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How Practicing Mindfulness Can Strengthen Addiction Recovery

Practicing Mindfulness is simply learning to be in the present moment and being aware of what’s going on around you. It’s an ancient Buddhist practice supported by modern science. Every year, more and more research affirms the benefits of a regular mindfulness meditation practice. Mindfulness can be especially helpful in overcoming addiction. It has already been incorporated into a number of treatment methods, including mindfulness-based stress reduction, or MBSR, mindfulness-based cognitive therapy, or MBCT, and dialectical behavioral therapy, or DBT.

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Adding Mindfulness Practice Can Enhance Your Recovery in Many Ways, Including the Following

1. Mindfulness is the opposite of avoidance.

Substance use disorders often begin as a means of avoiding painful emotions, intrusive thoughts, social anxiety, and physical pain. What begins as a palliative or a crutch soon turns into addiction. When you practice mindfulness, you train yourself to accept whatever you’re experiencing rather than trying to escape it. By accepting what’s happening and investigating the experience, you learn that unpleasant experiences are temporary and tolerable.

2. Mindfulness helps you learn to relax.

Learning to relax is a crucial skill in addiction recovery. It helps reduce stress, which also helps reduce pain, anxiety, cravings, and the physical harm associated with chronic stress. Most of us aren’t aware when we are becoming stressed because it creeps in gradually. Before we know it, we’re tense and irritable. Practicing mindfulness every day has two major benefits for stress. First, it’s a daily break during which you can sit quietly and intentionally relax. This prevents stress from perpetually accumulating. Second, you become more aware of what’s going on in your body and mind and you take a moment to relax when you become aware of the tension creeping in. Knowing how to relax is an essential skill for managing anxiety and cravings.

3. Mindfulness reduces recurrence of depression.

At least half of people who seek treatment for a substance use disorder also have a co-occurring mental health issue. The most common of these mental health issues are depression and anxiety disorders. About 17 percent of depressed people will develop an alcohol use disorder at some point and about 18 percent will develop a drug use disorder. A review in JAMA Internal Medicine of 47 studies on mindfulness meditation found that the practice relieved symptoms of depression to a degree comparable to medication and that it also improved symptoms of pain and anxiety. Other studies have found that mindfulness can reduce the risk of recurrence of major depression. As many as 80 percent of people who have an episode of major depression will have a relapse. Mindfulness-based cognitive therapy has been shown to reduce the risk of relapse by 43 percent. For many people recovering from a substance use disorder, a significant reduction in depression risk can make a huge difference.

4. Mindfulness lets your respond instead of react.

One reason addiction is so hard to beat is that it’s a pattern of conditioned responses. The part of your brain responsible for higher reasoning essentially gets cut out of the decision-making process and you react reflexively to stimuli associated with drugs and alcohol. Practicing mindfulness gradually undoes this conditioning. One imaging study of expert meditators found that mindfulness meditation actually changes the structure of the brain. The prefrontal cortex–the part responsible for attention, self-control, planning, and working memory, among other things–becomes thicker and more connected to other areas of the brain. And the amygdala–a part of the brain involved with emotional responses, especially identifying threats and initiating the “fight or flight” response–becomes smaller. In other words, when you practice mindfulness meditation, you feel less threatened by things in general and you are better able to think things through. 

You also learn to identify less with your own thoughts. We often fall into the trap of thinking something is true just because we think it. If you’re in the habit of thinking negative or self-critical thoughts, believing those thoughts can lead to depression or anxiety. Mindfulness practice can help you see your thoughts–both good and bad–for what they are, essentially guesses, rather than iron truths about the world. Then you can begin to challenge or ignore thoughts that work against you.

5. Mindfulness encourages compassion.

Compassion is important in addiction recovery for two main reasons. First, it helps you connect with other people, especially other people recovering from addiction. Having a strong social support system and feeling of belonging is one of the best predictors of a successful recovery. However, this support can be challenging to build, as many people who are newly sober often feel isolated and ashamed. One might think someone in treatment would easily identify with others in treatment, since they have so much in common, but paradoxically, many people are critical and judgmental of others, often taking the attitude of “I’m not like the other people here.” Cultivating an attitude of compassion can help you see that you’re all really in the same boat. Practicing mindfulness can encourage those feelings of compassion by allowing you to see your own situation more clearly and become less protective of your own self-image. 

The second way compassion helps you recover from addiction is that you are able to extend compassion to yourself. People in recovery often feel a deep sense of shame or guilt and even feel like they don’t deserve to be happy. Being able to feel compassion for yourself allows you to move forward. Having compassion for yourself also improves the way you talk to yourself. You become less self-critical and judgmental, which reduces your feelings of depression, anxiety, and negativity.

Dear Renewal Lodge Visitors,

My name is John Bruna, co-founder of the Mindfulness in Recovery® Institute, and more importantly, a grateful member of the recovery community. I am incredibly fortunate to have found my recovery in 1984. Of course, I did not achieve continuous recovery through willpower or my own efforts, but through the guidance and caring support of countless others that selflessly taught me how to live through the 12 Steps.

My journey of recovery brought this once homeless, shame-based, traumatized, insecure young man to a life far beyond anything I could have ever imagined. I discovered self-worth, the joy of helping others, the gifts of parenting and grandparenting, and most importantly the ability to live a meaningful and purposeful life with integrity.

One of the greatest gifts of recovery is that I have the opportunity to give back and help others discover their self-worth, dignity, and the skills to fully live lives that they find truly meaningful. This is the inspiration for developing the skills of Mindfulness in Recovery® (MIR) to meet the needs of new generations struggling with alcohol and other substance use disorders. MIR is a set of evidence-based skills designed to help people fully integrate their tools of recovery in ways that are personalized, practical, and in alignment with their deepest values.

While we train counselors and therapists throughout the United States and abroad, I personally have chosen to work directly with the amazing team and clients at Renewal Lodge to develop the model MIR 12-step program for the nation. I choose Renewal Lodge because of the vision of its mission and the dedication of its team. Renewal Lodge is an extremely rare environment in which the staff embodies the very mindfulness and 12-step practices and skills they offer their clients. The results have been beyond my expectations. It is an honor to be here and I treasure my personal time with every client I meet.

With Gratitude,

John Bruna
John Bruna
Director of Mindfulness