Mindfulness: Feeling Safe Within Your Mind And Overcoming Addiction

Woman on the beach struggling with addiction

Guest Blog Contributed By Emma Barton, MA, LMHC, BC-DMT, E-RYT

Recently, while working with a group of adults in recovery from substance addiction, I introduced the Eastern concept of mindfulness, and encouraged group participants to consider the concept of living in the present moment.

I expressed that most of the people in the room would have no problem admitting that substance abuse is problematic in their lives, and so it’s not ignorance that keeps them in a cycle of abuse.

Why the Cycle of Relapse Repeats

lady making clay potI offered that it may be that the challenges of repeated relapse stem from a limited ability to cope with uncomfortable sensations that are likely the result of an overly taxed nervous system.

I continued by suggesting that the experience of addiction is not a logical process and that treatment providers spend an inordinate amount of resources teaching people about drugs/alcohol and the impact they have on their bodies, without teaching them to simply inhabit their bodies.

I finished by suggesting that in order to understand the relationship between feelings/sensations (ie anxiety, cravings, etc) and action (behavior, drug use), the practice of mindfulness and other body-mind processes could help a person gain insight about their addiction through learning to witness their inner process.

Why Mindfulness Is Sometimes Uncomfortable

At this point, a man in his early 30’s spoke up.  Jimmy spent over a decade of his life struggling with opiate addiction and now, with the help of an opioid agonist treatment, had achieved several years free of illicit drug use.

He was now engaged to the mother of his toddler daughter, working full time as a carpenter, and spending any additional time working out at a local gym.

He dryly reported that nothing makes him more uncomfortable than paying specific attention to his inner world.  He surmised that his years of drug dependency evolved from a desire to avoid this inward-focused experience and he attributed his success in recovery to his ability to keep physically busy so that his mind does not get the best of him.

Jimmy also reported that he had been exposed to the practice of meditation while completing a variety of detox programs in the past, but that he was not convinced that “sitting and doing nothing” offered anything more than awareness of a restless and unpredictable mind.

His peers groaned with a sense of a shared understanding of his experience.

Regaining Control of the Mind

mother with two young childernIt is common to hear people in substance recovery talk about the mind as an unpredictable process that can mysteriously hijack even those well into their recovery, often sending them back into the chaos of a drug use cycle.

Jimmy expressed that keeping physically busy seemed to provide relief and a sense of manageability of the scary part of his experience that could result in unhealthy decision-making.

Jimmy may not have realized it, but he was onto something: When he focused on engaging his body, he could feel safe because his mind was focused on the act in the moment.

Formal sitting meditation would not have been a safe experience for Jimmy until he felt safer in his mind/body overall.

More than One ‘Mind’ in the Body

I suggested to the group that perhaps there existed more than one ‘mind.’ The mind that Jimmy referred to focuses on thinking, which can transcend space and time and sometimes feels boundless and impossible to control.

I then offered that another type of ‘mind’ resides in the body and unlike the thinking-mind, the body-mind can only be in one place at one time.

Mindfulness is a meditation practice, but it is also just a practice of noticing, being aware and most importantly, of being curious about the here-and-now.

Jimmy’s self-disclosure about his discomfort with internal processes suggested that he did not feel safe to explore meditative stillness. This is not because it focused on the here-and-now, but because it employed the thinking-mind, which left him feeling unconstrained and unsafe.

Activities to Stay Engaged in the Present

Group of friend playing at tug of war - men against womenHis engagement in physical labor and exercise did feel safe because it kept him present to the body-mind.

For Jimmy, and others like him, it is imperative that recovery from substance addiction includes body-mind processes to assist in reducing the sensation that relapses are random and unpredictable.

Experiential movement interventions, as commonly found in dance/movement therapy and yoga therapy, help a person learn to be more aware of inner sensations and their relationship to thoughts and feelings.

Accessing self-knowledge from both body-mind and thinking-mind supports a more embodied decision-making process and perhaps adds a new dimension to relapse prevention.

Mindfulness Is Just One Step Towards Recovery

Understandably, avoiding relapse is not as simple as exchanging one aspect of thinking/behavior for another, nor is merely keeping physically busy a solution toward a healthy balance.

Recovery is a complicated process, and the achievement of mindfulness may seem like a case of easier said than done.

Tourists going up the stone stairs in the forest, rear viewBut, mindfulness is a method to improve living in the present moment, and the present moment is the only time when change is possible. The road to achieving mindfulness begins with these questions:

  • What can I do in this moment to grow?
  • Can I be curious and interested in unfolding life experiences in a way that does not promote criticism or condemnation?
  • How can I deal with any guilt or shame I might feel?

The practice of mindfulness can be a compassionate reminder that we are always doing the best we can, based on our current level of awareness.

When one becomes more open to new possibilities and ways of being in the world, the challenging habits and addictions no longer have the same foothold, as the need for their dependence in safety diminishes.

This is but a glimpse into a multi-dimensional discussion I would like to explore in subsequent blogs. Please feel free to contact me with questions, comments, or to simply share your experiences.

The opinions and views of our guest contributors are shared to provide a broad perspective of addictions. These are not necessarily the views of Addiction Hope, but an effort to offer discussion of various issues by different concerned individuals.

We at Addiction Hope understand that addictions result from a combination of environmental and genetic factors. If you or a loved one are suffering from an addiction, please know that there is hope for you, and seek immediate professional help.

Reviewed By: Jacquelyn Ekern, MS, LPC on January 21, 2016
Published on AddictionHope.com

About Baxter Ekern

Baxter Ekern is the Vice President of Ekern Enterprises, Inc. He contributed and helped write a major portion of Addiction Hope and is responsible for the operations of the website.