The Strong Science Behind Mindfulness Therapy in Addiction and Behavioral Healthcare Treatment
Before we begin, take a deep breath. Clear your mind, sit up straight and notice the way your body feels in the chair. Take another deep breath. You are practicing mindfulness.
Mindfulness has become popular and trendy, which is a good thing. Part of the reason for this is that there’s extensive science supporting its effectiveness. In forty years of research using his program, Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR), at the University of Massachusetts, Jon Kabat-Zinn has shown that people who better manage their stress are more likely to keep an disease in remission, heal from surgery and recover from sicknesses. When you are stressed, your sympathetic nervous system is activated, and the body is flooded with hormones that boost alertness and heartrate “fight-or-flight.” While this process is helpful to deal with acutely stressful situations, it can interfere with sleeping, digestion, absorption of nutrients and overall healing if it is happening often. If you can manage stress appropriately, the body heals itself. Being mindful and practicing meditation are great ways to do this.
Mindfulness practice teaches you to bring your mind into the same time and place as your physical body, which is always in the present moment. We can have as many as 50,000 thoughts a day, though many are not connected to what’s happening here and now. Your mind can be in three places at once: past present, and future, often worrying about the future or ruminating on the past. Our “fight-or-flight” system can be activated by thinking about things that have happened in the past or by projecting into the future. Not helpful.
Mindfulness can support overall wellness because it activates the parasympathetic nervous system, so the body is able to rest and rejuvenate itself. The body will take care of itself if we can manage our stress in a healthy way. There’s a natural tension when the mind is somewhere other than the place the physical body is, and bringing the two back together is extremely healing.
Mindfulness and recovery
There is such a definitive difference that mindfulness makes in reducing stress that we train patients in mindfulness and meditation as an integrated part of our evidence-based addiction and behavioral healthcare treatment at Caron.
Substance use disorder is a chronic illness that is often stress-induced. Mindfulness helps tremendously, particularly in relapse prevention, by giving people a real-time tool to soothe themselves instead of coping with alcohol or drugs.
As we know, substances are only one way to numb ourselves. We can avoid uncomfortable feelings or experiences with a pint of ice cream, grueling workouts at the gym or excessive screen time. There are so many ways we avoid being present with what’s going on, physically, emotionally, and spiritually.
That’s the brilliance of mindfulness. It helps us become more comfortable with being uncomfortable, and recovery from mental health and substance use disorders are all about learning to be present with difficult emotions. This is such an important skill, because we either learn how to manage the discomfort of our moment-to-moment experience, or we continue to avoid it, which means we lose the opportunity to learn and grow from it. A big part of recovery is learning to be more comfortable with being uncomfortable. Sometimes that just means feeling the feelings that are happening here and now.
The bottom-line is that it’s simply unrealistic to feel happy all the time. The goal of mindfulness is that you can learn to live authentically, with whatever you experience.
Using mindfulness to manage triggers
Mindfulness can help people manage their triggers. There’s a gap between a craving and a behavior – between the desire and the action – and we teach patients to become aware of this gap, no matter how small it might be. Noticing that gap between a craving and a behavior is a response that creates choices. For example, if they’re being triggered and tempted to fall back into an unhealthy behavior – whether it’s wine, chocolate or pornography – through the practice of mindfulness, they can become aware of that gap between desire and action. In real time, they might notice the trigger and take a moment to pause, experience the emotion, and then notice the feel of their feet on the ground and the weight of their body in their chair. It’s very helpful to slow things down, creating space for a response instead of a reaction.
Here’s the beautiful thing about triggers and cravings: They have a beginning, middle and end. If you can practice mindfulness when you’re in a difficult mental or emotional space, then you can make it through the trigger without acting on the impulses.
In fact, technology is emerging that supports this process. Dr. Judson Brewer, Director of Research and Innovation at the Mindfulness Center and associate professor in psychiatry at the School of Medicine at Brown University, has developed and tested mindfulness programs for habit change, including both in-person and app-based treatments.
Being mindful of your emotions
Experiencing our emotions in a healthy manner can also be supported by mindfulness. Emotions don’t just live in our mind; they have a location in our physical body. For example, if you pay attention and practice a lot, you come to know where in your body you experience anger. Some might feel tension or tightness in the jaw or the hands. Others might feel anxiety in their gut. That’s part of why the body is such a primary focus in meditation. You can understand your emotional state by paying attention to your physical body.
There’s a very common practice in mindfulness-based stress reduction called a body scan, where you literally start at your toes and work your way through the body, noticing how each part feels. If you do this regularly, you’ll come to notice where your emotions live. It’s not uncommon for people to find stored emotions that may be connected to past trauma. People will become emotional during a body scan because they’re connecting with emotion they have stored and never paid attention to. It can be a way of helping to heal.
Practicing mindfulness in everyday life
I have a colleague who pauses before he enters a meeting. I’ve noticed that his hand is on the doorframe and he takes a breath before he walks in. Small moments like that can help you remain present, clearing your mind so you can concentrate on where you are now.
I don’t want to minimize the importance of other types of stress management, such as talking about what’s going on within a support group or with a therapist. However, mindfulness can be an essential part of managing your emotions at any point in your day, whether you’re passing by a liquor store or standing in front of your refrigerator. Especially for those in recovery from a substance use disorder or compulsive behavior, it can feel incredibly liberating.
At Caron, we teach patients about mindfulness through daily guided sessions and offer the use of a meditation room. We then encourage and support them as they practice incorporating techniques into their daily lives in treatment. We want to ensure they will take these skills with them as they continue their journey in recovery.
My closing thought on the practice of mindfulness it that it’s literally a practice. The more you do it, the more it becomes part of who you are. I have been practicing mindfulness myself for 20 years. It has helped me evolve both personally and professionally. It’s truly one of the best ways to support a peaceful and fulfilling life.