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Mindfulness, Meditation, and Addiction

Staying in the moment can help deal with long-term struggles


By Rachel Fintzy, M.A., MFT, and Adi Jaffe, Ph.D.

"You know you're an alcoholic when you misplace things--like a decade." (Paul Williams)

Jon Kabat-Zinn, the founder of mindfulness meditation in Western medicine, cleverly titled one of his best-selling books on meditation, Wherever You Go, There You Are. Simple and obvious, perhaps, but easier said than done, especially when you're struggling with an addiction, which is often an attempt to go somewhere else, emotionally and mentally. Whether the specific addiction (or attachment) is to alcohol, drugs, food, sex, or shopping, your mind is usually focused either on how to get your substance of choice, taking steps to acquire it, using it, or recovering from the effects. Very little time and energy are spent noticing the present moment, except to try and change your experience. Indeed, the present becomes little more than a constant agitated state. It thus stands to reason that the practice of mindfulness, defined as non-judgmental awareness of the present moment, would be an effective tool in addiction treatment, and in fact this has been found to be the case in many clinical studies.

First of all, though it may seem paradoxical, by increasing your ability to accept and tolerate the present moment, you become more able to make needed changes in your life. This is due to your learning to deal with uncomfortable feelings that might accompany modified behaviors, rather than reacting on automatic pilot. Also, practicing balanced emotional responses can reduce your stress level, and anxiety and stress are often triggers for substance abuse and addictive behavior. In addition, when you choose a neutral rather than a judgmental response to your thoughts and feelings, you can increase your sense of self-compassion rather than beating yourself up, which is often associated with addictive behaviors.

Mindfulness, meditation, and breath

So, how do you practice mindfulness? One simple method involves focusing on your breath:

  • Sit quietly, with a straight spine (lounging about may tempt you to fall asleep).
  • Close your eyes.
  • Make it your intention to be in this moment and to be open to what comes up, without judging your experience.
  • Bring your attention to your breath and simply notice as you slowly inhale and exhale. You're not trying to make anything happen but just to observe what is naturally taking place.
  • If your mind begins to wander, as it inevitably will, simply notice this and gently bring your attention back to your breath. No need to judge your thoughts, as this tends to be like struggling in quicksand—you'll just sink more quickly. Awareness and acceptance of your thoughts is paradoxically the key to detaching from them rather than identifying with them as reality.
  • Try five minutes at first, and build up to 20 minutes a day or so, if possible. However, it's better to practice mindfulness for only a few minutes a day then not at all, so no perfectionism here (or anywhere else, for that matter—but that's another story).

Mindfulness teaches that instead of trying to avoid your experience, which has been associated with a host of mental and emotional disorders, you adopt an inquisitive and observing attitude toward your thoughts, feelings, and circumstances. In other words, instead of getting angry over being angry, you simply notice your feeling of anger and investigate its many facets. You inhabit the moment. Yes, sitting with an uncomfortable emotion may sound about as welcoming as a sharp poke in the eye, and it certainly takes some adjustment to accept what's going on in that moment instead of taking a mental or emotional vacation. However, by changing your relationship with your thoughts, feelings, and experiences and learning to accept them as they are, rather than how you might like them to be, you can literally change your brain and strengthen neural networks that are important in managing stress and anxiety. Over time you can develop a greater capacity for self-observation, optimism, and well-being, which can lead to better control over your addictive behavior. Mindfulness meditation has also been shown to contribute to improved self-control, and since impulsivity plays an important role in addiction and drug abuse, better self-control is always welcome.

Great websites to check out regarding on-going research in mindfulness, free downloadable mindfulness meditations, and how mindfulness benefits the brain include the following:

You can practice mindfulness on your own and also in a group setting, where you can benefit from sharing your experiences with one another and provide mutual support in continuing the practice. Just be patient and kind to yourself, as it's the mind's nature to be active. It may always be along for the ride, but you can learn to accept that it's in the back seat—it just doesn't have to drive the car.

© 2011 Adi Jaffe, All Rights Reserved

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