Learning mindfulness is an essential aspect of recovery. This practice is one of the most common approaches taught in treatment centers throughout the world and for good reason! The power of mindfulness practices are endless, but focusing on meditation, self-acceptance, and reflection provide deep healing. Especially in recent years, mindfulness has been a buzzword, but in the behavioral health realm, what does it actually mean?
The core definition of mindfulness are:
- Avoiding judgments – both negative and positive
- Staying present in the moment
Jon Kabat-Zinn, in his book “Defining Mindfulness” describes mindfulness as paying attention in a particular way, on purpose, in the present moment, and nonjudgmentally (Kabat-Zinn, 1994). Another evaluation of observational data by Bear lists five factors of mindfulness: observing, nonreactivity, describing, acting with awareness, and nonjudging.
The practice of mindfulness traces back to Buddhist teachings. Here they emphasize embracing the moment for what it is and without judgment but with acceptance. Buddhist also highlight the collective connection with others as another key factor in their mindfulness practice.
Mindfulness is such an integral part of addiction therapy as many of the skills gained through mindfulness are often distorted in active addiction. During active addiction, we often see
- Detachment and isolation
- Resistance and Conflict
- Denial and distractibility
Neuroimaging Research on Mindfulness
Having science to back up research is always reassuring. In an in-depth study by Witkiewitz, he covers some of the neuroscience discoveries about the brain and mindfulness when used in addiction recovery. The evidence across multiple studies showed a link between meditation and healthy dopamine levels. For individuals in early addiction recovery, this amazing substitute is essential due to the dysfunctional dopamine pathways caused during active addiction.
The same research also showed promising results for improved functioning in the prefrontal cortex. For most of us unfamiliar with the function of the prefrontal cortex, it is mainly responsible for impulse control. For people struggling with substance use disorders, this area can be severely diminished.
Meditative practices also showed a promise for participants to better attend to their life. Building accountability and attending to responsibilities can be one of the hardest aspects about therapy. If meditation can help build this skill, it should be an essential feature in any treatment plan.
Finally, these studies showed an improvement in the striatum; associated with the negative state of addiction and dysphoria.
Essentially, meditation and other mindfulness practices seem to be a panacea for the various aspects of addiction.
Lack of Clinical Research
Because the term mindfulness is so broad, the philosophy can stretch across a wide range of practices. For this reason, the clinical research is spread relatively thin as multiple studies would need to be conducted on each of these practices. These practices can include:
- Dialectical-Behavioral Therapy
- Vipassana Meditation
- Mindfulness-Based Relapse Prevention
- Acceptance and Commitment Therapy
- Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy
- Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction
Mindfulness-Based Relapse Prevention
Mindfulness-Based Relapse Prevention (MBRP) utilizes both meditative practices and strategies to help cope with cravings. For almost everyone in active addiction, they have a difficult time tolerating negative states. They turn to substances to help them cope with these uncomfortable feelings and scenarios. Learning to sit with these states is an active part of addiction treatment. The term “urge surfing” is often used to describe coasting with a feeling or craving instead of acting on it.
At first, this practice is extremely difficult; but overtime the brain gains higher tolerances to stress and negative emotions thus making it easier to deal with these emotions.
The technique of MBRP utilizes both meditative techniques and substance refusal skills together. These modalities are proven to both be effective in addiction recovery and when combined is fundamentally sound.
Ways to Learn Mindfulness
Mindfulness is one of the most common teachings done by therapists. For instance, mindfulness is one of the fundamental aspects of cognitive behavioral therapy – which is one of the most common practices taught for mental health and addiction. The training of mindfulness, like most therapies, often involves a combination of practical experience, specific training, and personal opinion.
A good first step is often beginning with breathing exercises which can be a useful tool with coping.
Alongside breathing exercises, the therapist might also implement a technique of mindfulness known as the body scan. This technique involves focusing attention on specific body parts and muscle areas. The individual is to assess these areas without judgment or opinions like pain or appearance but rather to lean into the present feelings. The body scan servesa a s a grounding technique and requires a good mindful practice.
The body scan and breathing exercises are great places to start with mindfulness as they are concrete training exercises. Once the individual is more comfortable with assessing their feelings from an unbiased standpoint, the therapist can move onto more abstract ones over time.
Another core tool utilized in mindfulness practice is yoga. Yoga is a great way to transition into mindfulness as it incorporates breathing and body scan exercises into one. According to a Boulder research initiative called the Yoga in America Study , 36.7 million Americans practiced yoga in 2016.
 Witkiewitz, Katie, G. Alan Marlatt, and Denise Walker. “Mindfulness-based relapse prevention for alcohol and substance use disorders.” Journal of cognitive psychotherapy 19.3 (2005): 211-228.
 Chiesa, Alberto, and Peter Malinowski. “Mindfulness‐based approaches: are they all the same?.” Journal of clinical psychology 67.4 (2011): 404-424.