Overcoming an addiction is a huge accomplishment… but as anyone in recovery knows, staying sober is an ongoing battle.
Mindfulness-based practices can help us approach sobriety, and life in general, in a more open and authentic way—and the positive effects of these techniques are increasingly supported by scientific research.
Below are 5 ways that mindfulness can help us avoid relapse and live more fulfilling lives.
One- Become aware of what’s going on inside of us
Mindfulness is awareness of present experience (what’s happening right now), with acceptance. With all the challenges and distractions of life, many of us can go into autopilot mode—where we don’t even recognize how disconnected we’ve become from our own internal experience.
Mindfulness involves re-establishing this mind-body connection, and purposely becoming conscious of internal sensations and emotions… in addition to what’s going on around us.
Cultivating this attitude of non-judgmental awareness is particularly important for recovering addicts, in order to recognize internal triggers.
While it’s also important to identify tempting situations, the urge to use is often preceded by certain feelings—say, anxiety or anger—and becoming aware of how this sequence plays out internally gives us the opportunity to intervene.
When uncomfortable feelings arise and we begin craving our drug of choice, mindfulness teaches us not to distract ourselves or try to get rid of these sensations—but to face them head on.
As Carl Jung said, “What you resist not only persists, but grows in size.” By facing impulses to use as they arise, rather than trying to avoid them, we set ourselves up for success.
Two- Learn that “you are not your thoughts”
When we pay more attention to our inner experience, many of us notice that we’re almost always thinking—that is, talking to ourselves inside our heads. While thinking is a powerful tool, it can also become compulsive and harmful… especially when we get stuck in repetitive, negative thought patterns.
Negative thoughts about ourselves and our lives often fuel our desire to escape through intoxication, and will persist as triggers until we find new ways to relate to them. During recovery, these may be compounded by doubts about being able to stay sober or insistence about the “need” to use.
Mindfulness teaches that “you are not your thoughts.” Just because we think something, doesn’t mean it’s true—or even necessarily reflective of who we are. The “voice in our head” may be more influenced by messages from other people in our lives or society at large. To get an intuitive feel for this important idea, we have to dive a little deeper… out of our heads, so to speak, and into direct contact with the life force inside our bodies.
Bringing conscious attention to our breath is a powerful way of bridging the conscious experiences of our minds with the (usually unconscious) physical functioning of our bodies. This can help us feel more connected and establish equilibrium, especially during moments of emotional distress.
Bring your attention to your breath. It might be helpful to focus on your belly rising and falling, or using words like “in” and “out” on the inhale and exhale. As thoughts arise—and they will!—notice them without judging them, and gently bring your attention back to your breath.
This is the basic technique of mindfulness meditation: noticing whatever arises in consciousness (whether it be thoughts, internal sensations like itches or tension, noises from outside, etc.) without commentating or “holding onto” it… and gently returning to your breath, over and over. ‘Success’ doesn’t mean not being distracted, but becoming increasingly more aware of these distractions… and always bringing your attention back to the anchor of your breath.
Four- Surf the urge
Visualization can also be a powerful coping tool. Dr. Alan Marlatt developed a strategy called “urge surfing,” which utilizes mindfulness-based techniques to work through cravings.
Start with the basic breath-based meditation technique described above. Then, scan your body and notice how the desire to use manifests itself physically. Is there a knot in your stomach? Are your hands tense? Is your mouth watering?
Bring curious, gentle attention to each of these sensations in turn. What does it feel like in your body? Try to note its boundaries… intensity… temperature… whether it feels like tingling or pressure. Notice any changes in the sensation as you keep your focus on it. (If at any time this feels overwhelming, bring your attention back to your breath.)
Now, with these sensations in mind, visualize a wave in the ocean. The idea is to ‘ride the wave,’ using your breath as a ‘surfboard.’ As the craving gets more intense, the wave swells—but what goes up must come down, and eventually the wave will wash ashore. Continue riding these waves of craving as they crest and retreat, using your breath to navigate.
Rather than fighting against the urge, go with it—and experience firsthand the natural ebb and flow of sensations. While it’s all too easy to get stuck in repetitive thought patterns, physical sensations are always changing. The more we can tap into this, the more we internalize the idea that this feeling, too, shall pass.
Five- Enjoy yourself!
By developing a more open, compassionate way of relating to ourselves through mindfulness, we carry this into our interactions with others. This new energy can help heal and enliven our relationships, and allow us to connect to others in an authentic way.
The refined self-awareness we’re cultivating can also help us find activities that make us feel good. Physical exercise, connecting with nature, and creative expression can be particularly helpful in promoting well-being—especially when we find forms of these that resonate with our own unique interests and abilities.
Recovery is a journey of self-discovery. The more we become aware of our thoughts and feelings, and how different experiences affect us, the more we can use these insights to design a more healthy—and fun!—way of life for ourselves.
Thanks for reading!