There’s an old story of a man on a horse galloping at full speed down a road. An onlooker shouts at him, “Where are you going?”. The man on the horse answered, “I don’t know. Ask the horse!”
Like the horse, our mind can take us for a ride. Thoughts come and go, sometimes allowing us to wander from one idea or feeling to another without any effort. Other times we may replay the past or leap to the future. It can be difficult to rein in and direct our attention to the present.
Mindfulness is a tool for taming our mind through greater awareness of our inner experience occurring now. In addiction recovery, it’s becoming a powerful resource to prevent relapse by providing a greater understanding of the thoughts and feelings that accompany cravings. When using mindfulness, we’re able to notice and accept challenging emotions without acting on them.
What is Mindfulness?
Mindfulness is the practice of focusing your attention on the present moment. What can we notice in the present moment? We become aware of physical sensations in our body. For example, if we’re anxious we could experience a tightness in our chest or increase in the rate of breathing. We also observe our emotions – we may be nervous, upset, uneasy, or flustered. And we can notice our thoughts, which is how we interpret those emotions.
Paying attention to the different parts of our experience in the present moment allows you to be more in touch with the emotional states behind urges to drink or use. This is especially important in early recovery because alcohol and other addictive substances have a numbing effect. That can make it harder to describe and recognize the emotions we’re experiencing. If we’re unable to accurately identify feelings, it’s difficult to meet our emotional needs in a healthy way.
A key aspect of mindfulness is acceptance. When using mindfulness, the goal isn’t to avoid how we’re feeling. Mindfulness teaches us to accept uncomfortable thoughts and feelings without judgment. Difficult thoughts and feelings will arise. But we don’t have to react to them.
An acceptance exercise I like to use is identify the feeling, observe it, and commit to allowing it. Allowing an uncomfortable emotion means that it’s okay for things to be how they are, as opposed to the way I think they should be. After giving yourself permission to allow the emotion, breathe into it and make room for it. Accepting how you’re feeling doesn’t mean you have to like the present moment. We’re just noticing the feeling and letting it pass.
When identifying emotions, we’re also not labeling them as positive or negative. We may have opinions or thoughts about the emotions we have – for example, “I hate this anxiety and wish it would go away!” or “I’m feeling so frustrated. I don’t deserve this.” When practicing mindfulness, we reserve those judgments. You may have heard of the quote from Hamlet, “There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so”. We observe our experiences and emotions as they are, but do not try to interpret, respond, or engage with them.
Everything is Transient
The second component of mindfulness that’s helpful in recovery from addiction is the idea that all our emotions, no matter how uncomfortable, are temporary. Sometimes a craving seems like it will last forever. But even the most painful emotions will pass. A good metaphor is waves in the ocean. Ocean waves come into the shoreline and then subside. When there’s a storm, the water may become choppy and start creating large swells that crash into the coast. But every wave, like our feelings, is transient. Feelings change and thoughts arise and then leave our mind. When we recognize that emotions always subside, it makes it easier to watch them to unfold without acting on them.
Mindfulness-based recovery has been shown to be effective in preventing relapses and reducing their severity if they occur. In a randomized control trial of mindfulness-based relapse prevention for substance use disorders, mindfulness practice was associated with a decrease in self-reported cravings. (Witkiewitz, et. al., 2014) Other studies have found that mindfulness training is also helpful in reducing urges to smoke. (Brewer et. al., 2013) By observing and becoming more aware of our experiences in the present moment, mindfulness can assist in addiction recovery together with support groups and 12-step programs.
Brewer J., Elwafi H., Davis J. (2013). Craving to quit: Psychological models and neurobiological mechanisms of mindfulness training as treatment for addictions. Psychology of Addictive Behaviors. 27:366–379.
Elwafi, et. al. (2013) Mindfulness training for smoking cessation: Moderation of the relationship between craving and cigarette use. Drug and Alcohol Dependence. 130:222–229.
Glasner-Edwards, S. (2015). The Addiction Recovery Skills Workbook. New Harbinger Publications. Oakland, CA.
Witkiewitz, et. al. (2014). Mindfulness-Based Treatment to Prevent Addictive Behavior Relapse: Theoretical Models and Hypothesized Mechanisms of Change. Substance Use & Misuse. 49(5): 513–524. Available at https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5441879/