Mindfulness Helps Reduce Long-Term Relapse Rates

Mindfulness Helps Reduce Long-Term Relapse RatesMindfulness is a mental state characterized by heightened awareness of changes in your thoughts, feelings and physical sensations, as well as in your surroundings. Current evidence indicates the training in basic mindfulness principles can improve substance treatment participants’ ability to establish a pattern of drug or alcohol abstinence. In a study published in August 2014 in the journal Addictive Behaviors, a team of researchers from the University of Washington assessed the usefulness of mindfulness-based relapse prevention (MBRP) in helping substance program participants maintain their sobriety in the months following treatment.


Mindfulness techniques have an origin in Buddhist meditation practices that date back more than 2,500 years. However, in the U.S., these techniques have long been separated from their explicitly religious origins. The modern use of mindfulness in a medical or therapeutic context dates back to a 1970s project undertaken at the University of Massachusetts Medical School, called the Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction program. As the name implies, this program was intended to teach people from various walks of life how to reduce their everyday stress levels, as well as the severity of their reactions to extraordinarily stressful events. Since that time, mindfulness-based programs have expanded throughout the U.S. Key practices associated with the cultivation of mindfulness include paying increased attention to the constant cycle of breathing, learning how to avoid excessive reactions to temporary emotional states, learning how to pay closer attention to the information continually coming in from the five senses and learning how to pay closer attention to changes that take place inside the body. Among other things, these and other mindfulness practices bring evidence-based benefits that can include improved emotional and behavioral control, improvements in your baseline higher-level mental skills (e.g., memory and learning) and improvement in your ability to survive highly stressful situations with your mental/physical equilibrium intact.

Mindfulness, Substance Treatment and Relapse Prevention

Increasingly, mindfulness training is playing a role in substance treatment at facilities throughout the U.S. This training may have unique usefulness in helping people in recovery deal with the cravings and cues that typically contribute to the onset of a substance relapse. In a study published in May 2014 in the American Medical Association journal JAMA Psychiatry, researchers from five U.S. institutions compared the effectiveness of mindfulness-based relapse prevention to the effectiveness of traditional relapse prevention tools and participation in a 12-step mutual assistance group. These researchers concluded that MBRP produced benefits on par with traditional relapse prevention at a six-month follow-up, as well as superior benefits at a one-year follow-up. Both forms of treatment-based relapse prevention produced better results than 12-step program participation.

Long-Term Usefulness

In the study published in Addictive Behaviors, the University of Washington researchers tracked the extent to which people who learn mindfulness-based prevention techniques while in a recovery program continue to practice those techniques at home. In addition, they assessed the usefulness of ongoing mindfulness practices in reducing the risks for a substance relapse. A total of 93 people took part in the study. These individuals had received treatment for a range of alcohol- and drug-related issues; in all cases, that treatment included instruction in mindfulness-based relapse prevention. To judge the effectiveness of mindfulness training, the researchers compared the substance use and craving levels of the participants at the beginning of their treatment, at the end of their treatment, two months after treatment ended and four months after treatment ended. The researchers concluded that the study participants practiced their mindfulness techniques increasingly more often over the post-treatment time frame under consideration. They also concluded that this increase in practice time was linked to a substantial reduction in substance use, as well as a substantial reduction in substance craving levels. However, the researchers additionally concluded that the recorded reductions in substance use and craving levels grew smaller as time passed. Overall, the study’s authors confirm the usefulness of mindfulness-based relapse prevention for people recovering from diagnosable drug and alcohol problems. However, they note that the benefits of mindfulness may not last. As a result, they believe that follow-ups or refreshers conducted by doctors or other treatment program personnel may be required to make sure that mindfulness training continues to exert a positive influence on the long-term risks for a relapse back into active drug or alcohol consumption.

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