What is mindfulness? The practice of mindfulness has its roots in Buddhism, and involves a purposeful and nonjudgmental focus on one’s feelings, experiences, and internal and external processes in the present moment. Rather than escape from painful feelings into fantasy, mindfulness meditation encourages individuals to sit quietly with themselves and pay close attention to their thoughts and feelings without taking action to judge or “fix” them.
Modern life is not always conducive to staying in the present moment, but learnings in the field of addiction recovery show that the practice of mindfulness can bring greater joy into daily life and also help individuals in recovery avoid relapse. Increasingly, the field is embracing Eastern practices, including mindfulness meditation, as a complement to traditional addiction treatments. Mindfulness has been incorporated into a variety of therapies, including:
- Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT)
- Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT)
- Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT)
- Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction Program (MBSR)
- Mindfulness-Based Relapse Prevention (MBRP)
Mindfulness and Addiction
Like yoga, tai chi, and related practices, mindfulness is a portable skill that can become a regular part of the recovering individual’s life, both during and after treatment. It takes only a few minutes and can be done by anyone anywhere, and its effects are long-lasting. In many ways, mindfulness is the opposite of addiction. Addiction is an automatic behavior used to escape difficult feelings or situations, whereas mindfulness involves conscious and deliberate focus on difficult emotions as a way to disarm them and interrupt habitual patterns like drug or alcohol use. Individuals struggling with addiction can experience a great deal of shame and self-blame. Through mindfulness, they can develop compassion for themselves and others.
Mindfulness Meditation Rewires the Brain
Neuroscience shows that temperament can change dramatically even in adulthood. In just eight weeks of mindfulness practice, the neural pathways in the brain can be altered. Other research suggests that mindfulness practice may increase grey-matter density in the hippocampus (the area associated with learning and memory) and decrease grey-matter density in the amygdala, which can help regulate stress and anxiety.
Mindfulness as a Tool for Relapse Prevention
Mindfulness-based behavioral relapse prevention (MBRP) is a way to help individuals in recovery recognize negative thoughts and feelings without judgment or a need to act on them. A central technique in MBRP is “urge surfing.” In this approach, cravings and urges are not seen as an overpowering force but as a series of passing thoughts and feelings that peak and then disappear much like a wave. Using their breath as a surfboard and visualizing the craving as a wave, the individual rides the wave to the shore.
It is important to remember that mindfulness skills complement, but do not replace, other aspects of addiction recovery, including self-help support groups, medication and psychotherapy.
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