Yoga, Meditation, and Mindfulness for Addiction Treatment and Relapse Prevention

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Mind-body techniques are gaining greater acceptance in our culture. With each passing day, their use in medical settings, schools, and the workplace increases. Their use in alcohol and drug treatment centers is also increasing.

Research suggests that techniques such as yoga, meditation, and mindfulness are effective for treatment of substance use disorders, and can help to prevent relapse as part of an ongoing aftercare plan.

Yoga, meditation, and mindfulness are often confused, and the terms are sometimes used interchangeably. In simple terms, all three practices involve integrating the mind, breath, and body. Each element complements and enhances the other.

However, though yoga, meditation, and mindfulness are similar, there are a few subtle differences between the three practices.

Yoga, Meditation, and Mindfulness Defined

What are the differences between yoga, meditation, and mindfulness? Experts may disagree on the finer points of the following definitions – they are general – but they will help anyone new to the practices understand the basics.

Meditation

Although its exact origins are subject to debate, we know that meditation likely developed many centuries ago in India as a spiritual practice.

People who practice meditation use it to cultivate inner peace and harmony. Meditation provides an for recognizing and slowing the constant stream of mental chatter that can get in the way of mental clarity, self-perception, and self-understanding.

The objective is to observe the mind and become aware of thoughts and feelings, rather than attempt to control or block them. People who meditate seek to gain perspective and free their minds to cultivate a calm, attentive mindset and increase empathy, understanding, and patience for themselves and others.

Meditation typically consists of visualization, controlled breathing exercises, and various techniques to relax the body and quiet the mind. Meditation can be practiced on its own, separate from its spiritual roots, but it’s important to understand it’s a core element of many physical and spiritual practices, including mindfulness.

Mindfulness

Also derived from ancient practices, mindfulness is a specific type of meditation. As practiced today in the modern western world, mindfulness is secular in nature, but generally not spiritual in an organized or dogmatic way. It involves paying close attention to our thoughts, emotions, and bodily sensations in the present moment.

The practice of mindfulness involves learning to observe and accept the world around us, rather than attempting to control it. Mindfulness emphasizes what’s happening right now, not what happened yesterday or what may happen tomorrow.

Mindfulness teaches us to increase our moment-to-moment awareness. It asks us to experience life as it is, rather than going through life on autopilot. We learn to observe thoughts and feelings without judgment or criticism. We don’t ignore them. People who practice mindfulness report they become more thoughtful and less reactive to life’s various stresses and difficulties.

The practice of mindfulness is gaining greater acceptance in a variety of treatment settings. For instance, the Addictive Behavior Research Center at Seattle’s University of Washington offers free Mindfulness Based Relapse Prevention courses that integrate various techniques aimed at preventing relapse that often occurs after treatment for alcohol and substance use disorders.

Yoga

Like meditation, yoga developed in India centuries ago. It’s now quite popular in the western world. People of all ages and all walks of life practice yoga.

Although there are several different types of yoga, the overall objective is to unify the body, mind, and spirit through specific postures practiced along with breath control and simple meditation.

The postures – called asanas – focus on stretching and strengthening specific parts of the body. With practice, people who practice yoga report their minds become calm and their concentration improves. Physical benefits of yoga include increased coordination, balance, strength, endurance, relaxation, and control. The unity of mind, body, and breath promotes relaxation and for many people, result in a profound sense of inner peace.

How Mind-Body Practices Help Substance Use Disorders

How do mind-body practices help with addiction?

The central thesis is that mind-body practices like yoga, meditation, and mindfulness allow the practitioner to disengage from their thoughts and behaviors and recognize the forces behind them. A skill like this is helpful for people in recovery from alcohol or substance use disorders: when an individual can recognize habitual behaviors and knee-jerk reactions, it increases the likelihood they can identify them as either positive or negative. Then, in turn, they can use this perspective to make choices that support their recovery.

Evidence for Mindfulness

Although research is limited, studies suggest that meditation, mindfulness, and yoga target the areas in the brain affected by addiction, primarily by increasing the release of GABA, a neurotransmitter known to reduce stress and anxiety.

Initial studies indicate that mindfulness practices can remediate some of the physiological changes caused by addiction. Over time, people in recovery can learn to let go of patterns of thought and behavior associated with addiction. Mindfulness practices teach them to allow emotions to pass without labeling them as positive or negative, which, in turn, informs subsequent behavioral choices: when an individual makes choices based on reason, rather than emotion, those choices are more likely to be life-affirming, rather than life-interrupting.

Research also shows that mind-body practices can be effective in relieving depression, anxiety, PTSD, and other disorders that frequently accompany addiction. With practice, evidence indicates people who practice mindfulness become calm, grounded, and more accepting of themselves and others.

The benefits mind-body practices for people in recovery are clear: when we become more aware of our body, it increases the likelihood we’ll treat it better with improved nutrition and a healthier lifestyle. When we’re more relaxed, it’s likely our sleep problems decrease. When we can manage our stress and triggers, we become more resilient, and our overall well-being improves. Mind-body practices can also help people manage chronic pain.

Because of their demonstrable effectiveness in helping people in recovery manage stress, emotions, and triggers, many addiction treatment centers include mind-body practices as complementary modalities that support individual therapy, group therapy, medication (when needed), and community support groups. Yoga, meditation, and mindfulness are not primary therapies, by themselves: the current standard of practice for these techniques is to use them in addition to traditional treatment, not instead of traditional treatment.

Learning Mind-Body Practices

The best way to learn the mind-body practices we discuss in this article is in real time, in a real location, from a real person. It’s possible to learn mind-body techniques on your own, but if you can find a class in any of the three disciplines – yoga, meditation, or mindfulness – that’s preferable. Online training – or even DVDs or YouTube videos – can get you started, but they’re not ideal. Group classes with live humans are superior for many reasons: you get immediate feedback, you practice with other, like-minded people, and your teacher can track your progress over time and offer step-wise instruction to ensure you practice deepens over time.

In the end, though, if you’re interested in learning these practices, what matters is that you get started and stick with it. Consistency over time is the key: your patience and commitment will pay off over time, and you’ll develop practical skills you can use for your entire life.