Embracing Mindfulness Throughout Recovery

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Recovery from substance abuse and substance use disorder (SUD) requires patience and perseverance. It is common for many individuals to struggle with substance use triggers, cravings, and associated problematic emotions during treatment. As these elements can inevitably increase the risk of relapse, individuals must learn and utilize healthy coping tools throughout recovery. One valuable coping mechanism is known as mindfulness. 

What Is Mindfulness?

According to News in Health (NIH), mindfulness is the ability to focus on the present moment. “You become aware of what’s going on inside and around you — your thoughts, feelings, sensations, and environment. You observe these moments without judgment." Mindfulness practices date back nearly thousand of years and are associated with numerous health benefits. Still, it is important to understand that mindfulness is a skill that is strengthened through repetition and practice. 

Many individuals live their lives on auto-pilot, repeating the same conditioned patterns every day. Humans are wired to focus their time and energy on planning for the future and reminiscing on the past. However, these ways of thinking correlate with increased rumination, worry, and anxiety. If merely going through the motions is not enough to experience peace in life, it is certainly not enough to sustain sobriety.

Elements of Mindfulness

Mindfulness is a broad term. To understand the value of mindfulness in healing, it can be helpful to recognize some of the crucial elements that mindfulness encompasses. Many mindfulness practices encourage individuals to strive for the following:

  • Awareness
  • Acceptance
  • Objectivity
  • Non-judgment
  • Gratitude
  • Letting go
  • Patience
  • Beginner's mind
  • Trust

The Benefits of Mindfulness

NIH explains, "Trying to enjoy each moment may actually be good for your health." Mindfulness offers a plethora of physical and mental health benefits. An article by Frontiers in Psychology explains that many of these benefits result from changes in brain structure and functioning caused by mindfulness. It explains, “Some of the main neurocognitive mechanisms implicated in mindfulness meditation include attention control, emotion regulation, and self-awareness.” 

Other research found positive correlations with elements of avoidance, rumination, and suppression (as strategies) with anxiety, depression, and eating disorders. When elements of mindfulness are replaced with these various strategies, the symptoms of anxiety, depression, and other emotional difficulties are reduced. 

The National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health (NCCIH) confirms that mindfulness can help individuals improve emotional regulation skills. In addition, the NCCIH also sheds light on the following health benefits of mindfulness, which can be especially valuable for individuals with SUD:

  • Helps individuals better manage withdrawal symptoms
  • Can reduce insomnia and improve sleep quality
  • Increases awareness of substance-use triggers and cravings
  • Can help individuals manage problematic eating behaviors
  • Offers a positive coping strategy for reducing automatic reactions to triggers and cravings
  • Can reduce symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PSTD) and other effects of trauma

These examples only scratch the surface of the endless benefits of mindfulness.

Staying Present in Addiction Recovery

When individuals are stuck in recurrent patterns of substance use, they are not mindful of their behavior patterns. Becoming more mindful of these patterns and their consequences is often what urges an individual to kickstart their recovery journey. Likewise, treatment is centered around increasing an individual's awareness of their underlying traumas and associated emotions that have perpetuated their substance abuse. 

Staying present in addiction recovery requires an individual to keep their attention focused on lasting sobriety. When triggers and cravings arise, mindfulness can help an individual bring awareness to these elements without giving in to them. Learning how to observe thoughts without reacting to them is central to mindfulness. Therefore, being present and mindful throughout the entire recovery journey can foster lasting sobriety. 

There are many things that individuals can do to stay present throughout treatment and recovery. Embracing mindfulness can be uncomfortable, especially for those who have not ever utilized mindfulness for its benefits. It is important to start slow and to remember to be patient.

Place Attention on the Breath

One of the easiest ways to be mindful is by focusing on breathing. Most mindfulness practices are centered around placing attention to the breath. When thoughts arise, which they will, individuals can visualize their thoughts attaching to a cloud and floating away. Do not try and fight thoughts or connect emotions to them. Rather, allow them to flow. 

It can also help to place one hand on the belly, paying attention to the rise and fall of the stomach while paying attention to the breath. This can incorporate another physical sensation of awareness and can help focus attention. 

Throughout recovery, when individuals feel stressed or emotionally reactive, they can choose to focus their attention elsewhere. Focusing on the breath keeps an individual in the present moment while calming their nervous system. Likewise, it is a strategy that can be used anywhere, anytime.  

Engage in Meditation

Meditation is another valuable mindfulness practice. It involves an individual placing themselves in a quiet space with no distractions. Individuals can focus their attention on their breath, meditative music, or a guided online meditation. Start slow, setting a timer for five to ten minutes. Meditation is always challenging at first, as it requires an individual to remain still and refocus their attention away from their thoughts repeatedly. Remember to practice self-compassion as this skill strengthens. 

Enjoy Nature

Spending time in nature can allow individuals to step outside their thoughts, emotions, and behavior patterns. Be still and take notice. Allow oneself to embrace the sounds, smells, and sights of the beautiful outdoors. 

Individuals in recovery can benefit from being in and connecting with nature in many ways. Outdoor activities, such as hiking, running, and even photography, can be great coping mechanisms for stress and substance-use triggers. Exploring hobbies that embrace mindfulness can benefit recovery in long-lasting ways. 

Mindfulness is an essential skill for identifying and managing substance-use triggers and cravings throughout recovery. Learning how to embrace mindfulness is often a process, as mindfulness strengthens with consistency. However, simple activities such as focusing on your breath, setting aside a few minutes for meditation, and enjoying nature can all increase mindfulness during recovery. Pathways Recovery Center is an addiction treatment facility that recognizes the importance of mindfulness in treatment and long-term recovery. We offer a number of holistic therapies as part of our treatment programs to help individuals achieve a balance of wellness for the mind, body, and spirit. To learn more, call Pathways Recovery today at (888) 771-0966.

Clinically reviewed by 

Moses Nasser
Dr. Moses Nasser, a double board-certified physician in Family Medicine and Addiction Medicine, with expertise in holistic healing, addiction medicine, and psychiatric care, holds an X-waiver to prescribe buprenorphine and has extensive experience in mindfulness-based customer service and medication-assisted treatment.

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