Mindfulness in Therapy

mindfulness in therapy

One of the toughest aspects of recovery from addiction is the way your mind feels pulled in a million different directions. Even as you struggle to focus on the positives of your treatment and progress, doubt can crop up and overwhelm any acknowledgement of what you’ve accomplished and where you’re headed next. It can feel like there are two distinct sides to your mind, and that division can harm your recovery if you’re not careful. Constantly fighting an unwelcome aspect of yourself drains your emotional energy as well as distracts from the techniques and exercises you’re learning in therapy. How can you bring balance back to your recovery?

Minding the Gap

 Everyone’s recovery is different, but struggling to keep addiction’s symptoms in check is a universal battle. Living with cravings for drugs or alcohol is difficult for the best of us, and without proper handling, those cravings can cause stress levels to skyrocket. Unfortunately, stress is often the number one catalyst for people who start using drugs or alcohol in the first place, and in recovery, it can become the hardest trigger to deal with.

Many individuals have an understandably hard time reconciling these two sides of themselves: the side that’s willing to do the hard work involved in recovering from addiction, and the side that whispers recovery is impossible or not worth it. It may not be appealing to accept the craving-creator as part of yourself, but ultimately it’s the best way to nurture a strong and unified person who is aware of all aspects of themselves — both positive and negative.

In addiction recovery, therapy is a foundational treatment technique, and it focuses on identifying the causes and consequences of drug and alcohol abuse. There is a huge spectrum of emotions attached to addiction, and pinpointing their origins and meanings can be a difficult process fraught with doubt, discouragement and setbacks. You may find yourself holding on to negative emotions such as anger, or convincing yourself you’ll never reach your goals. In order to combat this self-inflicted negativity, you have to learn to see and understand yourself more clearly — and the most effective way to do so is by practicing mindfulness.

What Is Mindfulness?

 Mindfulness is one of those concepts that’s easy to grasp in a broad sense, but it can be difficult when it comes to actual implementation. Mindfulness is best defined as the ability to make objective and non-judgmental observations — which can seem nearly impossible when you’re in the grip of a particularly strong craving or other emotional situation. For many people, the ability to retain objectivity and let cooler heads prevail can simply fly out the window when they’re exposed to an emotionally charged event or environment, and that’s why mindfulness and addiction are opposites when it comes to recovery.

Mindfulness in Therapy

 Focusing on the present in a non-judgmental way is an elusive ability, but it’s one that’s been practiced for thousands of years. The earliest records of mindfulness training are of Indian origin, around the year 1500 BCE, and they show us the benefits of nurturing mindfulness through the act of meditation. There’s a reason mindfulness techniques are still used today: They work!

In therapy, mindfulness acts like a key to help you open up new doors in your recovery from addictions — doors that can remain closed when negative thought patterns are allowed to take hold and flourish.

mindfulness therapy

Though specific exercises may vary among therapy programs, there are a few core goals for anyone trying to incorporate mindfulness into their counseling. Achieving mindfulness in rehab results in the ability of individuals to:

  1. Identify negative emotions and triggers before they turn into actions.
  2. Separate subjectively negative thoughts from reality.
  3. Use this information to make a healthy choice in a tough situation.

Think of your therapist as your personal mindfulness and addiction coach. They are there to help you sort through the vast array of mental and emotional baggage that comes with addiction to drugs and alcohol. While activities like yoga, tai chi and meditation are excellent ways to boost your capacity for focus and controlled evaluation outside of therapy, working with a clinical professional can help hone your skills on a guided individual basis.

The Science Behind Mindfulness

It’s no surprise to find an emphasis on mindfulness in rehab. Addiction is a chronic brain disease that quite literally changes the way you think, and it’s up to you and your team of addiction treatment professionals to change it back. To understand how mindfulness benefits the brain, it’s vital to see what addiction does to a person’s normal thought processes and priorities.

Human motivation is driven from a group of brain structures inside the limbic system, commonly referred to as the “reward circuit.” Under normal circumstances, the limbic system generates feelings of pleasure as a response to necessary stimuli, like eating, drinking or sleeping. This serves to reinforce motivation for us to repeat these behaviors, which is great when they’re healthy.

However, drugs and alcohol work by bypassing and overloading this reward circuit, and delivering huge amounts of artificially-produced pleasure as a result. This resulting euphoria creates a strong reinforcement, leading to increasingly intense impulses to repeat the behavior.

Over time and repeated use, the intense effects of drugs and alcohol become tolerated by the brain, so it takes more and more of the substance to produce a pleasurable effect. This means that not only is the person going to ingest more and more drugs or alcohol to stimulate their reward circuit, but the reward experienced by performing regular tasks, like socializing, is significantly decreased.

How Can Mindfulness Help?

 The reason addiction can snake its way into our lives is that it comes about through unconscious processes. While the decision to take a first drink or try a drug for the first time is, of course, a choice, the resulting chemical reactions in the brain are not. That’s why it’s so common for people in rehab and recovery to experience conflict within themselves. Their conscious mind is striving for sobriety while unconscious impulses in the brain continue to insist upon unhealthy and damaging behaviors. This is where mindfulness comes in. If you can learn to recognize and distinguish what your chemically-dependent brain is telling you from what you know to be the best course of action, you’ll be well-equipped to continue making healthy decisions outside of therapy.

The American Psychological Association (APA) has, in recent years, become a strong proponent of mindfulness in rehab and addiction treatment. According to their evidence-based research about how mindfulness heals addiction, the primary benefits of practicing it are the ability to:

  1. Reduce dependence on dwelling.

It’s widely known that dwelling on your problems isn’t constructive, but it tends to happen anyway. In clinical terms, excessive lingering on the negatives in life is referred to as “rumination.” If you find yourself unable to concentrate on everyday tasks due to symptoms of your addiction and you spend more time than you’d like thinking about drugs or alcohol, you’re experiencing the unpleasant side effect of rumination. Luckily, studies have proven that practicing mindfulness meditation increases self-reported memory capacity and attention span over time.

  1. Decrease stress symptoms

An analysis of over 35 studies on mindfulness has proved conclusively that cultivating mindfulness increases positive effect — the extent to which you can experience positive moods such as curiosity, alertness or happiness. Not only this, but therapy that employs mindfulness techniques actively helps reduce anxiety and signs of negative effect, like depression.

This is huge when it comes to mindfulness and addiction treatment because stress plays such a key role in the development and perpetuation of substance abuse disorders. Being able to lower your stress levels through mindfulness in therapy is an important sign of healthy emotional and cognitive functions that addiction tends to weaken.

  1. Improve memory function.

 To find out how mindfulness meditation might affect people’s capacity for working memory, one 2010 study focused on a non-meditating military group, a meditating military group and a non-meditating civilian group. Both military groups were in high-stress situations prior to being deployed, while the civilian group had regular stress levels.

The findings of the study were that the control civilian group experienced no change in working memory capacity over the course of the research, but the group of highly-stressed military members experienced active decline in memory capacity. On the other hand, the military group that underwent an eight-week mindfulness meditation training experienced an increase in working memory capacity, despite being in the same stressful situations.

This is one of the more stunning examples of how practicing mindfulness heals addiction and can produce measurable gains in cognitive function — especially since memory is heavily affected by chronic substance abuse.

  1. Increase capacity for focus.

 One of the toughest aspects of maintaining the willpower for sobriety is keeping focused. By their very nature, cravings for drugs or alcohol make your carefully-planned goals and priorities hazy, so learning to keep the big picture in focus is essential in recovery. Luckily, cultivating mindfulness in addiction treatment has been proven to increase capacity for concentration and the ability to ignore distracting stimuli. Improving focus is key in how mindfulness heals addiction, as it can help keep you locked in to your recovery goals more effectively.


  1. Decrease emotional reactivity

 Everybody has an immediate go-to set of actions for when they encounter stress and the emotional reactions it prompts. Unfortunately, substance abuse is a common one. When you’re hit with a wall of emotions, your initial reaction may often be to shut down and do anything that will provide instant gratification and relief. That’s why it’s important to develop tools to help you experience and process tough emotions without resorting to drug or alcohol use — and mindfulness is one of them.

Evidence suggests that the practice of mindfulness  can have a profound impact on a person’s ability to regulate and process emotions. One study showed participants photos of emotionally disturbing content, and then measured their reactions. Participants who practiced mindfulness demonstrated significantly shorter timeframes for returning to emotional baseline.

This is especially helpful for people in treatment, since therapy can be such a highly-charged situation when it comes to emotions. Mindfulness and addiction are opposites — if you’re choosing to be actively aware of your emotions and the impulses they create, you’re not mindlessly giving in to the cravings and triggers that arise.

  1. Improve cognitive flexibility.

 Cognitive flexibility is the ability to switch tracks and topics while thinking, as well as to think about multiple subjects at once. Overcoming addiction with mindfulness can help you combat the “one track mind” that often sets in when your cravings are triggered.

It’s common to feel like you can’t stop thinking about drugs or alcohol — to the point where necessary tasks and responsibilities are pushed out of the picture. Practicing mindfulness through meditation or other avenues can significantly improve your ability to keep cravings in their place.

  1. Enhance personal relationships.

 Many people forget to place enough significance on personal relationships when they’re going through addiction treatment in rehab. It’s vital to remember that living a sober life is incredibly difficult without the ability to nurture healthy interpersonal relationships that contribute positively to your recovery. In romantic relationships, greater mindfulness translates to better communication, less stress and overall greater satisfaction. Platonic relationships also benefit from the increased ability to positively express yourself that mindfulness offers.

Addiction is a disease that often drives its sufferers to isolation. Fear of rejection and denial play a huge role in the decision to remove yourself from family and social life, so the ability to identify the reasons behind isolationist impulses can help repair and build strong relationships going forward.

Mindfulness and the Brain

The verdict is in, and scientists agree that mindfulness meditation has benefits across the board — but how exactly does it help its practitioners to grow? The answer lies in how mindfulness practices affect the human brain. Here are a few examples of how mindful meditation can change brain structure for the better.


Mindfulness Is as Effective as Anti-Depressant Medication

 It’s true! Researchers at Johns Hopkins set off to find out whether or not mindfulness meditation is useful in reducing symptoms of anxiety and depression, and they weren’t disappointed. Their research concluded that the effect size of mindfulness was 0.3, which is fairly moderate. However, that exactly matches the effect size of antidepressants.

This difference, though surprising to some, is due to the fact that mindfulness is an active way to train your brain. It can increase dopamine and endorphins naturally, and it combats the changes in brain structure brought on by the artificial stimulation of drugs or alcohol.

Mindfulness Changes Your Reaction to Pain

It might seem like pain is something you can’t really trick your brain out of experiencing, right? The answer, however, might not be so simple. Researchers at Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center decided to see if just a bit of meditation could have any effect on people’s perception of pain, so they had mindfulness novices try meditating for a little over an hour. Taking into account participants’ perception of the pain’s intensity as well as its unpleasantness, two astonishing observations were made:

  • Subjects reported, on average, a 40% decrease in the intensity of the pain.
  • Participants also reported a 57% reduction in the unpleasantness of the pain.

decrease pain

This has fantastic implications for mindfulness in addiction treatment, since pain is often an unfortunate symptom of withdrawal and even some cravings.

 Mindfulness Makes Your Brain Bigger (and Better)

 In 2010, researchers decided to bring MRIs into the picture, scanning the gray matter of participants who either did or did not engage in eight weeks of mindfulness-based stress reduction techniques. It turned out that those who did participate in the mindfulness program benefitted from increases of tissue density in areas of the brain connected to learning and memory, emotional regulation and perspective-taking.

For those interested in overcoming addiction with mindfulness, this is great evidence for how it can literally alter your brain in ways that positively affect your recovery and new skills.

Mindfulness Therapy Options

While the treatments available will vary among treatment centers, any quality program will offer multiple options for clients to engage in mindfulness-based therapy programs. Voyage can offer you different paths to increased mindfulness through a wide array of treatment services that incorporate mindfulness in rehab. These include but aren’t limited to:

Individual therapy

 To get to the heart of what’s driving your addiction, it’s important to sit down and have one-on-one time with a clinical professional who can help you sort out the causes and consequences of chronic substance abuse. Your individual therapy sessions will focus on overcoming addiction with mindfulness by exploring many different aspects of your life to determine what events, habits and thought processes have contributed to the onset of addiction. From there, you’ll be able to work on strategies to combat the negative patterns that keep addiction alive. To do this, you’ll be talking about things like:

  • Traumatic childhood events
  • Future dreams and goals
  • Emotional triggers for drug or alcohol use
  • Internal emotional conflicts
  • Past and present relationships
  • Concurrent or underlying mental disorders

Individual therapy is an opportunity for you to really get to know yourself — a necessity for becoming a new you without the influence of drugs or alcohol. Many programs integrate cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) in to their individual programs to help clients become aware of thought patterns and beliefs that may be difficult to digest. Mindfulness plays a key role in individual therapy, and it can help you bring out the best in yourself.

Meditation therapy

 While individual therapy is integral to any successful treatment program and an excellent introduction to mindfulness and addiction, meditation therapy takes that relationship to a higher tier. It specifically focuses on techniques that relax the body, thereby allowing the mind to expand and achieve a sense of peace.

Meditation therapy helps not only with the emotional and spiritual side of addiction recovery, but with the physical symptoms of withdrawal as well. The endorphins released during successful meditation sessions can provide pain relief as well as relaxation, making meditation a fantastic companion to CBT or other individual therapy. Among the full list of benefits are these:

  • Reduced symptoms of depression and anxiety
  • Improved digestive health
  • Reduced impulsivity
  • Increased mental focus and clarity

Adding meditation to your recovery routines can be one of the best ways to get stress relief and promote mindfulness at the same time.

Experiential therapy

This form of treatment takes many of the most effective types of therapy and condenses them into a program that focuses on creating and reinforcing positive experiences. These programs are designed to bring together the cognitive, emotional, behavioral and spiritual aspects of every individual person, increasing mindfulness and the ability to think rationally.

Specific activities done in experiential therapy typically include:

What these activities have in common is their ability to create mindfulness through both physical and mental channels. They all have a sensory element that encourages active learning — an essential part of how mindfulness heals addiction.

Make Mindfulness a Part of Your Recovery

 If you or someone you love is struggling with addiction to drugs or alcohol, don’t wait to take action. Effective treatment with your holistic needs in mind is available at Voyage, the premier women’s treatment center in Tennessee. Our dedicated expert staff works tirelessly to understand your physical, spiritual and emotional needs all while guiding you through the process of recovery.

We focus on treating the whole person, with individualized plans crafted to each client. Every part of treatment at Voyage is designed to integrate mindfulness into every action — so you can celebrate every triumph. Find out what mindfulness in addiction treatment can do for you. Call us today.

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