Mindfulness and Meditation in Recovery

Addicts have an unusual opportunity to create a life of focus, happiness and greater well-being as a result of the chronic nature of their disease. Because the addiction continues to lurk in altered neural circuits, cravings or feelings of deprivation provide an ongoing reminder of the need to channel those drives positively and the danger of failing to do so.

For many addicts, meditation and mindfulness help them stay in the present, clear on the need to remain sober — and alive.

Research has demonstrated that mindful meditation reduces the risk of relapse, and that even short periods of meditation, less than 15 minutes a day, can produce positive changes in the prefrontal cortex and anterior cingulate. These alterations in the brain positively affect memory, mood, attention and anxiety while expanding the capacity for higher states of consciousness.

Many individuals go through their lives in “normal waking consciousness,” which may be described as a state of sleepwalking. They go through the day, interact with others, accomplish tasks without really focusing on what they are doing, their surroundings, the people around them or their conversations. They neither observe deeply nor connect intimately.

Addicts have even less awareness of themselves, their environment — the moment — than other people. They proceed on autopilot, preoccupied by finding the next drink, the next fix, the next high.

Meditation allows the recovering addict, and anyone else who practices it, to tap into an experience of openness and expansiveness. That broader frame of reference and heightened consciousness enables them to engage more deliberately, be more present, be driven less by negative self-talk and unexamined emotion, respond less reflexively to stimulus and take greater control of their actions, emotions, connections and environment.

The challenge in recovery lies in changing habits and ways of thought. For all its benefits, meditation is not easily incorporated into busy lives on a regular basis. The time commitment need not be onerous. Many recommend as little as 12 minutes a day, while starting with 5 to 10 minutes can demonstrate its effectiveness and encourage those in recovery to set aside more time more consistently. Our program recommends 20 minutes a day, which may be done in the morning or even during a daily commute.

People accustomed to constant stimulus find quieting the mind and sitting in silence awkward or discomfiting. The barrage of thoughts, emotions and sensations that surface during quiet times early in the adoption of a meditative practice can seem overwhelming. Simply observing the thought or feeling without judgment or engagement and resuming focus on the breath or other meditative activity can remove their urgency.

In time, the moving between distraction and focused meditation becomes smoother, allowing a deeper meditative experience and equipping the recovering addict to take a similar approach during non-meditative moments: observe the obtrusive thought, negative emotion or craving without engagement and return to the path of intention. These interruptions that seem so disruptive and unwanted strengthen the practice of meditation and the focus and calm of the person doing it. Both are critical for the recovering addict.

On the other extreme, addicts who are used to immediate gratification may find it difficult to stick with meditation because they have a feeling that “nothing is happening.” They may feel they have fallen short or are inadequate to the task. Patience will be rewarded, just as it is when adopting a new physical exercise program. New muscles do not emerge overnight and trying to force them to can lead to discouraging sprains and pains. With continued commitment, however, the exerciser and the meditator will find their efforts rewarded. While the changes produced by meditation are more difficult to measure, research demonstrates that measurable changes in the brain do occur and those changes deepen as the meditator masters the practice.

Some individuals in recovery may seek to obtain a high from meditation. Frequently, people who meditate report a greater sense of wellbeing and sometimes euphoria. For an addict, the temptation to focus on achieving that rush can thwart their experience of self-acceptance and connection with others. A self-centered and isolated practice may exacerbate this negative tendency.

Practicing the stop-look-listen-breathe sequence to build awareness of our thoughts, activities, environment can mitigate the risk of overvaluing meditative euphoria and, at the same time, build essential skills for the recovering addict to observe rather than react to painful events or stimuli outside of meditation. This enables them to separate their identity from their thoughts and feelings, an ability essential to healthy functioning and lasting recovery.