Do you find yourself looking forward to your nightly glass (or glasses) of wine a bit too much? Do you struggle with late-night trips to the 7-11 for junk food? Are you dabbling in illicit drug use? Or becoming obsessed with checking your smartphone?
Are you loathe to call your habit an addiction? Okay, maybe it’s easier to call it a strong attachment, but regardless of the semantics (for the purposes of this post, we’ll go with the term “addiction”), it’s unsettling to feel as if you’ve gotten locked into a pattern which feels a bit out of your control and which may be taking you down a dangerous path, either slowly or quickly.
There are numerous ways to treat addiction, but one crucial skill is to increase our ability to tolerate life as it is, rather than how we would prefer it to be. How can the practice of mindfulness help with this?
Mindfulness can be defined as:
- moment-to-moment awareness
- paying attention in a particular way, non-judgmentally, to what is going on in our body, mind, and emotions and in the world around us
- suspending our tendency to judge and criticize whatever we are experiencing (which then creates more space for more self-compassion and self-acceptance)
- working with things as they actually are, rather than how we’d like them to be – a reconciliation between the real and the ideal
- radical acceptance
- not refuting thoughts & feelings (which takes up a lot of energy and often produces additional suffering)
- healthy detachment, disengagement, or taking the attitude of an impartial observer, scientist, or researcher
Some reasons why mindfulness can help problems with addiction include:
- stress management: Stress is a powerful trigger for substance use. As we learn through mindfulness to treat our thoughts, feeling, and bodily sensations as temporary, separate from our true essence, and possibly even interesting, we can decrease excessive stress reactions that threaten our health and well-being.
- greater self-awareness: When we settle into a mindful state of being, we become clearer on what has been upsetting us and what we’ve been trying to avoid. Instead of trying to quickly change how we feel, we sit with our reality and are thus able to discover what is going on in and around us, not only on the surface level but also at deeper levels.
- discomfort tolerance: Over time, mindfulness teaches us through experience that unpleasant experiences (such as uncomfortable physical sensations, emotions, and thoughts) are bearable and temporary.
- increased self-compassion: By helping us to adopt a neutral rather than critical stance toward our thoughts and feelings, mindfulness aids us in developing self-compassion and thus minimizing punitive beliefs about ourselves than might otherwise sabotage our abstinence from addictive behaviors. If we’re prone to interpreting situations in ways that make us out to be the bad guy or girl, we may be more inclined to reach for something (like an addictive substance) to quickly (and temporarily) make us feel better.
- reduced impulsivity: Mindfulness promotes the ability to objectively evaluate our situation without automatically reacting. We can then rationally consider our options and proceed in a wise rather than a solely emotionally-driven and possibly destructive manner.
- increased positive emotions: Researcher Richard Davidson found that people who are routinely mindful get increased activation in the left prefrontal cortex of the brain, as compared to the right prefrontal cortex – a state that is associated with more positive emotions. This makes sense, because the left prefrontal cortex puts the brakes on the amygdala, the part of the brain that perceives fear and preps us for emergencies. In effect, mindfulness tamps down negative emotions. This shift was demonstrated in a study in which eight weeks of mindfulness practice increased left-sided prefrontal activation both at baseline and in response to emotional stimuli. So, the changes resulting from training in mindfulness can take place fairly quickly.
This last item being said, mindfulness involves embracing (or at least accepting) all mind states in awareness. From the point of view of mindfulness practice, pain, anger, impatience, boredom, frustration, or anxiety are all equally valid objects of our attention should they crop up, rather than signs that our mindfulness practice is not “succeeding” because we are not feeling relaxed or peaceful in some moment.
If we compare addiction to mindfulness, it becomes apparent that in many ways addiction is the polar opposite of mindfulness. When in an addictive mindset, we are trying to change our reality rather than accept, appreciate, or adapt to it. To quote Paul Williams, “You know you’re an alcoholic when you misplace things – like a decade”. There’s a reason that illicit drug intake has often been termed a “fix”. What’s implied is that things are not okay the way they are – something needs to change. And quickly. Such a state of mind and body is not a recipe for contentment.
So, recovering from addictive behavior involves more than just abstaining from substance use, although this is an important start, with which mindfulness can help. Since addiction can be looked at a disease of living elsewhere, the antidote is in part learning to live with what is. This isn’t to say that we don’t have emotions anymore, for that wouldn’t be human, and the goal in recovery is a full and enriched life, not an impoverished existence. What sort of recovery would that be? Instead, we learn through mindfulness how to work with our emotions in constructive and compassionate ways. We can notice our addictive and compulsive urges and tendencies yet not allow them to have the final word.
A number of psychotherapy approaches have been developed which incorporate mindfulness into the treatment plan. Such therapies include Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy, Dialectical Behavioral Therapy, Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction, and Acceptance and Commitment Therapy. All such therapies combine the skills of mindfulness and “being” with change strategies, and have demonstrated efficacy in helping people manage not only substance use but also binge eating, chronic pain, and clinical depression. In addition, one can take mindfulness classes or download a mindfulness app. The choices are many, but they do require commitment and tenacity, as mindfulness is a way of life and is cultivated over time.
To quote Bhante Henepola Gunaratana, “Mindfulness gives you time. Time gives you choices. Choices, skillfully made, lead to freedom. You don’t have to be swept away by your feeling. You can respond with wisdom and kindness rather than habit and reactivity.” Isn’t that what addiction robs us of – the ability to choose? As such, mindfulness can be one of the keys to personal freedom from our compulsions.