A Mindful Recovery

By George Stoupas, LMHC, CAP

man walking on rocks in water

Robert completed inpatient treatment a few weeks ago. While there, he learned about addiction, explored some of the thoughts and feelings surrounding his substance use, and worked on improving a few important relationships. Despite having a comprehensive discharge plan, Robert was terrified because he’d done this many times before, only to relapse within the first few months. By now, he knew all those fundamental truths of recovery, like Hungry Angry Lonely Tired (H.A.L.T.) and One Day at a Time, but his relapses seemed to arise from out of nowhere; even though he wanted to resist his urges, he didn’t see them coming.

In recent years, there has been a growing wave of research into the practice of mindfulness. Diverse groups including elementary school children, corporate executives, and prisoners have all been the focus of mindfulness-focused studies. Indeed, the February, 2014, cover of Time magazine that proclaimed a “Mindful Revolution” attests to the popularity of mindfulness as a potential solution to the problems of modern life. The application of mindfulness has extended into the field of addiction treatment as well, and the results have been promising.

A 2006 study in Psychology of Addictive Behaviors examined mindfulness meditation as an alternative to traditional substance abuse treatment for people in jail who had histories of drug and alcohol abuse. The researchers found a significant decrease in the frequency of substance use for those who participated in the mindfulness meditation training following their release compared to the control group. Participants also reported feeling more optimistic and in control of their using behavior. This study was followed up with a 2009 pilot project that measured the influence of 8-week mindfulness training on relapse rate, craving, impulse control, and acceptance in 168 adults who had recently completed substance abuse treatment. As with the first study, the research team found positive results: participants had significantly lower relapse rates, decreased cravings, and increased feelings of acceptance in the 4 months following discharge from treatment. These findings resulted in the development of Mindfulness Based Relapse Prevention (MBRP), a structured program designed to teach substance abusers these skills (www.mindfulrp.com).

While there is no universally accepted definition for mindfulness, many people refer back to the founder of Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR), Jon Kabat-Zinn’s, description: “Mindfulness means paying attention in a particular way: on purpose, in the present moment, and non-judgmentally.” Now, some might be intimidated by this vague and flowery language, conjuring up images of monks sitting in lotus position on a mountaintop, far removed from our “real” world. Others might dismiss mindfulness outright as some unscientific new age spiritual practice. However, neither of these reactions is based on a fair depiction. To see how and why mindfulness meditation benefits people in recovery from
addiction, let’s take a closer look at this definition.

What does it mean to really pay attention? As you hold this magazine, notice what is happening. How do the pages feel in your hands? Where has your mind drifted while reading this article? Is your breathing deep or shallow? Are you relaxed or tense? Paying attention means actively using all of our senses. Very often, we go about our days on autopilot. Like driving along the road to a well-known destination, we tune out. The problem with this for those in early recovery is that they fail to notice the warning signs passing them by, barreling past the “ROAD OUT AHEAD” sign and over the cliff. Tension builds up slowly – a worry about money, an argument with a family member, a missed meal – until finally exploding into relapse. Mindfulness practice means attending to these sensations in order to appropriately respond to them as they arise.

The next component of mindfulness involves intention. Just as we would commit to regular exercise in order to strengthen our bodies, training our mind’s ability to withstand the powerful forces of thought and emotion requires intentional practice. This is the “on purpose” part of mindfulness. We cannot expect to be effective at tasks we don’t practice on a regular basis. Skills don’t magically appear in the midst of a crisis, when we most need them. Reaping the benefits of mindfulness takes consistent, conscious practice on a daily basis. This means we have to take the time to sit in silence, go for a long walk, or participate in any other form of mindful reflection. It is simply another type of daily hygiene.

Mindfulness also requires us to be present. Remaining in the present moment is a common theme in addiction recovery. Whether it is communicated through slogans like “first things first,” “one day at a time,” or “the present is a gift,” people are told to avoid dwelling in the past or projecting into the future. Being present allows us to pay attention. Thus, being mindful also means being in the here-and-now and allowing ourselves to experience sometimes uncomfortable thoughts or sensations.

The last part of Kabat-Zinn’s definition of mindfulness – non- judgmentally – may be the most difficult for some people in early recovery to achieve. Substance abuse often results from feelings of shame, anger, and doubt. Moreover, addiction breeds even more of these negative, harsh self-criticisms because of the types of activities it involves and the long-term damage to which it leads. “This time will be no different,” “I’ll always be a [junkie, crack head, drunk, etc.],” “No one would accept me if they really knew me,” “I’ve ruined my life.” Such automatic thoughts constantly run in the background for those who have struggled with addiction. It is only by remaining still and tuning into our minds and bodies that we uncover these hidden messages. And it is only through knowing they exist that we can accept and eventually let go of them. It is easy to see why mindfulness practice would be helpful for someone like Robert. Of course, it is no guarantee against relapse; cultivating these skills simply provides additional traction on the road towards peace. One happy result of the growing popularity of mindfulness is that there are now seemingly endless resources available to those who want to begin their own mindfulness practice. Try it for yourself: find a quiet space and sit in a comfortable position. Set your phone timer for 3 minutes. Close your eyes. In this time, breathe consciously and easily. In and out. Clear your mind, anchoring yourself with your breath. If you find your mind starts to wander and some of those automatic thoughts pop up, let them float by like passing clouds – without judgment or resistance.

George Stoupas is an Associate Professor of Psychology at Palm Beach State College and maintains a private therapy practice Palm Beach Gardens. You may reach him at gstoupas@gmail.com