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On Mindfulness, Acceptance, and Addictive Thinking

When mindfulness practice, a non-judgmental, observational approach, is incorporated into addiction treatment, a client can utilize the power of conscious thought and action to replace identification with addictive impulses and behaviors. Or more simply, the practice of mindfulness can help our clients experience a deep connection with the present moment. This is in contrast to the characteristic patterns of addictive thinking, which often includes rumination about the past and future, obsessive cravings, and distracted attention. Scans conducted on individuals who practiced only 10 hours overall of mindfulness already demonstrate differences in the neurochemistry of their brain.

During mindfulness activities or groups, clients are typically asked to sit comfortably, in an upright position while focusing on their cyclical breathing. As thoughts, images, memories, physical/mental discomforts are naturally experienced, clients are guided to watch these associations come and go, observing them non-judgmentally as if one were watching leaves of thought flowing down a river.

Returning to the anchored center of each breath, clients are doing much more than relaxing. They are actively training their brains to accommodate to the passing nature of all experience – and most profoundly for addicted individuals – to gain awareness of the fleeting nature of mental discomfort. As this person responds impulsively or even unconsciously to emotional discomfort by using, the practice of sitting through the discomfort and waiting for its natural unfurling creates new “hardwiring” in the brain that begins to dismantle the cause-effect relationship between pain and the drug/alcohol response solution. This re-wiring (cognitive restructuring) speaks to the core of a comprehensive recovery program.

Mindfulness also helps incorporate the practice of acceptance experientially, which is similar to other approaches such as AA’s teachings, “This Too Shall Pass.” Many clients who have learned to deny, minimize, rationalize, and repress pain in active addiction are now introduced to the experience of facing toward the pain and its essential ephemeral nature. In early recovery, when cravings are usually very active, the understanding that physical and mental urgings to use “shall pass” is critical to maintaining abstinence. It instills hope.

Studies show that individuals who practice daily mindfulness experience positive physical changes, specifically, decreases in cortisol stress-hormone levels. Increased cortisol levels are triggers of anxiety and depression which can lead to relapse. Practicing mindfulness can off-set these precursors to relapse.

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