I’ve been involved in addiction medicine for 40 years and have seen many innovations, but mindfulness remains one of my favorite tools for helping people with addiction as well as their families. It might surprise people to learn that one of the greatest sources of mindful inspiration may already live in your household ― your dog.
Our Bassett Hound, Charlie, has been in our family for 11 years and he continues to inspire us. I like to call Charlie “The Mindfulness Bassett,” but any breed can teach valuable lessons. Noticing their approach to everyday living can have a profound effect if you look at problems the way a dog may view them. Here are some of the lessons families of addicts can learn from our canine companions:
1. Take care of yourself.
Dogs have strong survival instincts. They need their human family to do the things they cannot, like open food containers and refill the water dish, but they fend for themselves and don’t hesitate to defend their turf and beloved owners. Family members often focus so much attention on their addicted loved one that they forget to set boundaries and take care of their own physical, emotional and financial needs. Dogs teach us that self-care is key to survival.
2. Live in the moment.
Dogs live only in the present. People who live in addicted families are often held back by unresolved trauma. They may ruminate and get stuck in the past, try to self-soothe to avoid pain in the present, or worry about the future. One man whose alcoholic father had abused him got triggered at family dinners. He’d overeat and drink heavily to “survive” because he felt like he was being pulled back into his childhood. Mindfulness of the present moment helped him realize he was no longer that child but an adult who could walk into another room and enjoy himself talking with other family members.
3. Learn to let go.
While they can be traumatized by abuse, dogs generally don’t remember the time they chewed your favorite shoe and made you mad. And they don’t carry it around as a secret shame. They are masters of letting go. Given all the turmoil they’re facing, families of addicted loved ones can become overwhelmed by negative emotions, but research shows that learning to let go of the smaller stuff and release negative thoughts can help you come back to difficult situations with fresh eyes.
4. Say what’s on your mind.
Dogs bark their heads off when someone disrespects their turf or they need to get your attention. And if you forget to feed them or put them in a room and close the door, you may hear loud whining. Dogs let you know their needs and they don’t politely decline to speak up just because other people don’t want to hear. If you’ve kept things bottled inside for fear of upsetting others, try to discover your voice and use your bark when needed.
5. Rest up.
Dogs are master sleepers. There can be all sorts of activity around them, but they’ll plop down and rest if needed. When was the last time you took a nap, or put your feet up and sipped tea? Living with addiction puts people on high alert and stresses their nervous system. Dogs are on high alert too, and they’re built to be alert to the smallest noise, but they rest in between. Practicing mindfulness can help you sleep and improve the quality of your rest, which can enhance your ability to cope.
6. Stop and smell the flowers.
When dogs go for a walk they enjoy the smorgasbord of things to sniff out in the world. And they want to stop and smell everything! How often do you stop and smell the aroma of coffee brewing in the morning or the scent of food before you eat it? Many of us, and especially families of addicts, spend a lot of time rushing from one moment to the next, dealing with one crisis after another. Addiction in the family can lead to compassion fatigue, but if you blend moments to meditate, or just breathe, you can counteract some of the stress. Whenever things get overwhelming, go for a mindful walk with your dog. Look at the flowers and things around you. You may notice beauty despite the difficulties you’re facing and feel a greater connection to the world.
7. Find the positive.
Left alone by day dogs may get lonely, but when you come to the door they jump and yelp with joy. The tail wags and the long day is suddenly behind them. Life is filled with challenges and dealing with an addicted family member makes it even more so. That’s why it’s so important to embrace those moments that are joyful and find more of them every day. Like a dog that delights in discovering a ball or a bone in the backyard, find the things that give you joy.
8. Love unconditionally.
It can be difficult to unconditionally love someone who has hurt you or brought destruction to your family. Sometimes it is even harder to love ourselves. But this is something dogs do brilliantly. They love and are loyal to us no matter what. They accept us for all our imperfections. If you can find it in your heart to love your addicted loved one without condition, recognizing that they are battling a disease, it will help your healing as well as theirs.
Mindfulness is a powerful tool for anyone, especially families facing a crisis like addiction. To learn more about starting a mindfulness practice, check out these resources:
The Mindfulness Summit
All It Takes Is Ten Mindful Minutes
Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction Course
David Sack, MD, is board certified in psychiatry, addiction psychiatry and addiction medicine. As chief medical officer of Elements Behavioral Health, he oversees a network of drug and alcohol rehab programs that includes Journey Healing Centers in Utah and Clarity Way luxury rehab in Pennsylvania.