Mindfulness and Addiction Recovery: Why Focus Matters

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The link between mindfulness and addiction recovery may not be easy to grasp at first. But some substance abuse specialists and scientists say there’s definitely a connection —one that can help people improve their recovery experience if they engage in the meditation practice.

No matter how busy daily life may get, the discipline to live in this very moment—the here and now—can seem like a (nearly unwinnable) challenge.

That’s because all sorts of things are vying for our attention, leaving us feeling pulled in different directions. Distractions are around us nearly all the time, threatening to dissolve our focus and take us away from what we’re supposed to be (or want to be) doing.

If this sounds like you, and you feel like you can’t sit still from feeling overwhelmed, it is not your imagination.

A 2015 study revealed that people’s attention spans last a mere eight seconds, one second shorter than that of a goldfish, which is nine seconds. Scientists say smartphones contribute to people’s shrinking ability to focus longer. In 2000, attention spans lasted at least 12 seconds, scientists say.

People recovering from addiction may struggle to concentrate as they abstain from drug use and relearn to live life sober. This is no easy task. After quitting substance use, people in recovery have to learn what it is like to:

  • Live without using drugs, alcohol, and other substances
  • Work on the issues that came about because of substance abuse and the problems it caused with family, friends, the job, or money
  • Stay away from the people and places who are part of a life they want to move away from
  • Learn what triggers them and makes them want to seek out substances
  • Learn how to manage those issues and find out how to treat the problems, such as depression, that resulted in the initial drug use

Some online forum users who are recovering from addiction say they struggle with brain fog, short-term memory loss, and concentration issues during their daily routines since they’ve stopped using drugs. Some find it hard to carry out chores and other errands or keep their concentration sharp while they are working at the office. In any case, the connection between mindfulness and addiction recovery can hardly be denied.

Why so Easily Distracted?

Part of the reason recovering addicts find it difficult to stay engaged in what they’re doing is because addiction changes the regions of the brain involved in cognitive processes, such as learning, memory, attention, reasoning, and impulse control, according to the Addiction Science and Clinical Practice.

The inability to keep distractions at bay are not unique to people in recovery, but keeping your attention on what you’re doing may take an extra effort as you work to achieve your goal to live drug-free.

This is where mindfulness, the practice of staying present in the moment, comes in. Studies about the technique have shown it has positive benefits on the mental and emotional health of recovering addicts, and some research suggests it can literally change the human brain.

The Harvard Business Review reports that in 2015, teams of scientists from two universities collected data from 20 studies to look at the parts of the brain that are consistently affected by the link between mindfulness and addiction recovery. After examining the data, they concluded that at least eight different regions are affected.

What Mindfulness Is

Many sources, including the website The Greater Good, published by Berkeley, explain that mindfulness meditation is the ability to maintain “a moment-by-moment awareness of our thoughts, feelings, bodily sensations, and surrounding environment.”

The discipline “also involves acceptance, meaning that we pay attention to our thoughts and feelings without judging them—without believing, for instance, that there’s a ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ way to think or feel in a given moment.

“When we practice mindfulness, our thoughts tune into what we’re sensing in the present moment rather than rehashing the past or imagining the future.”

Mindfulness is also about the ability to observe one’s feelings without acting on them. Participants in mindfulness and addiction recovery feel a sense of empowerment that helps them feel in control of their situation and their destiny.

The meditation technique has origins in the ancient Buddhist religion of the East, but a secular form of it was brought to the American mainstream in the late 1970s. Jon Kabat-Zinn is credited with helping spread awareness of the practice with his Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) program.

Mindfulness exercises have been found to help people from all walks of life, from students in schools across the US to employees who work long hours at the office. The benefits of the discipline’s techniques are said to ease stress and anxiety, lower blood pressure, and treat heart disease, among other physical health ailments. Mindfulness and addiction therapy sessions have also been found to help people with substance use disorders and other kinds of disorders and conflicts, such as those between couples.

Mindfulness and Addiction Treatment

According to an article by The Huffington Post, mindfulness-based relapse prevention (MBRP), an eight-week, group-based program developed by the Addictive Behaviors Research Center at the University of Washington, can help those seeking recovery from drug and alcohol addiction.

The program has been implemented by treatment centers, prisons, and Veterans Affairs centers across the US, according to the article, and is said to offer promise for people with addictions, even those addicted to opiates and crack-cocaine, which tend to have low recovery rates.

Negative emotions and cravings, or other compulsive behaviors—two major areas recovery clients struggle with—are targeted during the program. To cope with cravings for addictive substances or behaviors, mindfulness urges letting them pass, says the website HelpGuide, which advises you to notice how your body feels as the craving comes on. “Replace the wish for the craving to go away with the certain knowledge that it will subside,” the site says.

Sarah Bowen, PhD, a clinical psychologist at Pacific University in Oregon and one of the creators of MBRP, told The Huffington Post that people with addiction who participate in MBRP sessions learn how to relate to their discomfort differently.

“Let’s say someone is feeling depressed, or sad, lonely, or bored — something that tends to trigger craving and then substance use. These practices are teaching people to notice that arising, and to relate to that differently.

“So, there seems to be a shift between the experience of emotional discomfort and having that almost automatically lead to substance use. We’re seeing a reduction in craving, and also a reduction in the tendency to reach for something in order to feel better.”

She also said the discipline helps recovering addicts become more aware of what is happening in their minds, bodies, and souls.

Results from a study conducted by JAMA Psychiatry between October 2009 and July 2012 showed that participants in MBRP programs designed to address substance use and heavy drinking experienced lower risk of relapse. Those who did relapse reported “significantly fewer days of substance use and significantly decreased heavy drinking compared with RP [relapse prevention] and TAU [treatment as usual].”

Easy as A-B-C

Juliet Adams, the founder of the website MindfulNet, shares the “ABCs of mindfulness,” which can help make it easier to manage distractions outside of yourself and the ones you create.

  • A is for awareness, which is paying close attention to what your mind and body are doing.
  • B is for “just being” with your experience. This helps avoid reacting and responding to being on autopilot.
  • C is for seeing things and responding more wisely. “By creating a gap between the experience and our reaction to [it], we can make wiser choices,” Adams writes.

To start practicing being more aware and present in your life, you have to carve some time out of your routine schedule to meditate and practice techniques for mindfulness and addiction recovery.

The Pocket Mindfulness blog shares six things you can do to begin. Among them is mindful breathing that requires you to focus on your breath for one minute, breathing in and out in a slow manner. The length of the breath is important because focusing on it increases concentration. During this process, you’re supposed to clear your mind of all thoughts and be still. You may want to adopt a mantra that you can repeat as you focus.

Another technique is mindful observation, the practice of looking at an object in your environment and concentrating on it. The purpose is to allow yourself to connect with the object’s energy and purpose.

Tough Staying on Track? Call Pathway to Hope Today

We’re all busy and we all get caught up in the day-to-day demands of life that it’s easy to forget to take a little bit of time to check in with ourselves and see how we’re doing. But it’s important that we do, and for a person in recovery, checking in and noticing the warning signs of relapse can prevent one from happening. Mindfulness and addiction recovery techniques have found to be helpful to those who need support in keeping their focus and commitment on changing their lives for the better.

Strong cravings and short attention spans can make treatment and recovery seem like an obstacle course with no end in sight. If you find that despite your best efforts to stay the course to living drug- and/or alcohol-free, Pathway to Hope can help you stay the course to healing and putting your life back together.

We understand how hard it is to kick an addiction or substance abuse disorder, so we focus intently on our clients and ensure they always come first. Our addiction specialists are available at all hours of the day, 24-7, to help you. Click or call us right now at (844) 557-8575 for more information.

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