This is part of a 3 part series in Mindfulness and Addiction.
In an age where our lives seem to be accelerating, our stress also naturally seems to be increasing. In addition to addictive behaviors potentially having a strong genetic link, it’s no wonder why so many of us are craving avoidance and escape. According to the U.S. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, one in eight Americans suffers with addictive behaviors regarding drugs or alcohol and it costs society approximately 250 billion dollars per year.
When caught up in the cycle of addictive behavior, there is an inability to accept whatever is being felt in the present moment and the mind is constantly wandering onto the next ‘fix.’ In the present moment, distressing thoughts and emotions can feel like unwanted guests that we can’t seem to get away from. In our fight to avoid this distress, we actually amplify stress and uncomfortable emotions such as sadness, frustration, irritation, shame, or guilt. These uncomfortable emotions often kick us into a state of mindlessness or auto-pilot, where we’re unaware of our environment and more susceptible to triggers, cravings, and urges.
Victor Frankl, respected Psychiatrist and Holocaust survivor, once said:
Between a stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.
Is there a way to slow time down to be more aware of that space and choice? In the addiction field specifically, Dr. Alan Marlatt, Sarah Bowen, and Neha Chawla, psychologists and researchers at the University of Washington, are trailblazing a promising new approach toward addiction based on Jon Kabat-Zinn’s Mindfulness-based Stress-Reduction program, called Mindfulness-based Relapse Prevention (MBRP). While clinical trials on this approach are still underway, over 30 years of prior research in the field of meditation and addiction are very encouraging.
Whether our addictions have to do with alcohol, drugs, food, sex, gambling, emailing, or shopping, the addictive behavior is often preceded by some triggering event that sets off a flurry of uncomfortable thoughts, feelings, and sensations, leading to cravings and urges to engage in the addictive behavior. An important part of recovery is being able to recognize our triggers and how cravings and urges manifest in our bodies and minds.
As soon as we have this awareness, we have become present and have stepped outside of the automatic reactive cycle that enslaves the next moment. The present moment is that close. Many people have reported that the actual peak of an urge is about 20-30 minutes. We can learn to bring an eye of curiosity and non-judgment to the feelings and thoughts as we watch them come and go.
Now, this is easier said than done and takes practice for many as addictive cravings and impulses can be extremely powerful. When living with addiction one of the most powerful areas of support is a group. That is the reason for the popularity with 12-step programs and other secular support groups like LifeRing. Kevin Griffin, author of One Breath, runs classes and retreats that integrate meditation and the 12-steps. In the 12-steps they often say to take one day at a time and in mindfulness practice we play with that and say take one moment at a time.
Whether you suffer with addiction or know someone who does, add your comments and questions about your relationship with addiction below as it provides a living wisdom for us all to benefit from. May you be healthy, happy, and free from the addictive patterns that lead to suffering.
Photo by Bright Meadow , available under a Creative Commons attribution license.
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Last reviewed: 21 Jul 2011