A significant and persuasive body of research performed by health scientists over the past five decades shows complementary modalities of treatment for alcohol and substance use disorders are effective in managing stress, improving physical health, reducing anxiety, and improving self-esteem and emotional well-being. Some of the most common complementary approaches fall under the general category of mindfulness practices – yoga, meditation, and tai chi, for instance – and are gradually becoming standard elements of individualized, integrated treatment plans for people living with substance use disorders.
The concept of mindfulness first reached the United States in the late 19th century, when a renowned Indian guru gave a talk at a conference held on world religion in Chicago. That man – Swami Vivekananda – made it his goal to bring mindful spirituality to the western world, and by all accounts, he succeeded. His visit piqued the interest of thousands of Americans, and in the following decades scores of articles, pamphlets, and publications detailed the mind-boggling feats of obscure yogis and Eastern ascetics practicing their meditation techniques in ashrams and temples across India and Asia. The movement slowly gathered steam until the 1960s, when yoga and meditation hit the mainstream in the form of popular books and even a few television shows.
The next decade saw researchers – led by figures like Jon Kabat-Zinn – gather scientific proof of the effectiveness of meditation, yoga, and tai chi in reducing the effects of stress, increasing self-esteem and well-being, and battling mental and emotional challenges associated with emotional disorders such as anxiety and depression. This field is currently known as Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) and it’s no longer considered esoteric. The studies have been conducted, the numbers have been analyzed, and the conclusion is undeniable: MBSR works – and the latest wave of research shows it works particularly well for people recovering from addiction.
That’s the first reason to try meditation during recovery: it helps.
Let’s take a look at some of the reasons why.
How Mindfulness and Meditation Help
In a paper published in 2016 called “The Mechanisms of Mindfulness in the Treatment of Mental Illness and Addiction” researchers from the Nottingham Trent University in the U.K. identify ten mechanisms by which mindfulness practices – including meditation – help people in recovery from alcohol and substance use disorders:
- Changes in brain structure. The latest neuroimaging technology shows mindful meditation induces neuroplastic changes (restructuring, rewiring, and growth) in areas of the brain impacted by long-term exposure to alcohol and drugs of abuse. Data indicates mindfulness causes changes in brain areas associated with learning and memory, emotional and behavioral regulation, cognition, and self-awareness.
- Decreased cue reactivity. Mindful meditation can increase the activity and output of the vagus nerve, which plays a key role in regulating heart rate and breathing rate – two processes which spike when an individual is under stress. This increase in vagus activity is associated with improved physical, emotional, and psychological relaxation.
- Perceptual changes. Mindfulness practices train an individual to develop a heightened awareness of the present moment, including their thoughts, emotions, and any physical sensations they experience. Individuals then learn to distance themselves from those thoughts, emotions, and sensations so they can see and experience the world as it is, rather than as interpreted by their subjective, automatic, and unconscious responses. When an individual in recovery from addiction learns how to become aware of the present moment, detach themselves from their habitual reactions, and manage their emotional reactions to their environment, they can transfer this skill to managing the triggers and emotions that often lead to relapse.
- Spiritual connection. While mindfulness practices originate with the spiritual practice of Buddhism, 21st century mindfulness is secular in nature. However, people who practice mindfulness report an increased sense of spirituality and a greater connection to their concept of the divine. Spirituality is not required for recovery from addiction. However, traditions such as AA – which are grounded in concepts of a higher power – help many people manage the challenges of recovery.
- Situational awareness. This phrase is typically used in the military, and by pilots in particular, to describe their level of understanding of exactly what is happening in the moment, why it’s happening, and the best possible choices available to them given the circumstances. In the recovery context, increased situational awareness means an individual has improved decision-making capacity and increased ability to predict potential outcomes based on immediate external stimuli.
- Defining meaning and values. Evidence shows that mindfulness practices can decrease anxiety and worry about the future and reduce rumination or rehashing events of the past. The reduction of these disruptive psychological symptoms is associated with the ability to achieve mental and emotional clarity, thereby allowing an individual to assess their purpose in life and create personal value and meaning based on clear and rational thinking.
- Increase in self-awareness. Improvements in self-awareness resulting from mindfulness practices enable individuals to recognize internal states – mental, emotional, and physical – and respond to them intentionally, rather than impulsively. Increased self-awareness also allows people in recovery to recognize and understand what works best for them and gives them the confidence to include those things in their long-term recovery plan.
- Substitution. The idea of substituting one addiction for another is generally frowned upon by mental health professionals, and it’s easy to see why: addiction implies some type of behavior that has a negative impact on both the overall health and smooth daily functioning of an individual. In this context, however, meditation can temporarily replace the euphoria associated with alcohol or drugs with the emotional state achieved in mindfulness, which some describe as blissful. This substitution is not seen as negative because it’s used to transition from reliance on external chemicals to the ability to achieve peaceful and happy states simply through basic breathing techniques, which are neither unhealthy nor disruptive.
- Managing urges. Called urge surfing by some MBSR practitioners and riding the wave by others, mindfulness teaches individuals to observe – rather than react to – thoughts and emotions that can lead to relapse. Surfing the triggers until they dissipate enables individuals in recovery to manage cravings and reduce likelihood of relapse.
- Letting go. This phrase has been so overused in popular culture and self-help circles that it has almost lost practical meaning. Nevertheless, it’s still one hundred percent relevant to recovery. People in recovery have a lot to let go of: old friends, old habits, old patterns of thinking, and, of course, the idea that they need alcohol or drugs to make it through the day. Mindfulness teaches – through daily repetition – the process of observing thoughts and feelings as they form, mature, and eventually fade back to where they came from. This skill allows individuals in recovery to not only manage triggers and cravings, but also recognize – and move past – patterns of thinking and feeling associated with addiction, which they can then replace with healthy, life-affirming patterns that support long-term recovery.
It’s important to remember that in the context of treatment for alcohol and substance use disorders, mindful meditation is considered a complementary therapy, meaning that it’s used in addition to, rather than in place of, traditional approaches like psychotherapy, group counseling, and social support. Meditation is not a treatment in and of itself: meditation supports treatment, and in some cases, enhances its effects and improves outcomes for patients.
Meditation: Increase in Popularity
We outlined ten evidence-based mechanisms that begin to explain why mindful meditation is an included in the recovery curriculum of many of the most highly-regarded addiction treatment programs in the U.S. today. Those ten reasons should be enough to convince anyone in recovery to give meditation a try – even if previous attempts at meditation were either unpleasant, uninteresting, or both.
We have three more reasons to give meditation a try, though.
First, a statement from the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health:
“Mind and body approaches, such as mindfulness-based interventions, have shown some success when used along with the treatment of substance abuse and addiction…Mind and body approaches can be part of a comprehensive addiction treatment plan that includes behavioral modifications, and may include pharmaceuticals to decrease cravings, group therapy, or counseling.”
Next, there’s it’s growing popularity: a national survey showed that use of meditation by U.S. citizens tripled from 2012-2017. This means that it’s no longer difficult to find a meditation class, and people who try meditation in recovery can easily continue the practice – with expert guidance – after they leave treatment.
Finally – and this is a totally subjective, hit or miss reason – the people for whom mindfulness meditation works report that it works very well. For some, mindfulness practices – alongside therapy, community support, and counseling – form the core of their ongoing recovery strategy.
Therefore, if you’re considering meditation, but on the fence – get off that fence and give it a try. At worst, you spend an hour learning you don’t like to meditate. At best, you learn a new skill that can increase your chance of long-term, sustainable recovery.
The reward clearly outweighs the risk: that’s why we recommend it for anyone in recovery. And yes – if you’re in recovery, this means you.