More and more people are finding out about the benefits of mindfulness for mental wellbeing. It has also been used as a treatment for addiction with great success. But what is mindfulness and how does it work for addiction? In this post, we will explore what science says about mindfulness as a behavioral healthcare treatment for addiction.

Understanding Mindfulness

Mindfulness is the practice of focusing fully on the present moment and our experience of that moment. To achieve this, you will typically start with a close focus on your body and your breathing. This can then be extended out to a focus on how the breath feels as it moves around your body and how your feet feel against the floor, etc. When we focus on our breathing it soon becomes easier to ignore thoughts as they come in and out of our heads.

When we practice mindfulness we take note of our surroundings in such depth that we become fully aware of the present moment. This can be freeing from concerns about the past and worries about the future. Whilst mindfulness is usually learned through meditative techniques, over time, it can be practiced in our daily life. When it comes to addiction, it can be particularly beneficial when our impulses cause us to want to take a course of action that will be destructive.

What does the research say about mindfulness as an addiction treatment?

There are now numerous studies that have looked at mindfulness therapy and its effectiveness as a behavioral healthcare treatment. This research makes both interesting and positive reading for people seeking to overcome addiction. Here, we outline some of the key findings of this research;

Relapse prevention (Zgierska A. et. al., 2008)

This small study found that mindfulness meditation was a potentially beneficial treatment for relapse prevention for people with an alcohol addiction. Those involved with the 8-week program reported reduced drinking, improved mental health, and satisfaction with the effects of meditation on their recovery. Whilst this was a small-scale study, its findings proved encouraging for further research.

 Reduced depressive symptoms (Witkiewitz K. & Bowen S., 2010)

Recovery from addiction is hard and can foster feelings of depression. In turn, this can make it harder to stay in recovery as depression can be a driver of addiction. This study of 168 people also found that something called Mindfulness-based relapse prevention (MBRP) could help people manage depressive symptoms more effectively.

This study broke down the participants into 2 alike groups with one receiving traditional treatment. They found that the MBRP group showed reductions in post-intervention substance use. This was also partially explained by the effect of MBRP on moderating the effects of depressive symptoms for the study participants.

Decreased substance abuse (Bowen S. et. al., 2009 and Grow J.C. et. al., 2014)

These studies involved 168 adults with substance use disorders (SDUs) and both found that mindfulness practices reduced substance abuse. The participants had just completed either intensive inpatient or outpatient treatment. Similar groups were created and given either traditional treatment (a 12-step treatment plan) or mindfulness therapy.

The mindfulness cohorts showed significant decreases in substance use. However, the gains did diminish after 4 months of treatment. This may have been due to a lack of ongoing support as the mindfulness therapy only lasted for 8 weeks. As such, it appears that mindfulness therapy can be more successful than traditional behavioral treatments but its success is limited if support stops.

How does mindfulness treatment work for addiction?

 One reason mindfulness can be so effective is because it takes a different approach to addiction management. Rather than seeking to control or avoid triggers, it provides people with the tools to manage and cope with their impulses. By seeking to give people the skills to manage challenging experiences rather than avoid them, it can be an empowering treatment for people in recovery.

Mindfulness therapy can help people with addictions to recognize the impulses that drive their addiction. This recognition effectively works as a barrier or an obstacle between the impulse and acting upon it. Much as removing the alcohol from the house creates a physical obstacle between an alcoholic and their vice, mindfulness gives the brain an extra chance to push back against damaging impulses. However, it is important to note that each of the studies showed that continued practice of mindfulness, preferably with support, was necessary to reap its full rewards.

Addiction affects over 20 million Americans but only 10% receive treatment. However, the research above shows that mindfulness practice can be highly effective when carried out in a supported program. If you are worried about issues surrounding addiction and seeking recovery, it is vital to seek a behavioral healthcare treatment plan that includes a focus on mindfulness practices.