Mindfulness and meditation are often touted as the path to inner peace, but is such a thing truly possible? Establishing healthy habits is difficult at the best of times, so the thought of starting a meditation practice while your life is in turmoil may seem like a waste of precious energy at best—and an insurmountable challenge at worst.
Mindfulness sounds like the practice of someone who already has their life in order: someone who drinks kale smoothies and can do a forearm stand in hot yoga; someone who has the additional time and desire to pursue such flighty endeavors. It may seem almost impossible for someone already facing the challenges that come with recovering from addiction.
But what if there was verifiable evidence that you can strengthen your brain like you can your biceps? Not just in a philosophical way, but actual physical changes that can positively impact your life and mood? Would you be more likely to give your mind a workout if the benefits were more measurable?
Scientific research shows that mindfulness and meditation can change the actual chemistry of your brain, making it more than just finding a quiet moment to breathe and the ideal tool for people struggling with their emotions, desires and place in the world.
According to Dr. Meredith Sagan of Prominence Treatment Center in Calabasas, California, “A Harvard-based study found that daily mindfulness meditation appears associated with increased gray matter in the hippocampus—the center of the brain responsible for recovery-centric qualities like learning memory, self-awareness, compassion and introspection. The research showed that those who engaged in mindful meditation 27 minutes a day for eight weeks had reductions in the mass/density of the amygdala, a brain structure associated with inducing feelings of stress and anxiety.”
By virtue of its ability to increase the capacity to regulate affect, promote self-care and reduce feelings of stress and anxiety, Dr. Sagan says that when we look at these findings together, we can see how the practice of mindful meditation can act as a tool for healing and long-term recovery.
Addictive “triggers” are stress responses to thoughts, feelings or sensations that disrupt the mind of an addict and light up a series of brain signals that create the impulse to eliminate the distress by medicating it with drugs. By incorporating mindfulness into their treatment program, people with addiction issues can substitute that impulse to self-medicate with meditation and re-route their thoughts to crave the sense of calm from mindfulness instead. This practice can act as a form of cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT).
“Both CBT and mindfulness promote the idea of improving consciousness and clarity,” says Dr. Sagan. “The ability to see more, as well as more clearly, enables those in recovery to identify their relapse triggers more quickly as well as recognize that these distorted thoughts/feelings are transient and will pass when contrary actions are taken.”
“There is an axiom in the 12-step community: ‘The only thing you need to change to stay sober is … everything!’” Dr. Sagan adds. “To a large extent, sobriety can be thought of as a shift from addictive to recovery-based thinking, feeling and behavior. This requires the development of non-using coping techniques, ways of dealing with stress, interacting with others and engaging in activities that promote health and wellness. That is why forming new hobbies, interests and social activities are so important in preventing relapse.”
But what is mindfulness? Mindfulness is a specific form of meditation. The practice was developed to gain clarity and insight by slowing down the mind to become aware of experience on a moment-to-moment, breath-by-breath basis without judgment. It’s as easy—and as challenging—as focusing on your breathing and allowing your thoughts to come and go without assigning emotions or judgment: a continuous clearing of the mind.
Sounds simple, right? It really is. So where do you begin? Joining a local mindful meditation group or class is a good way to get started. These venues are often free and are welcoming and supportive of beginners. The sense of community and having a teacher or mentor is another added benefit to learning meditation in a group setting. If you aren’t quite ready to go public with your practice, there are countless apps, videos and audio of guided meditations online, many of which are free.
Experiment with different styles, find what works for you and make a commitment to continue. Even something as simple as setting a timer or a calendar reminder on your phone can be a solid step to get started. Try it for a predetermined, reasonable amount of time, like ten minutes a day for 30 days, and evaluate the difference in your life and state of mind to get a sense of personal progress.
One of the core components of addiction is the struggle against one’s own mind and the desire to mask or numb emotions. Mindfulness can help change your perspective and eliminate some of the shame and regret that comes with chasing impulses instead of making empowered choices. Just find a quiet, comfortable place to sit, bring a relaxed awareness to your breath and posture, and focus on your physicality instead of your thoughts to invite more clarity and contentment into your life—and develop a healthy coping mechanism in the process.
Ashley McCann is a 200-hour certified yoga teacher who writes on all things mindfulness and wellness, including the challenges of balancing modern-day family life. Named to Ignite Social Media’s “100 Women Bloggers You Should Read,” you can find more of Ashley’s musings at www.ashleyquitefrankly.com.