Addiction and Recovery: How Mindfulness May Help

An itchy sensation develops on your neck. Your first instinct is to scratch. But instead of reaching for the area, you wait for a second, studying the sensation. Is there another way to manage what you’re feeling?

This is the premise behind using mindfulness to treat urges related to substance use, explained Nicholas Barr in an article for the USC Suzanne Dworak-Peck School of Social Work website.

“So much of the internal narrative around cravings is not being able to handle it,” Barr said. “What you get from mindfulness is the realization that you can deal with this; you can tolerate this.”

Barr, a postdoctoral scholar at USC, is head clinician for a new study being conducted by a team of experts at USC that will explore the effectiveness of using mindfulness to treat substance misuse and PTSD. External link A group of young adults in the study will receive mindfulness training on meditation, self-compassion and sitting with uncomfortable thoughts to assess the effects on recovery in comparison to a group who will not receive the training. The trainings are meant to work in conjunction with traditional recovery strategies such as cognitive behavioral therapy.

More plainly put, mindfulness helps people focus on their thoughts and feelings without negative judgment or attachment, Nair explained. It’s meant to be incorporated in daily life through practicing awareness, which fuels relaxation and calmness.

“Our minds work very fast, so mindfulness helps us slow down and essentially program ourselves,” he said. It can also help people develop more of an optimistic outlook and improve self-esteem holistically.

According to the American Psychological Association, training oneself to be more attentive and aware can enable an individual to have more control over their thinking, disengage with emotional reactions and more effectively self-regulate. Other benefits of mindfulness External link  include:

  • Decreased stress
  • Reduced rumination
  • Enhanced memory
  • More cognitive flexibility
  • Better immune functioning
  • Increased information processing speed
  • Stronger morality
  • Improved calmness and clarity

“The mindfulness approach is good for all of us to practice,” Nair said.

He pointed out that although Western scientists have only recently begun using this approach to treat ailments like addiction, Far Eastern and Native American cultures have been practicing mindfulness for thousands of years.

How Can a Mindfulness Approach Help to Minimize Addictive Behavior?

According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, addiction is characterized by uncontrollable drug seeking and use External link  that leads to brain changes. While substance misuse often starts as voluntary, it can become compulsive over time and can affect parts of the brain dealing with reward and motivation, learning and memory, and behavior control.

Mindfulness can play a key role in mitigating addiction relapse by bringing attention and awareness to the present moment, explained Katie Witkiewitz, an expert in addictive behavior relapse and addiction treatment. In her view, it allows for people to sit with distress and discomfort that comes with drug cravings, slowing down their automatic response to turn to substance use.

“There are people who really don’t want to use substances, but they’ll say in that moment they felt that they had no choice,” Witkiewitz said. “And so what mindfulness does is basically pause that whole process and helps a person not be on autopilot when triggers happen.”

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