Can Mindfulness Based Recovery Help Alcoholics Stay Sober?
There are many therapeutic benefits of practicing mindfulness and meditation. Many of these benefits affect many aspects of our lives. From experience, I can say that practicing mindfulness has transformed my own life in more ways than one. While you might think that meditation is only for yogis in an incense-filled room, it is actually a practical and useful tool that can be used to treat a variety of physical and mental health conditions.
Unfortunately, alcohol abuse affects the lives of thousands of people throughout America. Alcohol dependency often leads to serious health complications, difficulty maintaining a job, strained relationships, and financial issues. Because alcohol dependency is a physical as well as a mental disorder, the road to recovery is often long and challenging and requires an abundance of willpower, fortitude, and dedication. Although alcoholism can be managed and treated, it can never be completely eradicated. Many people do succeed in staying sober for the rest of their lives, but they have to remain vigilant.
What Causes an Alcohol Relapse?
Alcoholism is a chronic disease. Like all chronic diseases, it can be managed and treated, but former alcohol abusers are always at risk of having a relapse. However, once you have made it past the first five years, the risk of having a relapse is greatly diminished. In fact, if you can make it just one year into sobriety, your risk of having a relapse is already down by almost half.
No matter where you are on your journey, it’s important to remember that a relapse does not mean you or your treatment has failed. I always say that setbacks are a part of every journey, and it does not mean the journey is a bust. It just means you have to get back up, dust yourself off, and start again, perhaps seeking different or varied treatments and techniques.
Relapses can be caused by a number of circumstances. In many cases, a flare-up may occur for no explainable reason. As I said, alcoholism is a disease. Sometimes diseases resurface, and the reason isn’t clear. Other times, it is.
Some common reasons for relapse are:
- Proximity to others who are drinking. Smelling, seeing, and witnessing others consuming alcohol often presents a serious temptation to a recovering user.
- Stress over financial problems or difficulties
- Listening to friends, family, or colleagues talk about consuming alcohol and having a positive experience
- Not attending your support groups or even helping another who has the disease
- Anxiety or stress caused by relationships or other personal issues
- Interpersonal conflicts or intense negative emotions
- Experiencing abuse or trauma of some kind, whether physical or mental
- Bouts of depression left untreated
For many people, slipping back into habits of dependency can be marked by three stages. In the first stage of relapse, an alcoholic may be experiencing emotional problems, which leads them to drink alcohol as a means of self-medicating. In the next phases, the urge to drink is more mental. In this phase, an alcoholic may begin to crave alcohol and even consciously consider starting to drink again. They may tell themselves they can control their drinking and not let it get out of hand, and perhaps start lying to friends and family about their plans to drink. The third and final stage of relapse manifests as a physical addiction. In this stage, a person experiences their old physical reactions to alcohol and begins to drink compulsively and obsessively.
What is Mindfulness Meditation?
Meditation is the practice of intentionally quieting the mind and becoming consciously aware of one’s own thoughts and emotions. Awareness. Through breathing and persistent practice, you can begin to experience your own thoughts and emotions as a witness or an observer. Learning to be a witness to your thoughts, able to consciously observe what’s going on within and around you, enables you to experience your own emotions without allowing them to take control. You can do this by sitting or lying down quietly, closing your eyes, focusing on your breath, and relaxing the body. Once your body is relaxed and you’re breathing deep, you can start quieting the mind.
For many just beginning, taking a yoga or meditation class could be a good place to start. You don’t have to be the Dalai Lama to reap the benefits of meditation.
Some common results of frequent meditation include:
- Reduced stress
- Reduced anxiety
- Better sleep
- Decreased levels of negativity or sadness
- Finding more happiness day to day
- Improved concentration
Can You Prevent Alcohol Relapse with Meditation?
Research has shown that meditation and mindfulness practices are useful coping mechanisms for people recovering from alcohol or drug dependency. One of the reasons mindfulness therapy works so well is that it requires participants to develop discipline and self-control, which are useful tools in preventing a relapse. Relapses are commonly triggered by an intense emotional response to a negative situation or event. If practiced diligently and with proper instruction and support, mindfulness and meditation can give the practitioner some space between them and their emotions. Creating this bit of space allows you to better understand your feelings and emotions and to process them in a safe and healthy manner.
What is the Difference Between Mindfulness and Meditation?
Whereas the term ‘meditation’ refers to the act of sitting quietly and actively calming, quieting, and emptying the mind for some length of time, ‘mindfulness’ is the practice of taking those skills with you into your everyday life. I try to practice mindfulness every day. It allows me to be present and truly aware of my actions, surroundings, and thoughts. Practicing mindfulness involves slowing down and making a conscious effort to be present with yourself no matter where you are or what you’re doing. By eliminating the mental clutter, you can focus more fully on the present reality. This deeper focus and sense of being ‘present’ with oneself often gives way to a deeper feeling of tranquility. Many people seek alcohol to make them feel better, happier, or more content. It stands to reason that if you can generate those feelings within yourself naturally, the urge to abuse substances may no longer be there.
Tips for Productive Mindfulness
1. Be present no matter where you are
Take note of your surroundings. I myself have found this incredibly helpful in preventing my thoughts from running off without me. Training yourself to be present in your surroundings allows you to stay focused on the sights, sounds, smells, and actions around you instead of getting drawn into a rabbit hole of negative emotions or post-addiction thought. I am _____ now.
2. Practice becoming conscious of your breathing
Most people breathe passively. Think about it—until I mentioned breathing, had you noticed yourself taking even one breath? Most of the time, we breathe on autopilot. When this happens, our breathing usually becomes shallow. Shallow chest breathing stimulates the sympathetic nervous system, which increases feelings of anxiety and stress. By consciously slowing down your breath and taking deep, full inhales into the belly instead of the chest, you can engage the parasympathetic nervous system instead. With the parasympathetic nervous system on board, you enter that ‘rest and digest’ state, where the body and mind both relax, releasing both physical tension and mental stress and anxiety. Focusing on breathing is also a great way to pull yourself back into the present moment.
3. Be a witness to your thoughts
When I talk about quieting the mind, I don’t mean you should ignore your thoughts and emotions. Instead, when practicing mindfulness, practice being aware of your thoughts without letting them consume you. Practice observing your mind without giving too much attention to your thoughts. You can do this anytime, not just when doing more formal meditation practice.
4. Be kind with yourself
One of the most important things is to always be kind and gentle with yourself. Meditation and mindfulness are not inherently difficult, but it takes practice. Don’t feel discouraged if you sit down to meditate and your mind runs wild and you struggle to focus. When I first began practicing mindfulness and meditation, I often felt irritated when it seemed like I had no control over my thoughts. Eventually, I learned that mindfulness therapy isn’t about controlling your thoughts; it’s about not letting them control you. Don’t give in to those feelings of frustration or annoyance. Instead, sit back, relax, take a deep breath, and let those thoughts float right on by.
There is a saying: Yesterday is history, tomorrow is a mystery, but today is a gift. That is why it is called the present.
Remember, now is all we have. Make the most out of each moment by staying present, rather than regretting the past or worrying about the unknown future. This will drastically improve your quality of life and prepare you to face whatever challenges come your way.