3 Ways that mindfulness can support your recovery from addiction and mental illness
What comes to mind when you read the word mindfulness?
For me, mindfulness brings up images of being on a sunny beach, a few puffy clouds in the sky, drenched in sun and sitting on a sandy beach. Maybe that’s because in Canada, September feels like winter is just a few weeks away? Possibly.
Mindfulness is weight lifting for your mind and emotions
Perhaps your reaction to mindfulness is skepticism because it feels too fluffy, new-agey or even too difficult. Dr. Ronald Alexander, Psychology Today writer reframes mindfulness by calling it Mindstrength. The reality is that mindfulness is not fluffy. Mindfulness practice is a form of weight lifting for your mind and emotions.
Russ Harris, MD defines mindfulness as “a mental state of awareness, openness and focus – a state that conveys enormous physical and psychological benefits” (see credits). It is a health practice, similar to exercise. It is not tied to any one religion, although it may change your perspective on spirituality.
Several years ago, I attended a Yoga studio with some of our adolescent clients in our treatment program. I really wanted to like yoga. I tried to be in the moment, but it just felt painful. Yoga didn’t help me to be more in the moment, so I ignored the whole mindfulness thing.
But then life hit me like a freeway accident.
Two years ago, I experienced a depression that turned my life on it’s head. Over the past two years, I have worked to rebuild myself, my relationships and my outlook. I have learned that my well-being determines how “well” the rest of my life is working.
A mental war-zone
For most of my life, I have tried to manage my mind so that it is more friendly. Negative thoughts, self-judgment, self-analysis seemed to be the norm. I tried positive thinking, reminding myself of goals, saturating myself with success-oriented content (books, podcasts, Cd’s and MP3), and even extreme levels of exercise. No matter what I did, the thoughts seemed to come back and ruined my mood, my self-confidence and reinforced a belief that I could never find lasting happiness.
For years, my mind was a war-zone with one lonely casualty: my mental health had become a wasteland.
Trying to push/read/think/out-positive and self-help my thoughts away backfired. It only increased my focus on the unhelpful and the unhealthy. This ended up making my depression, anxiety and other mental health experience worse than it needed to be.
Research shows that our thought life is crucial for our well-being and mental health. Rehearsing our faults, flaws and failures can send depression and anxiety into overdrive. If we are in recovery from moderate to severe use of alcohol or drugs, being overly attentive to our physical and emotional distress can increase our risks of relapse and experiencing depression.
I don’t like my mind right now
Stacking up problems that are so unnecessary
Wish that I could slow things down
I wanna let go but there’s comfort in the panic
Positive thinking, avoiding, numbing, ignoring does not work. The more that we try to push our troubling thoughts, pain or discomfort out of our minds, the more our minds hold on. One reason is that you cannot think less about something by trying to think less about it. Another side is that if you are honest about your pain, triggers or thoughts they are a part of you. The more time and energy you invest in attempting to push away part of you, it becomes impossible to feel whole.
There is a way to end the war and turn down the struggle
I’m not suggesting that you put up with needless suffering, but just acknowledge that it is pointless to try to push away, numb or avoid thoughts, pain or discomfort. What if there is a different way?
Mindfulness is not a solution to all of your problems. You can be more in the moment, but you will continue to experience stress, tension and anxiety. You won’t become richer, more beautiful or suddenly 20 pounds lighter. In reality, wishing for a solution or an easy route to feeling better only contributes to our tendency to use drugs, alcohol, engage in addictive behaviors (over-shopping, compulsive eating/surfing/exercising/sex, or gambling). Making room for discomfort, learning to slow the pace of our thoughts, and accepting but not being overwhelmed by pain is part of a healthy recovery.
Research has demonstrated that being more attentive, mindful will reduce the impact of cravings and triggers. In a 2012 study of 286 men and women, practicing mindfulness as part of a overall recovery plan improved their ability to cope with cravings. Meditation taught them how to “Outwit, Outlast and Outplay” their uncomfortable emotions, memories and experiences.
Mindfulness is a Best Practice Treatment for Disordered Eating and Mood Disorders
I corresponded with Linda Lewaniak, Senior Director of Integrated Services at Eating Recovery Center, Insight. Insight Behavioral Health Centers are leaders in providing specialized treatment for eating and related disorders, and mood and anxiety disorders.
She highlighted the importance of mindfulness in our journey of recovery. She recommends three practices that can support you in your recovery from mental health and behavioral disorders that include addiction, depression and anxiety, and disordered eating.
1.Focused Attention – this is where you take even just a few minutes, clear your mind and be present. Take a few breaths – eyes open or closed, doesn’t matter. Pay attention to your feet on the floor, to the feel of the chair you are sitting on, or to how your skin feels and where you feel any discomfort or tension.
- We can practice this by paying attention to one song or piece of music. Listen intently to the various instruments, vocals and overall emotion and physical sensations that we experience.
- Another practice is to mindfully drink your coffee. Slowly take one drink. Let it sit for a moment on your tongue. Think about the taste and the mixture of sugar, bitter and milk. Consider where does the flavor go? Does it sit on your tongue, travel down your throat, seep into your system and travel through your body? How long does the coffee flavor stay with you? What is the perfect temperature, sweet-bitter mix for you?
- You can also practice focused attention when you wait in line at the bank or grocery store.
2.Open monitoring – uses mindfulness based skills to be present and aware of everything going on. You can take a few minutes to be aware of all of the thoughts and sensations you may be experiencing. Pay attention, without focusing attention on any particular concept or object.
3.Self-transcending – delves deeper into your brain and provides a deep awakening. This involves practicing awareness for longer periods of time. “20 minutes of this a day can help with cravings, urges, and disturbing thoughts to help manage triggers so you don’t act upon them.” Remember that you are retraining your body and by extension your mind. Your body will change and adapt to a new normal as you invest time in healthy attentive experience.
- You can begin with 5 minutes at a time and slowly work up to 20 minutes a day. Direct your awareness to your breathing: Don’t force your breathing. Just pay attention to it. Notice your chest, stomach rising and falling. Feel the air enter, fill, and then empty from your lungs. Feel the temperature of the air as it travels into your body and as it leaves your body. Don’t react if you become distracted. As you take time to breathe you will experience thoughts, bodily sensations and other distractions. Just notice them without analyzing or being hard on yourself. Go back to paying attention to your breathing.
“3-4 minutes in the morning of deep breathing and open monitoring can help – especially with paying attention and focusing on your breath. You can also use music or meditation tapes that help you to be in tune with yourself. Doing this 2-3 times a day for as little as a few minutes can make a difference.”
Mindfulness will help to calm hyper-aroused brain activity. Regular practice can change our mindset to become more flexible, open and hopeful. At times, we all experience self-judgment, negative thoughts, anxiety and emotional discomfort. How we respond can create a war-zone in our mind and emotions. Or, we can learn to have greater self-compassion. Mindful awareness will help to change our relationship with our experience.
“Body awareness allows you to be in tune with your body so you can make decisions about what you’re doing, how you’re eating, etc. Being in tune with your body also allows you to better manage things. Being mindful helps you set better limits in your life, which includes saying yes or no to people or situations, and to take better care of yourself.”
If you enjoyed this article, I invite you to read some of my other recent writing:
I write articles that talk about the kind of changes I am trying to make in my own life. I hope that my writing also helps you. My topics include addiction and mental health recovery, relationships, and personal growth. I work as an Addiction Therapist, an Editor for the Good Men Project and freelance writer, and Adjunct Professor at City University, Edmonton. But what is most important is that I have a family and I am in recovery from depression and anxiety. My mental health experiences are part of my personal University degree, but they do not define me.
I hope to inspire you, to inform you and on occasion to entertain you. But most of all, I want to connect with you. Sign up for my blog if you want to receive the latest and best of my writing. If you like what I have to say, please share my work with your friends.
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Keep it Real
Article first appeared in the Good Men Project.
Credits and Resources
Harris, R. MD. (2008). The Happiness Trap: How to Stop Struggling and Start Living. Trumpeter Books: Boulder, Colorado.
“Mindfulness practice not only helps them to manage cravings and urges, but also enables them to better cope with the psychological discomfort that can precipitate a relapse.” Dr. Suzette Glasner led a 12 week study of 63 adults with stimulant dependence. received a standard behavioral treatment for stimulant addiction for 12 weeks. After four weeks, participants were randomly assigned to one of two groups: one that received mindfulness training designed specifically for addiction treatment, or a control group that received health education. Among the participants with major depression, 87 percent who got mindfulness training were not using stimulants at the end of the 12 weeks. Similar patterns were observed for study participants with anxiety disorders.
In 2015 Richard Byng, PhD, professor at Britain’s Plymouth University Peninsula Schools of Medicine and Dentistry led a study of adults with recurrent major depression who were on maintenance anti-depressant drugs. Participants were divided in half, with 212 patients taking anti-depressants, and the others participating in eight group mindfulness therapy sessions, along with daily home practice and the option of four follow-up sessions over a 12-month period. Study results published in The Lancet medical journal showed that after two years, relapse rates were similar in both groups — at 44 percent in the therapy group versus 47 percent in the anti-depressant drug group. “Whilst this study doesn’t show that mindfulness-based cognitive therapy works any better than maintenance anti-depressant medication in reducing the rate of relapse … these results suggest a new choice for the millions of people with recurrent depression on repeat prescriptions,” said Willem Kuyken of Oxford University, who worked with Byng on the research. Mindfulness practice showed lasting improvements equal to antidepressant medication. Note: Any consideration of mindfulness as a replacement for your medication should be discussed with your healthcare professional.