Mindfulness has become a massive movement in the West ever since John Kabat-Zinn, a MIT-trained molecular biologist, presented the idea to the University of Massachusetts Medical Center in the 80s. Originally a part of Buddhist philosophy, the practice of mindfulness involves a non-judgemental awareness that focuses on the current moment and brings awareness to thoughts, emotions and sensations as they occur in the here-and-now. At its most basic, paying attention to the breath constitutes mindfulness.
Mindfulness can be an incredibly powerful tool to use when overcoming addiction. In the earliest stages of recovery, mindful breathing can be recruited to help overcome urges to drink or use. Mindfulness asks for you to pay attention to any emotion or sensation as it occurs, but from a distance where you can observe rather than get caught up in the emotion. For cravings, this can be extremely helpful. It can assist you to notice the urges, rather than suppress them. The emphasis on detached awareness can help you be able to let the urge wash over you rather than for you to give into it.
In the long run, mindfulness offers a new way of relating to yourself, a method of loving kindness and compassion towards the self that could have well been lacking in the past. Hence, the reason why you turned to addiction in the first. When you develop a more caring, attentive and tolerant attitude towards yourself, this can change your life for the better completely.
How I’ve Used Mindfulness for Recovery
I myself have used mindfulness to significant effect throughout my recovery. I started with basic mindful activity when I was first withdrawing from alcohol, a time when I felt incredibly weak and vulnerable. Giving myself that caring attention was so powerful in those early days and weeks. There were times when mindfulness saved me from relapsing and carried me through some extremely painful emotions that began to surface as I became sober.
As I have continued into sobriety, I have carried on with a mindful practice. I now attempt to use the technique whenever I am feeling anxious, stressed or overwhelmed. The basic mindful breathing acts like an anchor, bringing me back to the present and helping me to maintain focus on what is happening both within and around me. This enables me to remain calm and detached even at the most stressful of times.
Try This at Home
Working as a frontline mental health practitioner, I sometimes have to deal with quite highly emotive situations, and I have found mindfulness to be extremely effective both for myself and the people I work with. If you want to experience for yourself, here is a basic mindful exercise to try, but be aware, it does take regular practice to reap the full benefits.
Find a quiet and comfortable place to sit, preferably with feet flat on the floor. Sit in a relaxed but upright position. If you feel comfortable, close your eyes; if not, focus on the middle distance and allow your eyes to go into “soft focus.” Bring your attention to your breath. Breathe into the abdomen. Some people find it helpful to place a hand on the abdomen, or to imagine a balloon in the stomach inflating on the in-breath, deflating on the out-breath.
Breathe in for a count of five, through the nose if possible. Hold the breath for a count of four, then slowly release the breath for a count of seven. Attempt this for several minutes, just focusing on the breath. If you notice your mind wandering away from the task, note where your mind went to, and gently, non-judgementally bring your attention back to your breath.
I tend to set a timer on my phone for five minutes, then let myself focus fully on the exercise. This is something you can try, and if it helps, then you have gained a valuable tool that you can use at any moment to assist you in your recovery.