“Mindfulness” is an approach to meditation that has been shown to aid in recovery from drug and alcohol addiction. This article will educate readers on mindfulness and what recent research findings show about how these practices aid recovery from drugs and alcohol and improve mental health outcomes.
Mindfulness exercises, including meditation and yoga, are now among the most popular complementary health practices used in this country, on account of their evidence-based health benefits. That is the finding of a 2016 National Health Interview Survey conducted by the National Institutes of Health. The survey found that 8 percent of U.S. adults use meditation and another 9.5 percent use yoga—both of which center on developing greater mind-body connection in the present by way of breath work and other self-awareness-building exercises.
The fact that the NIH has now devoted a National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health to the furthering of research into mindfulness and other alternative therapies is itself telling, insofar as it means mindfulness meditation and other holistic therapies have earned a nationally recognized place in mainstream medicine.
Mindfulness and Addiction
The same trend is now appearing in the arena of addiction treatment, where mindfulness is breaking new ground as an established intervention, because of its demonstrated effectiveness in treating substance use disorders. Mindfulness meditation can reduce drug-seeking behaviors and addiction relapse rates, according to research published in the Journal of the American Medical Association. Mindfulness-based relapse prevention significantly outperformed standard relapse prevention interventions in two measures of treatment efficacy, in a randomized clinical trial.
Participants in the study had completed treatment for drugs and/or alcohol abuse and had agreed to be followed in their early recovery over the course of one year. At the one-year mark, those who had received a mindfulness intervention exhibited significantly fewer days of substance use, in addition to significantly lower rates of relapse.
The same study quantified the reduction in drug use and drinking that reportedly occurred as the result of a regular mindfulness practice:
- Mindfulness reduced rate of drug use after a year from 17 percent to 9 percent of participants.
- Mindfulness reduced rate of heavy drinking after a year from 20 percent to 8 percent of participants.
Such findings help to explain why mindfulness is increasingly a standard intervention in addiction treatment and how mindfulness meditation aids in recovery.
Mindfulness and Recovery From Addiction
In addition to its scientifically confirmed efficacy as a tool for reducing the addictive behaviors associated with SUDs, including rates of relapse, mindfulness has been proven to support recovery in other key ways.
First, mindfulness can reduce levels of the “stress hormone” cortisol, which has been implicated in the onset of addiction, depression and other diseases in those who experience chronic stress or traumatic events. Elevated levels of cortisol have been linked with higher risks of depression and mental illness, according to an article in Psychology Today.
Indeed, stress is a major risk factor for addiction, and thus also a target of strategies that support recovery. The latest addiction science suggests that SUDs develop primarily as a stress response, resulting from impairments to the brain’s stress and reward circuitry that feed symptoms of addiction and other mental disorders like depression and obsessive-compulsive disorder. Recent studies have found mindfulness practices can actually rewire and restore these impaired brain circuits in treating these same disorders. An article in The Huffington Post highlighted a few such studies.
An example of a mindfulness practice that specifically targets stress is mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR). MBSR is a group-based intervention in which participants engage in a variety of mindfulness exercises combining elements of yoga and meditation. A study at Duke University found MBSR lowered levels of psychological distress and improved emotional self-regulation.
Second, mindfulness yields other mental health benefits that in turn boost successful recovery outcomes during addiction therapy, a summary of existing research concluded. Some of the other positive mental and psychological effects that science has linked to mindfulness include better concentration, impulse control, decision-making skills and self-care, an article in The Fix described. The author, a therapist who utilizes mindfulness as a healing technique with clients, explained the effectiveness of mindful meditation for treating addiction in the following terms: “Ultimately, mindfulness drives at the root of compulsive behaviors by undermining the assumption that inner experience is intolerable and therefore requires immediate relief through substance use.”
Other Health Benefits of Mindfulness
In addition to reducing stress and boosting overall mental health, mindfulness has been found to be effective in boosting the immune system, fostering better overall health and wellbeing, and alleviating and treating a number of other health symptoms and conditions. An in-depth NIH piece on meditation laid out some of these. They include, but are not limited to:
- High blood pressure
- Irritable bowel syndrome
- Ulcerative colitis
- Menopausal symptoms (hot flashes and sleep and mood disturbances)
These health benefits can themselves be critical components of a successful holistic program of recovery from drugs and alcohol.