Living with a substance use disorder (SUD) means living with the ever-present possibility of relapse. Neuroplastic changes to the brain from periods of substance misuse imprint a powerful, triggering stimulus-response to those same substances even after long periods of abstinence. This stimulus-response is otherwise known as craving. In the presence of cues related to addictive substances individuals previously misused – especially during times of stress – the brain goes on autopilot, powerfully urging re-use.
Breaking the grip of cravings on individuals recovering from SUD – cravings that threaten relapse –should be a high priority in successful treatment plans.
A variety of mindfulness practices work as excellent interventions because they cultivate a non-judgmental awareness of craving. Non-judgmental awareness can interrupt the otherwise automatic, or non-conscious behaviors, that bring about relapse once an individual is in the presence of cues that stimulate craving. Attention is directed to the craving – and individuals are taught to be compassionate toward those cravings. The cravings, mindfulness practices teach, are a natural, predictable response to charged stimuli and the inevitable stresses life brings.
Among the class of mindfulness practices that can support recovery for individuals living with SUDs is mindful walking.
The Vietnamese Buddhist monk, Thich Nhat Hanh, who introduced mindfulness to the West in the 1960s and 1970s, advocates the practice of mindful walking to bring greater peace of mind and, as a consequence, joy in living.
Mindful walking, he explains, can be done anywhere – a small room, crowded streets, or on a path in a park. Mindful walking is not directed toward a destination, so the physical distance an individual travels need not be far. It could mean walking from one end of a room to another. The accessibility of this practice, and its ability to be integrated into anyone’s life regardless of circumstances, suggests its value in treatment plans for SUDs.
Mindful walking has the power to tame the chaotic mind and collect it from its dispersion into infinite worries. Proponents of the mindfulness movement like Hanh assert that when we live as if our minds are wholly detached from our bodies – and treat our bodies as vessels designed to help us get to the places and people who demand our time – we lose an important connection to the present moment. Our mind carries us away from what is right in front of us, even when it might be worth paying attention to.
Hanh observes, “As long as we are consumed by our everyday problems – distress about the present, regrets about the past, or constant worries about the future – we cannot be free people; we are not able to live in the here and now.” Freedom and independence – the opposite of being driven on auto-pilot – is achieved when we gain a measure of control over our racing thoughts.
Mindful walking can retrain us to appreciate the riches and abundance already around us. We can use mindfulness to see walking itself as a deeply pleasurable experience rather than an annoyance or an inefficient means to get to a future destination.
The essence of any mindfulness practice is to use the breath to bring the mind back to the present moment. Mindfulness teaches how to slow thoughts with conscious breathing and then refocus the mind on a full awareness of the body. Mindful walking might involve focusing attention to the connection each foot makes with the ground, feeling the air on your skin, or feeling the warmth of the sun on your face.
The more an individual feels connected to their muscles, their legs carrying them, and their breathing increasing while walking up a hill (for instance), the more attuned they become to the present moment and – ideally – the less tangled up in anxiety, worry, and drug-related cravings.
Walking Through Cravings
Psychologists recently highlighted the value of mindful practices, such as mindful walking, precisely because of their potential to disrupt the brain circuits involved in cravings. They theorize that mindful walking may work, indirectly, on the brain systems and circuits damaged by substance misuse.
Given the demonstrable efficacy of mindful walking, individuals living with SUDs have reason for optimism. By training themselves to engage in this practice once cravings emerge – i.e. bringing compassionate awareness and understanding to the cravings – people in recovery can use mindful walking as an alternative, productive, and healthy response to cravings.