Mindfulness in Recovery

Authored by Pin Ng

Edited by Alexander Bentley

Reviewed by Dr Ruth Arenas Matta

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Mindfulness in Recovery


Mindfulness has grown in popularity in recent years as part of the wellness movement. But as is typical of so many popular trends, there is some value in regular mindfulness and meditation. Though many dismiss it as part of the new-age or hippie culture wave, it is part of Buddhism and dates back thousands of years.


It has been documented that mindfulness practices have been scientifically proven to help the brain, which has seen meditation practices incorporated into drug and alcohol rehabilitation programs over recent years. While the practice of mindfulness can be beneficial to everyone, it is particularly effective when used in conjunction with detox and psychotherapy as part of a treatment plan and can strengthen addiction recovery.

Mindfulness Brain Exercise


Psychotherapy practices that have begun to include mindfulness as a part of their course of treatment within rehabs include Mindfulness-based Stress Reduction (MBSR), Mindfulness-based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT), and Dialectical Behavioral Therapy (DBT). Through the use of mindfulness in these therapies, it is possible to physically change the way that the brain is structured, and how it reacts.


It is important to remember that the brain, like all our other organs, needs exercise, and the way that the brain does that is by being deliberately built to be physically formed by learning and relearning information. It is possible, through careful exercise, to form and reform our brains through meditation to make our lives happier, more regulated, and to shift our perspectives on the world around us.


The prefrontal cortex, at the front of the brain, controls our self-control, attention, and planning. When exposed to regular meditation, the prefrontal cortex thickens and becomes better connected to the rest of the brain as we learn to focus and maintain attention on one thing within meditation, our breathing, which can then be applied to focus in other areas of our lives as the prefrontal cortex continues to develop.


Similarly, the amygdala, which is the area of the brain responsible for our ‘fight, flight or freeze’ reaction to situations, is shown on scans to shrink after long-term meditation, as we feel less threatened having learned to think things through and see our thoughts for what they are, rather than as the immediate reactive emotion that we feel in response to it.

Mindfulness Vs. Avoidance


Allowing us to separate and step back from our thoughts and emotions is only one psychological benefit of regular meditation, however. Mindfulness is, at its core, the opposite of avoidance. While substance abuse is often born from avoidance of dealing with strong, negative emotions and temporary relief from our issues, mindfulness forces us to sit and be present with our emotions, acknowledge them as being uncomfortable without letting them overwhelm us or trigger us to act rashly. It is designed to let you respond to thoughts, feelings, and situations, rather than react to them, meaning that you develop skills that allow release from pain long-term.


As a result, it can lessen the symptoms of depression, which can be a common cause of addiction, separating thoughts before we can become overwhelmed by them. Beyond this, it also allows us to learn to relax, reducing stress, pain, anxiety, and even cravings, all of which can further both depression and in turn the resulting addiction12.A. Rosenthal, M. E. Levin, E. L. Garland and N. Romanczuk-Seiferth, Mindfulness in Treatment Approaches for Addiction — Underlying Mechanisms and Future Directions – Current Addiction Reports, SpringerLink.; Retrieved October 8, 2022, from https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s40429-021-00372-w.


Mindfulness asks us to focus on our breath and to take a moment out of our days to be still, which can often be tricky when several distractions are competing for our attention at all times. Now in this digital age, it is more vital than ever before, to take a moment to step back and examine our thoughts and perspectives on situations that we are faced with, especially if dealing with substance addiction.


Mindfulness allows us to breathe, take time, and make decisions with careful consideration for all possible outcomes.

Mindfulness in Recovery Separates Thoughts and Emotions


However, Mindfulness not only allows us to separate our thoughts and emotions to see ourselves better, but also to see others better, and be compassionate to those around us. This is especially important for those going through rehab treatment, as the stigma of being in rehab and admitting to having addiction issues can often make patients turn in on themselves and isolate themselves from others even more than they did before seeking treatment.


It is typical for rehab patients to carry a burden of shame, and to see themselves as not being like other patients at their rehab center. By making a dedicated effort with a regular mindfulness practice, however, patients can build compassion for others non-judgmentally, allowing them to connect and create a social support network of people going through similar experiences, a reminder that they, and all of us, are not alone in their struggles or their journey.


This new compassionate outlook can also be applied to the world at large following discharge from rehab, and also to ourselves as we learn to trade instinctive or reactionary critical thoughts with kinder ones, accepting those around us, and ourselves, regardless of the struggles they have faced.

Mindfulness in Rehab and Recovery


Ultimately, mindfulness and meditation are useful tools both in rehab and beyond to allow us to accept our thoughts for what they are, step back and analyze ourselves and our emotions in such a way that builds a strong foundation for a positive outlook.


It allows us to pause without distraction and focus on our breath, acknowledging but not interacting with our thoughts. Thanks to the neuroplasticity of our brains, we are able to reprogram our brains in this way to build a strong, more heightened awareness of ourselves and others, and how we interact in the world, which in turn leads to building a solid foundation for sobriety and accepting the painful thoughts that may otherwise drive us towards relapse for what they are.


With scientific research backing the benefits physically, socially, and psychologically, mindfulness is a practice full of tools that, with psychotherapy and other support, allow us to become better people for the long term as we undergo rehab in the here and now


Previous: Pros and Cons of Journaling in Recovery

Next: Understanding Sober Living

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    2.A. Rosenthal, M. E. Levin, E. L. Garland and N. Romanczuk-Seiferth, Mindfulness in Treatment Approaches for Addiction — Underlying Mechanisms and Future Directions – Current Addiction Reports, SpringerLink.; Retrieved October 8, 2022, from https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s40429-021-00372-w
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