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In recent years, the idea of “mindfulness” has become an increasingly common technique for individuals to get a new perspective on many areas of life, making the intersection of mindfulness and recovery from addiction a natural consequence. However, one should not view mindfulness as simply the latest fad or “new-age” buzz word; it actually can be an extremely helpful addition to the toolbox of strategies that help recovering addicts confront their addictions and begin a happier and healthier life.

“The Wanting Mind” and Addiction

Although addiction is a physical and psychological process with scientifically identifiable mechanisms, the root cause of addiction is often an emotional one, stemming from a mix of fear, depression, anxiety, or pessimism. In the vocabulary of mindfulness, these negative mental states flow from a mental state called the “wanting mind.” While experiencing the wanting mind, we feel that our current state of unhappiness could be cured if only we could have the money, job, relationship, recognition, or power we had and lost, or never had and strongly desire. Alcohol and drugs can often move in to fill this void, giving individuals a brief respite from this feeling, while setting them up for a lifetime of negative consequences as addiction takes hold over time. In fact, addiction itself can be seen as the most extreme example of the wanting mind, as addicts become consumed with a desire for a substance that will never actually fill the void they feel in their lives. [1]

illustration of a human brain with several colored lines pointing to the different parts

Addiction as Unchecked Desire

Often we cause ourselves suffering when we ache for something that lies out of our grasp or cling in vain to something that has already passed away. Sometimes, the wanting mind involves tightly holding on to something negative: an unwholesome belief about how things ought to be or should have been, or an unwholesome emotion such as anger, sadness, or jealousy. Mindfulness practice can help individuals develop the capacity to see clearly exactly what we’re attached to so that they can let go of it and end their suffering. One can easily see how addiction fits into the idea of being attached to something negative, even when it is clearly causing an individual and their loved one’s pain. And, one can see how mindfulness can be an important part of recognizing this unhealthy attachment and helping one to eventually break the grip of addiction, making mindfulness and recovery a natural combination. [1]

The Science Behind Mindfulness and Recovery

For those who think that ideas like mindfulness are simply some kind of mystical “mumbo-jumbo” there are many scientific studies that illustrate the quantifiable changes that this practice can evoke in the brains and bodies of its practitioners. These studies have shown that activities such as mindfulness meditation, yoga practice, and regular exercise are all excellent ways to help:

  • Lower the levels of the stress hormone cortisol in your bloodstream
  • Increase your interleukin levels (enhancing your immune system and providing you with greater energy)
  • Streamline your body’s ability to cleanse itself of chemical toxins, such as lactic acid in your muscles and bloodstream, which can affect neurotransmitter receptors and alter your mood [2]
photo of researchers working in a scientific lab
In addition to the short-term effects of mindfulness meditation, other research has shown that practicing this discipline over the long term can actually lead to measurable physical changes in brain structure that presumably translate into permanent psychological changes for the individual involved. One of these observed changes is a thickening of the bilateral, prefrontal right-insular region of the brain, the area responsible for optimism and a sense of well-being, spaciousness, and possibility. This area is also associated with creativity and an increased sense of curiosity, as well as the ability to be reflective and observe how your mind works. It is easy to see how all of these changes could have a dramatic positive impact on anyone attempting to rid themselves of an addiction to drugs or alcohol. This is yet another reason why mindfulness and recovery are such a natural partnership. [3]

Mindfulness and Recovery in Practice

Different substance abuse treatment programs incorporate the concept of mindfulness into their approach in a variety of ways, but one of the earliest programs at the University of Washington highlights some of the key components that many programs share. This program focuses specifically on relapse prevention during the recovery process, outlining critical Mindfulness-Based Relapse Prevention (MBRP) practices. According to their website,

“MBRP practices are intended to foster increased awareness of triggers, destructive habitual patterns, and “automatic” reactions that seem to control many of our lives. The mindfulness practices in MBRP are designed to help us pause, observe present experience, and bring awareness to the range of choices before each of us in every moment. We learn to respond in ways that serves us, rather than react in ways that are detrimental to our health and happiness. Ultimately, we are working towards freedom from deeply ingrained and often catastrophic habits.” [4]

Mindfulness and Co-Occurring Disorders

A recent UCLA study illustrated how mindfulness can help individuals with co-occurring disorders of addiction and mental illness. This study focused on recovering stimulant addicts who often face bouts of sometimes intense anxiety and depression when they attempt to end their stimulant abuse. The participants in this study were split into two separate groups: one that received mindfulness training and one that received traditional health education. The results after the 12-week program indicated that both stimulant use and severity of mental health symptoms were far less for participants in the mindfulness-based group.

Mindfulness and Recovery:
A Great Match

From all of the recent scientific research, it is clear that mindfulness and recovery are a combination that greatly improves the chances for substance abusers to live a happier and healthier life, free from the chains of addiction. Both in the short-term and over longer periods of time, mindfulness helps recovering addicts to identify the root causes of their addiction and to deal with the many psychological challenges that complicate treatment and cause many to relapse after treatment.

bar chart showing mindfulness and recovery statistics

Source: Mindfulness

If you are looking for mindfulness-based treatment for yourself or a loved one who is suffering from addiction, contact BWR at 800-683-4457 for information on how to get started. We are here to help!