Mindfulness and Addiction Recovery
Mindfulness is the purposeful practice of focus of attention in the present moment:
- It is purposeful, in that the intention and the approach to the practice of mindfulness are designed with the specific purpose of promoting well-being.
- It is an ongoing practice, with the benefits of mindfulness lying in the process, and not the outcome of the experience.
- Present-moment focus is the activity involved in mindfulness, requiring the participant to take a gentle and curious observer’s perspective, avoiding judgement of oneself.
Mindfulness practice helps us to heal from addiction in various ways:
Alleviates Anxiety and Depression: Anxiety and depression are often concurrent with addiction; some call these disorders “the problem beneath the problem”. Anxiety involves worry loops regarding the future and depression involves rumination loops regarding the past. When we focus on the present moment, we experience a break from the suffering of the mind that comes with anxiety and depression, as we experience the reality of now and not the unchangeable or unpredictable illusions of the past and future.
Unpairing: As addiction sets in, we start to pair drugs or behaviours with pleasure, relief, desired states or experiences. We start to believe we need our drug to change our state of mind, solve our problems or just to function in life. Mindfully examining our experiences can help us to unpair the effect of substances and behaviours from our life experiences, allowing us to gain perspective and confidence, as well as lower dependence. For example, mindful smoking might reveal that the reward or relaxation we seek from smoking, actually comes from the process of going outside, breathing fresh air, pausing from work, conversing with others and shifting mindset – more so than ingesting toxins or burning our lungs. Mindfulness can loosen the grip of our addictions, as we observe life more clearly in the moment.
Analgesic Effect: Mindfulness can help to manage pain, though specific practices such as Progressive Muscle Relaxation which allow us to observe the experience of the body. When we focus on our pain it becomes manageable, in that we can determine where there might be an absence of pain or a lessening of intensity, thus creating some room for relief. As well, emotional pain can be mitigated with practices involving gratitude, appreciation and compassion.
Building the Pre-frontal Cortex: Addiction can cause damage to the pre-frontal cortex, the area of the brain involving executive functions. At the same time, addiction contributes to an overstimulation of the amygdala, the area of the brain involving impulsivity. Hence, a person with addictions is trapped by an increase in impulsivity and a decrease in her capacity to manage it. Thus, defenses against making poor decisions are jeopardized and the impact of addiction intensifies. Thanks to neuroscience, we have learned that mindfulness can promote new and enhanced activity in the area of the prefrontal cortex, promoting our capacity for logic, reason, long-term planning, connectedness, creativity, stress-relief and self-compassion. Mindfulness can interrupt the slippery slope of addiction and bring strength to the regulating function of the pre-frontal cortex.
Accessibility: Mindfulness is free. We can practice it alone and we can use it in any situation, anytime of day. Some people prefer to be led through the practice of mindfulness, through meditation or structured practices.
Here are some helpful resources: