Recovering from addiction is challenging, and a person needs every positive coping skill in their toolbox to be successful. Fortunately, mindfulness may be one of the strongest tools a person can use during recovery — and it does not need a prescription or trainer to master.
According to American Psychiatric Association (APA), mindfulness meditation is “training your attention to achieve a mental state of calm concentration and positive emotions.”1 Although there are a variety of approaches and names for mindfulness, the two main elements involved are attention and acceptance.
Mindfulness is not a new concept. Throughout ancient history, many cultures and religions have utilized mindfulness techniques in a variety of ways. Early Buddhists, for example, practiced mindfulness, especially an awareness of breath control concerning their body.2 Hinduism also uses a similar method for deep meditation.3 Although Hinduism often incorporates mantras and chants into their mindfulness practices, mindfulness meditation does not require such practices.
Meditation comes in many forms, but there are four common elements involved:4
In meditation, a person selects a location that is free from major distractions. They usually select a body position that they are comfortable with, like walking, lying down, or sitting. During meditation, attention is directed to something repetitive and calming, like the sensation of breathing or a set of chanted words. Mediation also takes an open mind. For example, a person’s thinking must allow distractions to come and go without judgment.
Centering attention on something repetitive, like breathing, allows the mind to empty itself from the distractions that daily life brings. At first, practicing mindfulness meditation can cause forgotten memories and emotions to arise, making the person angry and sad. However, as an individual meditates more often, they begin to accept these thoughts and learn to manage them.5
Formally meditating is not the only path to mindfulness. Small changes and everyday activities can also include mindfulness practices, such as:
Find enjoyment in the small things, rather than simply performing the activity to get it done. For example, sit and enjoy the taste of food rather than eating quickly to finish a meal fast.
The modern world offers a myriad of distractions, and the ability to multitask is thought of as a superpower. However, taking the time to experience the world with awareness — using the senses to their fullest — can open the door to mindfulness.
In mindfulness breathing meditation, the way a person breathes can change their emotional state. By taking slow, deep breaths, a person can reduce their heart rate and blood pressure, helping to calm down an anxious mind.
Mindfulness has found its place in mainstream medicine as a legitimate treatment intervention for mental and physical health. Mindfulness can help individuals by:
The neural activity that results from mindfulness reduces stress. Researchers find that mindfulness meditation reduces the physiological symptoms that contribute to stress, like rapid heartbeat and high blood pressure.5
The act of focusing our attention and allowing distractions to pass improves concentration overall. By training the brain to focus on one thing, mindfulness can prevent individuals from becoming easily distracted.5
Although cell aging occurs naturally, mindfulness meditation can slow down the aging process. Aging happens because cells divide over and over. Eventually, cell divisions slow down and cells change shape as the years pass. Mindfulness impacts the proteins that protect cells, slowing down the aging process.6
The APA cites growing evidence that mindfulness exercises can reduce signs of anxiety and depression. Mindfulness may affect the brain at the same levels as antidepressants and anti-anxiety medication by prompting self-compassion and reducing experiential avoidance.7
Mindfulness meditation balances emotions through four ways: reduction of rumination, reducing worry, increasing the ability to reappraise a situation and preventing suppression of vital emotions. Rather than allowing the brain to perseverate on negative thoughts, mindfulness allows the brain to approach situations from a healthier perspective.8
Studies into practices of mindfulness indicate that specific areas of the brain are triggered by utilizing that form of meditation. In addition, research shows that effective mindfulness practice produces the following outcomes:9
When it comes to addiction rehabilitation, mindfulness meditation is an excellent coping skill. Because drug use changes the brain’s ability to control impulses and make appropriate decisions, a person who is addicted may have to re-learn how to function without using drugs. Mindfulness exercises address the emotion control, self-regulation mechanisms, and high levels of stress that come with recovery.
The two most common types of mindfulness techniques used in rehab are mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) and mindfulness-based cognitive therapy (MBCT). In MBSR, clients are typically taught mindfulness exercises in a group setting over a few months. MBCT, on the other hand, combines elements of both MBSR and cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT).
Mindfulness meditation is not a new intervention — it has been for thousands of years in a variety of forms. However, science has only begun to uncover all the beneficial effects it can have on addiction and recovery.