Mindfulness and addiction recovery

Where does the practice of mindfulness fit in with addiction recovery and ongoing sobriety?

Advances in the field of addiction neuroscience have piqued interest in the ancient mental training practice of mindfulness meditation as a potential therapy or complementary treatment for addiction.

Over the past ten to fifteen years, mindfulness based interventions have been trialled in the treatment for an array of addictive behaviours, including alcoholism, opioid and methamphetamine addiction.

Studies in the area of mindfulness based interventions have been promising with research demonstrating that such interventions reduce substance abuse by modulating the behavioural processes integral to self regulation and reward processing.

What exactly is mindfulness?

Mindfulness is based on ancient Buddhist traditions which promote the art of “staying present in the moment”. Our minds are rarely still – the adage of being focused on several things at once rings true for most people.

However mindfulness aims to get one to pay attention to engaging your senses towards a sole activity.

An example of this is known as the “chocolate exercise”. It involves the subject examining a square of chocolate before placing it in their mouth – and feeling the subsequent changes in texture, tasting it, smelling it and listening to the sound of it being finally swallowed. 

This exercise encourages complete engagement of the senses – and teaches the addict that although they can experience urges to use, that they can respond consciously toward the urge, rather than automatically react in a maladaptive way (for example, use without thinking it though).

Mindfulness based interventions in addiction are often tailored to address behaviours specific to addiction such as learning to be mindful around cravings. Furthermore, mindfulness based interventions in addiction are also designed to help addicts cope with the stresses of every day life.

Mindfulness can be seen as a form of mental training that literally “exercises” neural pathways involved in addiction such the brain’s reward pathways which become dysfunctional during the addiction cycle.

Mental training teaches the addict to “rewire” their mental processes which in turn assists the addict to better self regulate their behaviour.

What does this mean for an addict in recovery?

Although the exact mechanisms of how mindfulness can assist with recovery aren’t fully known, the therapeutic potential for a practice that costs little is very exciting.

There are still several unknowns – how often it needs to be performed, duration, type etc. 

It is also still uncertain as to whether mindfulness works most effectively in the treatment of addiction or the prevention of relapse, however learning how to practice mindfulness no matter where you are in the addiction journey is another invaluable skill to add to a treatment/relapse toolbox for an addict.

Reference: 

Garland and Howard, 2018.  “Mindfulness based treatment of addiction: current state of the field and envisioning the next wave of research”.  Addiction Science and Clinical Practice.

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