Mindfulness-Based Therapies That Can Help in Your Recovery and Making New Habits Stick
Mindfulness-based therapies are behavioral interventions for addiction and other health conditions that apply elements of mindfulness meditation to help make healthy habits stick and improve overall wellness. Often, mindfulness-based therapies will blend elements of mindfulness meditation with components of another evidence-based therapy, such as cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT)—by way of example, mindfulness-based cognitive behavioral therapy (MBCT).
Mindfulness meditation itself can include various elements, but two components in particular have proven to be key mechanisms for positive core change, according to groundbreaking research at Brown University. These are described as:
- “Open Monitoring” (OM) – the awareness and observation of negative feelings “without judgment or an emotional secondary reaction to them”
- “Focused Attention” (FA) – “maintaining focus on or shifting it toward a neutral sensation, such as breathing, to disengage from negative emotions or distractions”
Relying on the firsthand experience of in-house experts who use mindfulness practices to treat addiction, (as part of an integrated approach to substance abuse care), this article will educate readers on mindfulness-based therapies that support the maintenance of abstinence and a healthy recovery lifestyle. We’ll also explore the latest research into how OM, FA and other mindfulness practices like meditation and yoga can literally help to heal and rewire the addicted brain over time.
How Mindfulness Has Helped Clients in Treatment for Substance Abuse
Beach House Therapist Richard Warren has firsthand experience of how mindfulness helps clients in treatment for substance abuse, a population that Warren specializes in treating. He often employs mindfulness in conjunction with other interventions, such as “solution-focused, cognitive-behavioral, motivational interviewing” therapies that have been evidenced to boost recovery outcomes, according to research.
“Mindfulness is used as a tool to assist clients in building the necessary self-awareness to address many of the issues surrounding their substance use disorders (SUDs),” Warren said.
Mindfulness-Based Therapies for Anxiety Management
Warren shared one example of how he applies mindfulness in helping clients address their addiction—namely, “anxiety management.”
“Many clients use drugs as a means of self-medicating. When clients stop using drugs, they often experience high levels of anxiety and fear. Mindfulness approaches such as meditation and present moment awareness are very useful in assisting clients in managing their anxiety.”
As further illustration, Warren recalled one client who, like many others, “struggled with restlessness and rapid thought cycling,” to the degree that these issues were getting in the way of her being able to focus in therapy groups and treatment. But thanks to her participation in a 10-minute meditation group, the client was able to alleviate and overcome these symptoms of anxiety and agitation, so that she could actually focus on her treatment experience. The client reported back to Warren that “the meditation helped her not lose herself in her thoughts and better stay present in treatment.”
“Oftentimes if clients are unable to maintain presence while in treatment, they may be unable to truly utilize their time effectively due to distractions and worry, Warren explained. “Mindfulness assists clients in remaining grounded, so they can make the most of their time in treatment.”
How Mindfulness-Based Therapies Reduce Cravings and Risks of Relapse
Cravings for drugs or alcohol are a tell-tale symptom of addiction. These can be so painful and uncomfortable that if left untreated they can trigger a relapse. But Warren’s experience has been that mindfulness-based therapies can reduce these cravings, and in turn, the related risk of relapse:
When clients crave substances, it is easy for them to become completely lost in their desire to use, so that they can no longer connect with the reason that they want to abstain from substances. Mindfulness assists the clients in being able to separate themselves from their cravings and better connect with their desire to maintain sobriety. Oftentimes clients experience severe discomfort that leads them to crave substances. Mindfulness teaches them how to better tolerate distress and maintain awareness of what is in the best interest of their recovery. Clients are able to see how thoughts are just thoughts and their cravings only have power if they make the choice to act on them.
Warren said he has worked with multiple clients who “have been able to use mindfulness to learn how to sit with their cravings to better understand the sensation of cravings, which decreases their fear of experiencing [the cravings].”
“Once clients are able to lessen the power of cravings through mindful exploration of how they experience cravings,” in Warren’s words, “clients are better able to move forward in their recovery without cravings standing in their way.”
Warren’s more anecdotal experience of how mindfulness helps Beach House clients manage and overcome cravings is reinforced by scientific findings at the University of Berkeley (UCB). In that research, study subjects took part in a “Mindfulness-Based Relapse Prevention” (MBRP) program developed by UCB researchers. The program emphasized “cultivating moment-to-moment, nonjudgmental awareness of thoughts, feelings and surroundings”— (in essence, what the Brown researchers later identified as two mechanisms by which mindfulness effects positive core change, OM and FA).
Those who took part in the MBRP program found that when cravings hit, they were better able to recognize, tolerate and think differently in relation to these sensations. By relating differently to these cravings, they were then able to change their behavioral response. Whereas the old default mode was one of automatically acting on the compulsion to use drugs or alcohol, now they felt freer to choose a healthier behavior in response to these sensations.
How Mindfulness-Based Therapies Can Rewire the Brain for Healthier Habits
Emerging research suggests that these positive behavioral changes make a neurological imprint, shedding light on how mindfulness-based therapies over time actually rewire the brain for healthier habits. A 2017 article in Yoga Journal—certain forms of yoga employ the same transformational elements of mindfulness meditation—highlighted some of these key findings. One of them was the discovery that, in a study of a mindfulness intervention for nicotine cravings, there was reduced activity in a part of the brain known as the “Default Mode Network” (DMN). (The DMN is a large network of interacting brain regions that gets activated by addiction.) That revelation (that mindfulness decreased activity in the DMN) led researchers to the conclusion that a regular discipline of mindfulness may lead to gradual but actual changes in the circuitry of the DMN itself.
Such findings are encouraging for what they suggest about how mindfulness meditation, yoga and other mindfulness-based therapies can enhance treatment and recovery outcomes for people with substance abuse.
If you would like to learn more about how mindfulness-based therapy can help you or a loved one find freedom from an addiction, please call one of our admissions counselors today.
For more information on mindfulness approaches to addiction and the science of behavior change, explore these articles in our Learning Center:
- Keeping Your Resolution to Stay Sober in 2018
- How to Use Mindfulness to Reduce Cravings
- How Mindfulness Can Prevent Relapse
- How Mindfulness Exercises Aid Recovery
- How Mindfulness Can Connect Us to Others