At least 24 million people struggle with substance abuse in the U.S. And most people who struggle with addiction also struggle with emotional regulation. It’s their issues with emotional regulation that can cause them to use their drug(s) of choice. Fortunately, many tools exist to help them with emotional regulation, like exercise, yoga, and journaling. But there is another tool – mindfulness – that can significantly increase the addict’s chances of remaining successful in addiction recovery. This post takes a look at how using practices that promote being mindful help the addict faces the challenges he/ she faces.
What Is It, Anyway?
According to Very Well Mind, being mindful gives a person a moment-to-moment awareness of their experiences. That awareness includes both their internal and external experiences and the person’s responses to those experiences.
Part of the issue with most people is that they become attached to their experiences, which in turn, causes suffering. When they are addicted to something, they tend to respond to the external triggers, which feed their addiction. According to an article on the Greater Good Magazine website, most people deal with these triggers subconsciously by employing the pleasure/ pain principle. That is to say that humans are wired to either seek pleasure or avoid pain. Drugs provide pleasure to an addict’s pain points. While this approach helps the addict feel better in the short-term, it’s catastrophic in the long run. It is this never-ending cycle of trying to regulate the negative and positive emotions that he/ she feels that ruins the addict’s chances of addiction recovery.
According to The Huffington Post, a program created by the University of Washington showed a great deal of promise against the addict’s struggle against his/ her addictions. The study concluded that even those who were addicted to substances that typically have the lowest recovery rates, like crack cocaine, could be successful in their recovery program when they practiced being mindful.
Additionally, programs that employed a mindful approach to recovery have the potential to have “graduates” with a lower relapse rate than those who participated in a 12-step program. Moreover, a person who practices being mindful may influence the parts of the brain that can cause cravings.
But that may not exactly fully explain why this is so significant. A Psychology Today article suggests that meditation that promotes being mindful can actually change personality traits that people have previously considered unchangeable. This happens because, over time, the person who practices being mindful actually creates new neural networks.
Whereas the addict’s brain’s response to the trigger would have been as quick as a piece of information traveling down the information superhighway on the Internet, a change in the neural networks means that the knee-jerk reaction eventually goes away. The practice of being mindful has created such a shift in addicts that they even experience the reduction of cravings, which in turn, allows them to master their addictions.
From a practical standpoint, imagine how much life would change for the person whose knee-jerk response to most situations is anger and aggression. With training, this same person can choose to respond with assertiveness instead of aggression. The ability to regulate his/ her emotions like this could change an addict’s life, given the fact that a person’s triggers is what causes emotional dysregulation, and therefore an addictive state, in the first place.
Being mindful allows a person to slow down and to see the beauty in the world. Much of the time, especially in recovery, it’s difficult to see the beauty in the world. Being mindful forces a person to slow down and to notice the beauty in the world. Slowing down offers the addict another benefit, too. It helps the person to know him/ herself. This knowledge can be empowering because very often an addict doesn’t even really know him/ herself well enough to know why something becomes a trigger.
Types of Training
So, how does one become mindful? Any activity that promotes this state of mind develops the skills of observation, description, moment-to-moment awareness, participation, and non-judgment. Although mindfulness is most often associated with meditation, there are numerous activities that a person can participate in to become more mindful, according to Help Guide. However, because meditation is the most well-known of these activities, it’s logical to start with that first.
This type of meditation asks the practitioner to follow his/ her breathing during meditation, all while repeating some sort of phrase or mantra. If the meditator’s mind wanders, the meditator is encouraged to gently push his/ her thoughts back to the meditation and just allow the thoughts to come and go.
Making art can also make a person more mindful. Art therapy that encourages a mindful response to overwhelming stimulus incorporates activities, like personal portrait drawing, mandala drawing/ painting, and drawing of others.
Taking the time to notice sensations and emotions can also help a person become more mindful if the person is set on just noticing these sensations without judgment. The mind and body in these cases merely become like reflection pools. The mindful person notices all emotions and sensations that come up but does not become attached to them.
The most important aspect of all of these practices is the intention to pay attention and to remain in the moment. One does not get attached to an outcome, nor does the past or future figure prominently into the mindful person’s thoughts. Above all, the goal – if a person can describe the experience that way, as goal-oriented – is to practice acceptance and then to redirect the mind back on the situation at hand if the mind wanders.
Some Final Thoughts
A tremendous amount of shame is associated with being an addict because it is believed that if a person just had enough will-power or if the person weren’t so weak, then he/ she could overcome the effects of addiction. The reality is that brain wiring has a lot to do with how addicted a person becomes or even if that person becomes an addict in the first place. Additionally, this type of training helps a person who has been through a number of programs with limited success.
Meditation has the added benefit of being able to change the size of the amygdala. The practice of it can decrease the size of this key brain component. An enlarged amygdala can increase the feelings of stress, fear, and anxiety. Changing these feelings also alters how a person feels about them on a subjective level, too.
What’s even more promising is that it doesn’t take long to learn how to become more mindful. By meditating for just a couple of weeks, a person’s memory and focus can change so dramatically that it can increase a person’s focus on a test like a GRE. Those who participated in studies that measured this showed a score increase of 16 percentile points. While an addict’s focus would not necessarily be on test improvement, the fact that meditation and other mindful practices can change the brain so quickly is promising. And this would be especially encouraging for those who have really struggled with addiction recovery for a long time.