As addicts in recovery, we know that cessation of substance use is about more than giving up the substance and the friends and activities associated with it.
We must also address the emotional issues underlying our use.
Whether those emotional issues have to do with stress, anxiety, depression, fear, or a lack of self-esteem, there’s a good chance that the emotion is rooted in external desires. We get depressed and believe that if only we had a different job or a nice car or a loving partner that the hole we feel inside could be repaired.
While wanting more money and a loving companion aren’t inherently wrong, living from the perspective of the wanting mind further alienates us from gratitude and keeps us tethered to negative attachments. According to a 2010 Psychology Today article, the key to eliminating negative desires and increasing success along the road to recovery is through the practice of mindfulness.
Mindfulness is the practice of becoming conscious and aware of the present. One way to achieve this is through exercises such as yoga, meditation, or guided hypnosis. When a state of mindfulness is achieved, a person may become aware of external desires they are holding onto. The clarity of realization offers a way to let go of those desires that we cannot control and allows us to understand more acutely the miracle of breath.
A mindfulness practice often starts with a focus on the cool air moving in through your nose as you inhale and then the relief of the exhale. The idea is to keep your mind focused on the feeling of breathing. As soon as the mind begins to drift, you become aware of the drift, and shift back to the focus of breath.
What happens during mindfulness is that focusing on breath forces your mind to the present moment. Feelings of angst, depression, anxiety, and/or fear arise often arise from our minds wanting to travel through time. For people recovering from substance abuse, thinking about the past most likely carries with it regret and shame. Thinking about the future can have us worried and feeling overwhelmed by the uncertainty.
Research into neuroplasticity shows that repeated behavior changes the way we think. So, the more we shift between feelings of fear and regret, these emotions become almost like habits. In studies of pathways in the brains of meditators, regions associated with compassion, learning, and attention have been shown to be stronger.
The strengthening of these pathways is known as cortical thickening, which is the growth of new neurons as a result of repeated practice. In relation to mindfulness, this research is essential in thinking about what we bring to a mindful practice.
Many people can only focus on feelings that they feel silly or don’t think they are doing it right. If cortical thickening is indeed true, then judging oneself while practicing mindfulness will only refute the purpose. Mindfulness is about being kind to yourself and being aware that the nature of the brain is to drift, and that’s okay—you just try to become aware of that shift and pull back to the present.
Mindfulness isn’t just about paying attention to the present, but rather it’s about kind attention.
Other benefits of mindfulness practices include:
- Lower levels of the stress hormone cortisol in the bloodstream
- Increased interleukin levels, which benefits the immune system and increases energy
- Increase in the body’s ability to cleanse toxins, such as lactic acid, which affects receptivity of neurotransmitters in the brain aiding mood
Based on research published in the Journal of Psychology and Neuroscience, mindfulness has been shown to decrease the chance of relapse both in patients of addiction and depression. Further research has shown mindfulness practice used as an intervention for binge and emotional eating.
The problem with addiction is that it tends to lure the mind into believing there is no way out. At its very core, mindfulness offers a pathway to regaining the power of letting go. What we think about, regardless of its positive or negative influence, creates resistance. The best example of this is a diet. As soon as you decide to write off sugar, suddenly you begin to obsess about cookies and chocolate.
The point is, success in sustaining sobriety goes beyond abstinence. Whatever you practice grows stronger. If your mind is focused on not doing something, thoughts of the thing you are trying to abstain from will only become a nagging obsession.
There are many different ways to begin practicing mindfulness. And unlike other practices, mindfulness can be completely cost free. Depending on what style suits you, there are guided mindful videos and podcasts that can help you begin.
My advice is to start small. Begin by dedicating just five minutes a day to the practice. This could be morning or night or even lunchtime. Just pick a time that compliments your schedule. If you prefer to incorporate mindfulness with a full-body exercise, yoga would be a great choice and is offered at the Valley Recovery Center.
Transformation is possible when you focus your attention toward allowing yourself the care you need.