When I started to gather information for my graduate degree research project, it was just starting to get colder in Michigan. We were inching toward the winter months, and my anxiety spiked with each grey day on the horizon. The stress that accompanies literature reviews and all-things-research in graduate school appeared to double each moment that I procrastinated. The stress, at times, felt insurmountable.
In desperation, I turned to two old friends that I had temporarily lost touch with – yoga and deep breathing.
I had let my personal mindfulness journey fall by the wayside for a few months. And I was relieved to find it effective yet again. I credit mindfulness for propelling me to do uncomfortable work with manageable stress. I started to re-frame my anxious feelings as “healthy striving” and I developed a new sense of purpose. This new purpose helped me dive into academic and professional pursuits that would later translate into opportunities at the Sanford Outpatient Center.
I started to pose this question: If I could take the wealth of research on the effectiveness of mindfulness in outpatient treatment, and funnel it into an evidence-based practice, could I offer a fresh new approach to coping in early recovery?
And so, I completed my research project studying mindfulness meditation groups and compiled my information into a capstone project at the end of my Social Work master’s degree. I parlayed all of that learning into my full-time position as a Clinical Therapist at the Sanford Outpatient Center. Fueled by personal experience and garnished with many hours of research, I can say that the Mindfulness Group run at our Outpatient Center is a great joy to be a part of.
What is Mindfulness?
Mindfulness traces back to very old and sacred practices stemming from Eastern religion and culture. Specifically, Buddhist practices and teachings. The most common type of mindfulness became popular in the Western world about 2,500 years after its creation. It is called Vipassana. Otherwise known as “clear awareness” or “insight”.
Mindfulness can be quickly and efficiently described as living in the present moment.
We choose to focus on the breath and the mind-body connection instead of worrying about the past or planning for the future. With this basic definition, mindfulness can be introduced into many different facets of life.
This is particularly interesting to me as an addiction therapist, because not only do I want to equip my clients with evidence-based tools, I also try to practice what I preach. Mindfulness has transformed the way I approach each and every aspect of my life. Through internships, my undergraduate degree, my graduate degree, and different work opportunities – my clarity and mental health rested upon mindfulness practices. Was I perfect at it? Definitely not. Even today, I am a work in progress.
But that is the exact benefit of getting into the mindfulness head-space; the pursuit and the process are far more important than the end product. I want our clients to know that their process is a thing of beauty in and of itself.
Healing the Addicted Brain with Mindfulness
The recent and extensive research on addiction has shown the increased need for practices that assist in healing the brain from compulsive substance use. Mindfulness mediation can be portrayed as a stress-relief and stress-coping strategy for those who previously relied on substances to self-medicate mental health symptoms.
Mindfulness, Stress & Addiction
Stress plays a large part in both substance use disorders and their treatment. The ability to quiet the mind with mindfulness meditation can be a contributing factor to emotional regulation and/or stress coping. We also know that mindfulness meditation can influence the way we experience external stress and how we perceive it internally. It contributes to an individual’s overall resiliency.
Profoundly Unique in Practice
Mindfulness works best when aligned with a person’s unique values, morals, and worldviews. In other words, the application of mindfulness can be profoundly unique to the individual practitioner. As such, therapists and group facilitators are encouraged to assist their clients as they journey to find the best “fit” for mindfulness in their lives. Maybe it coincides with their religiosity or spirituality. Maybe it can be found in their personal philosophy on life or reflected in the beauty they see in nature. Connectedness with oneself comes from understanding our individual values, which informs the ability to practice mindfulness effectively. To practice mindfulness based on one’s own values is allowing oneself the gift of less stress in daily life.
The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) named mindfulness-based stress reduction as a comparable intervention that has been evaluated in research studies. We also know that mindfulness-based stress reduction has been proven to be effective in reducing symptoms of depression and anxiety. By learning to sit and be aware of one’s emotions, without judgement, clients find it easier and easier to choose “the next right thing” instead of reacting impulsively. When practiced consistently, mindfulness can provide a safe space in the brain in which symptoms of depression and anxiety exist without judgement. This intentional decision not to place bias and judgement on one’s own emotions can change an individual’s mood.
When integrating a mindful worldview into one’s life, the real work is not in avoiding all symptoms of anxiety and/or depression. Instead, living alongside the symptoms while not granting them rights to control one’s day.
I have seen it in our outpatient groups and in individual therapy sessions firsthand, as well as my own life. Mindfulness gives individuals with mental health disorders the awareness of and the ability to track emotional variance. This emotional intelligence gives individuals the power to decide how to respond. The intention behind this philosophy is that clients will use this newfound power by integrating coping skills and activities into their lives that build their self-worth, confidence, and distress tolerance to the point that their mental health symptoms become lighter and more manageable.
Research on the connection between mindfulness and addiction treatment…
There is extensive research available confirming mindfulness as an intervention for Substance Use Disorder (SUD) treatment. At Sanford Outpatient Center, I see three big benefits from the introduction of mindfulness into the treatment setting:
Benefits of Mindfulness at Sanford Outpatient Center
When living mindfully, clients will find it easier to notice relapse drift, symptoms of Post-Acute Withdrawal Syndrome, or emotional dysregulation due to increased self-awareness. This can assist in anticipation and (hopefully) prevention of further drifting towards relapse or other potential issues that can arise in early recovery.
Clients will find that when triggers, cravings, or negative emotions are unavoidable, that they have more skills and tools to “ride the wave” until stabilization. This can assist in emotional coping, better quality of daily life, and even prevent a potential relapse.
Clients who experience situations that involve triggers, cravings, and potential relapse will have the tools to perform a “relapse autopsy”. Mindfulness can assist in the self-evaluation needed to understand the thoughts, emotions, and behaviors that preceded the event. This information is vital to preventing a recurring issue.
Mindfulness is a Practice …
Mindfulness is a practice. It is also a muscle that needs to be “flexed”. If starting with a five-minute meditation is too difficult or intimidating – take six deep breaths instead. Visualize a happy memory before you head into Meijer on a busy Sunday afternoon. When you walk to your car in the morning, take notice of the sensory experience you are having with the sun, the breeze, and the smell of being outside.
Mindfulness is not always an “event”. It can be integrated into your life seamlessly to provide support and promote a happier daily experience.
When I sit with my clients in individual sessions and in groups, I hope we all have a mindful/meditative experience. That we let our bodies, our breath, and our minds focus on the present and do uncomfortable work with manageable stress – and without judging ourselves, or one another.
Meditation as a Coping Intervention for Treatment by Dr. Bonnie E. Carlson
Using Meditation in Addiction Counseling by Leigh D. Delorenzi, Laura Cunningham, & Mark E. Young.
Beyond Addiction: The Yogic Path to Recovery by Dr. Wendy Harris/Livtar Kaur
Mindfulness-Based Therapies for Substance Use Disorders by Marianne T. Marcus, EdD, RN, FAAN & Aleksandra Zgierska, MD, PhD.