There are numerous treatments designed to help addicts to overcome their dependence on drugs, alcohol and compulsive activities such as gambling. In the case of substance misuse, professional rehab clinics will offer a supervised detox service along e with a wide range of therapies. These could include cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT), group therapy and one to one counselling. Another approach that can be very valuable is mindfulness.
What is mindfulness?
Professor Mark Williams, former director of the Oxford Mindfulness Centre, says: “It’s easy to stop noticing the world around us. It’s also easy to lose touch with the way our bodies are feeling and to end up living ‘in our heads’ – caught up in our thoughts without stopping to notice how those thoughts are driving our emotions and behaviour.”
Mindfulness involves being fully present in the moment. That means being fully engaged with what you are currently doing or what is going on around you, while calmly acknowledging your own thoughts, feelings and reactions.
Mindfulness might be seen as an alternative therapy that is a little ‘woolly’ but it has real psychological concepts behind it. The NHS says that mindfulness can be useful for a number of conditions including stress, anxiety and depression.
Professor Williams says that mindfulness does not provide the answer to everything and that research is still going on, but notes that there is growing evidence supporting its usage in education, workplaces, health and prisons. A review published on Addiction Science & Clinical Practice assessed a number of clinical studies looking at the mindfulness implications for substance abuse and addiction.
How addiction affects the mind and body
When an activity is pleasurable there is a natural tendency to repeat it. This can be a positive thing and can occur when we spend time with loved ones or indulge in fun, healthy activities. It can be extremely unhealthy when it involves addictive substances however.
The limbic system is the part of the brain responsible for pleasurable sensations, releasing dopamine. This is sometimes known as the body’s pleasure or reward chemical. Substances like drugs and alcohol can affect the way the brain processes information. Some can ‘trick’ the brains receptors or flood the system with dopamine, producing a ‘high’. The brain can become more tolerant to these feelings though, meaning the user needs more and more of the substance to experience the same feeling of pleasure. Eventually they may need it just to feel normal and will suffer from withdrawal symptoms when they are not drinking or taking drugs.
It can also mean that other activities that used to bring pleasure are not as enjoyable. Eventually, the addict will start to place drugs or alcohol above relationships and the people and activities that used to bring them joy.
Addiction is considered to be a disease or disorder that essentially rewires the brain. It leads to compulsive behaviour with very strong, almost irresistible cravings. This urge to continue to use the substance will continue even if the addict knows there may be negative consequences.
Mindfulness and addiction
Mindfulness and Buddhist derived approaches in mental health and addiction have gained more traction over recent years but their use in this field is not exactly new. The US-based psychologist Professor Alan Marlatt proposed the use of mindfulness in addiction and substance abuse treatment as far back as the start of the 1980s. He initially worked with the ancient Buddhist meditation technique of Vipassana. Others have employed other techniques and approaches over the years regarding mindfulness and meditation in the treatment of addiction.
As already mentioned, mindfulness involves being wholly present in the moment. This means being aware and being able to look at things objectively and non-judgementally.
Below are some of the ways that mindfulness can help you to free the mind and control addiction:
Being in the moment
The Buddha is supposed to have said: “Be where you are; otherwise you will miss your life.”
There are more distractions in the modern world than ever before, with mobile phones and the attractions of the internet being prominent examples. For addicts, including recovering addicts who have flushed the drug from their physical body but still have to deal with the psychological effects, cravings and lingering withdrawal symptoms can be powerful distractions. People who misuse alcohol or drugs often tend to use them to avoid stress and anxiety, essentially deliberately taking themselves out of the moment.
Being consciously present in the moment can allow you to contemplate any cravings objectively and dismiss them for what they are. It can also help to focus on other things – the sky above, the sounds around you, the grass beneath your feet or the simple act of breathing.
Focusing on your breathing
That last one – the act of breathing – can play a big part in mindfulness and many meditation techniques. Breathing is something that we all do, all the time, usually without consciously thinking about it. This can be useful for dealing with external pressures that we have no control over and which may be triggers for substance use or relapse in a recovering addict.
Breathing is something we do have control over and focusing on this act can allow you to centre yourself internally and restore a sense of control and calm. This can help to break out of self-destructive spirals of thought and relieve stress. Taking time out of the day to just be still can also be useful for people battling addiction cravings, as well as other conditions such as anxiety.
Show kindness and compassion
Another key piece of mindfulness is showing consideration and empathy. This is directed not only towards other people around you but is also about being kind to yourself. This can help you to recognise when negative thoughts and behaviours stem from your addiction and to let them go.
As Professor Williams noted, mindfulness is not a magic bullet when it comes to treating addiction, but it is a valuable tool and for many addicts it can play a significant part in their recovery.