Mindfulness Techniques to Help With Addiction

By Kenneth England, MFT, Primary Therapist, Malibu Promises Many people grow up with underlying pain, fear, or shame that becomes a looming influence in their lives. It hurts and makes them behave in a certain way, but they may not even know what is eating them up inside. If left unresolved, these feelings can become so overwhelming that it’s hard to stay present in their own lives. They look for ways to self-soothe. This can lead to maladaptive behaviors, such as abuse of drugs and alcohol or trying to drown out real life with activities like gambling, eating and sex. Addiction, for the most part, is about running away from feelings and painful emotional states. Studies have shown that external triggers can haunt people on a daily basis and lead to relapse. For example, the sound of an ice cream truck driving down the block can lead to binge eating and the site of a white substance may trigger cocaine use. Mindfulness has become a staple of addiction treatment because it gives people new skills that provide an optional way to behave and react.

What Is Mindfulness?

Mindfulness is about being present and aware of what’s going on, as opposed to dwelling in the future or the past. Being focused on the future makes people anxious and focusing on the past make can make them depressed. Someone who can focus on the current moment is more likely to be happy because they’re engaged in what’s happening here and now. Recovery programs encourage taking it one day at a time, but in the course of a day, many stresses and triggers may occur. Mindfulness is about one moment at a time, so it can be a great tool for someone in recovery who is trying to deal with difficult feelings and situations without trying to escape. The goal is to respond with awareness to life’s stresses and to self-soothe in healthier ways. Techniques include meditation and meditative moments, pausing to assess the situation before reacting, breathing exercises, and using the imagination.

How It Helps

  • Lowering stress. An individual’s inability to cope with unpleasant thoughts and experiences can lead to addictive behavior. Emotions can become overwhelming and the desire to avoid them strong. Or, a person may be trying to quell physical sensations and urges. Research has shown a link between stress and addiction and studies have also indicated that mindful meditation and interventions can help people respond with awareness rather than reaction. 
  • Taming fear. Fearful thoughts and assumptions hold people back, but oftentimes the thing that is feared is larger in the mind than it is in real life. It is the reaction to fear that overwhelms people. They may plan life events around their fears, such as not going in the ocean because they are afraid of drowning or not getting on a plane for fear it will crash. By the same token, people reach for substances and self-harming experiences to help them forget their fears. A person is less likely to be influenced by old, fearful messages when they assess their fears in the present moment.
  • Enhancing mental health. Substance use can add to an overall decline in emotional wellness. Addiction often goes hand-in-hand with depression and anxiety, and it can also mask underlying mental illness. Many people use drugs and alcohol to help them cope with emotional states they are unable to control. Studies show that mindfulness changes the brain, which can impact general emotional health and assist with the symptoms in some disorders. In general, mindfulness positively impacts psychological well-being.

Four Techniques to Help You Stay Present

  1. Breathe through it. When a stressful moment or a trigger occurs, it helps to stop for a moment, focus on the feelings underneath the reaction, and breathe. Following the breath, inside and out, four or five times, and feeling the abdomen expand and contract, offers a chance to calm down and to bring the heart rate down. It is also a chance to refocus. Name the negative thoughts or urges running through your mind and imagine them floating away on a cloud. Taking the moment to pause and reflect can help deter a reaction to react to an urge.
  2. When cravings and difficult feelings hijack the mind, it can leave people feeling untethered and lost. Getting your feet back on the ground is an import way to stay in the moment. Do this by paying attention to what is happening in your body and bringing your focus to your feet. Feel them firmly on the ground and connecting to the power of the earth. Wiggle your toes to reestablish your connection to walking with awareness. Bringing the focus from the mind to the body can help you stay rooted in the present moment.
  3. Meditate. Establish a place in your mind that is a safe place to go when feeling overwhelmed in the physical world. It may be a beach or grassy hill, a relaxing front porch or any place that brings solace. It helps to begin the day with meditation but it is also a way to take time out when overwhelmed. Sit comfortably, utilizing breathing and grounding techniques, and allow your mind to transport you to a beautiful place, one that represents safety, clarity and peace. When you are rattled or want to run away from problems, go to your safe space and immerse in a healthy alternative.
  4. Immersing in water helps people calm down and when practicing mindfulness, anything can be an exercise in awareness. For example, you can pretend you are in a lush waterfall or in healing whirlpool, and see your stresses, fears and worries floating away down the drain with the water. During times when you are feeling out of control, or emotionally dysregulated, cold water can bring you back to balance. Studies show a cold shower can have anti-depressant and anti-psychotic effects, because cold water hitting the skin sends electrical impulses to the brain. In a pinch, placing your face or hand in cold water will also help.

These are just some of the myriad of ways mindfulness can bring people back to the present moment and help them make healthier decisions.

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