by Lynette Dixon, Ph.D., LPC, NCC
Mindfulness is an effective approach to teaching self-regulation. It has proven to be effective in treating individuals with various mental health disorders, including for those who have experienced trauma. Mindfulness teaches people to bring their thoughts back to the present moment. It teaches individuals that when their minds wander to painful memories or past traumas or to future worries, to bring the focus back to the here and now. The goal with mindfulness is to learn to be an objective observer of the emotions that we feel so that they can be more effectively processed.
This mindful approach to dealing with emotions has great potential for application within the field of addiction. Often within addiction treatment, the goal is to help individuals identify triggers in order to prevent relapse. In traditional cognitive approaches, therapists help individuals challenge the automatic thoughts that lead to their addictive behaviors and help individuals learn to replace unhealthy addictive behaviors with healthier habits. There has been some success with these types of approaches, but mindfulness takes a different approach.
Addiction triggers cause intense cravings that can feel nearly impossible to resist. Mindfulness teaches individuals how to manage their emotions when these cravings hit. Mindfulness promotes a sense of awareness of the emotions, feelings, and cravings that we experience and teaches individuals to notice these sensations in a non-judgmental way. Individuals are taught not to “fight” their cravings, as this can actually lead one to feel overwhelmed and potentially giving up because the “fight” feels too difficult.
Mindfulness teaches individuals to increase their awareness of the mental processes that they are experiencing in the present moment. It helps individuals to unlink the cravings that one experiences from the use of drugs or alcohol. This is done by helping people learn to put space between the cravings that they experience and the addictive behaviors that follow. An individual learns to get better at paying attention to the emotions that they are feeling and the resulting automatic thoughts that they experience. This new level of awareness puts space in between emotion, thought, and engagement in behavior. It allows individuals the space that is needed for them to learn that they can choose a different action.
Mindfulness also teaches individuals to learn to deal with feelings of discomfort differently. Often times, those who are addicted to substances have turned to them as a way of self-medicating painful emotions. Mindfulness helps teach people to recognize their emotions, even if they are painful, and teaches them to observe them and experience them rather than engaging mindlessly in addictive behaviors.
Some of the main goals when utilizing mindfulness to treat addiction are:
- Becoming more aware of emotions and environmental triggers that lead to addictive behaviors
- Disrupting automatic reactions to emotions
- Helping individuals learn to become a mindful observer instead of going through life reactively
- Developing an increased tolerance for experiencing discomfort without needing to numb and escape difficult feelings through the use of drugs and alcohol
- Learning to accept what is, instead of focusing on what is to come
Some useful mindfulness practices for the treatment of addiction include:
- Teaching grounding techniques that can help stop the cognitive looping that leads one to turn to their addictive behaviors and instead helps them focus on the present, here and now
- Body scanning to help one learn to become comfortable with what the body is feeling
- Meditations: increasing focused awareness to one’s breath, body, emotion, thought, and environment
- Urge Surfing: this is a technique developed by psychologist Alan Marlatt. Marlatt encouraged individuals to think of urges (such as the impulse to engage in addictive behaviors) as a wave that rises, peaks, and eventually crashes and fades away. Individuals are asked to mindfully experience their urges, noticing the sensations as they come, even if they are uncomfortable, and ride the wave until it subsides. The more comfortable that one becomes with “riding” out this wave without engaging in addictive behavior the more they are able to weaken the intensity of their urges over time.
Mindfulness can help one to become more in touch with oneself and gain the distance and perspective from the strong emotions and urges that often lead individuals to acting on their addictions, whether they be addictions to substances, food, sex, shopping, gambling, or other behaviors.
Lynette Dixon, PhD, LPC, NCC is a Licensed Professional Counselor and School Counselor. Lynette is a new therapist to West County Psychological Associates, but has previous years of experience as a therapist in private practice. Lynette is accepting new clients and provides therapy to individuals, couples, and families for issues including: depression, anxiety, grief, substance abuse, and co-occurring disorders.