction recovery is to disrupt this harmful brain connection or thought/behavior pattern by changing the way you interpret and respond to the stressor, and mindfulness can help accomplish this.
How Mindfulness and Recovery Go Together
Mindfulness offers a solution for individuals who were prone to escaping uncomfortable feelings or situations through substance use. Instead of attempting to block the unwelcome emotions practicing mindfulness accomplishes the opposite.
When using mindfulness in recovery, the individual turns their attention to the present experience and acknowledges their feelings and thoughts without judgment. This technique actually helps deflate the power of the triggering thought or craving and allows the person to deliberately process it.
Using mindfulness to diffuse triggers can also act as a stress-reduction tool. Mindfulness can be practiced on the fly anywhere. These short meditation sessions do not require a special room or a large time commitment. Harnessing the power of mindfulness throughout the day as needed becomes an important action in managing negative emotions and other triggers.
How Mindfulness Can Help Prevent Relapse
Using mindfulness techniques in a variety of ways can help transfer the sudden urge to use a substance to allow the moment to play out without taking action. These techniques include:
- Mindful breathing. Shallow breathing, or even holding our breath, is a common response to anxiety. One of the fastest ways to reduce anxiety is through mindful breathing. Focusing on the breathing process, the rhythmic inhaling and exhaling, we can gain control over the stress trigger.
- Mindful awareness. By focusing squarely on the present moment, when emotions or a stressful event might be triggering the urge to use or drink, the individual can validate their feelings without critiquing them. Do not attach judgment to the present emotions, determining whether the response is justified, just accept it and know it will soon pass.
- Mindful listening. It is human nature to reject criticism or insults, often without considering the other person’s point of view. Practicing mindful listening helps us to open up to what another is saying without overreacting or allowing discourse to escalate, which allows us to be more compassionate and understanding.
What is Mindfulness-Based Relapse Prevention?
One interesting approach to using mindfulness and recovery skills is a program called mindfulness-based relapse prevention (MBRP), which was developed by Dr. Alan Marlatt.