Incorporating Mindfulness Meditation into the Treatment of Substance Use Disorder

By February 6, 2021Mental Health, Recovery


Mindfulness meditation is a practice that emphasizes deliberately being present in the moment. It encourages awareness and acknowledgment of thoughts and feelings while letting them pass by understanding their ultimate impermanence. As a therapy tool, replacing an individual’s substance abuse with healthy coping skills such as mindfulness meditation allows the client to learn to regulate stress levels that may have led them to use a substance in the first place. As a practice, mindfulness meditation can be an invaluable tool during and after treatment for Substance Use Disorder (SUD). While meditation may not substitute treatment, it can be an impactful supplement treatment alongside other techniques and therapies. Improvements in anxiety and stress can go a long way in helping with treatment and relapse prevention.

How it Works: Practice, State, & Trait

Mindfulness practices usually consist of focused attention and open monitoring. Focused attention involves directing one’s attention to an object, such as the sensation of breathing, parts of the body, or visual stimuli, while also acknowledging and letting go of any distractions. The second part, open monitoring, involves becoming aware of one’s thoughts and thought processes. This cognitive stance requires an individual to remain cognizant of both this field of awareness and the fluidity of internal and external stimuli, such as thoughts, emotions, or sensations, that arise within this field.   

Mindfulness can be understood as a practice, a state of mind, and a character trait. Through meditation practice, the state of mindfulness is cultivated. With repeated practice, an individual may begin to develop trait mindfulness. The trait of being mindful can be defined as an individual’s tendency to display mindful qualities in daily life, such as nonreactivity to upsetting thoughts and feelings, present-centered attention, and awareness and acceptance of one’s emotions, thoughts, feelings, and perceptions. Becoming more mindful in daily life may decrease the negative emotional and behavioral tendencies that maintain substance abuse. 

Cognitive Control Over Autonomic Habits

According to a study published on SUD and mindfulness meditation, being mindful can cultivate cognitive control, allowing an individual to gain self-control over their automatic substance use behavior. These exercises can strengthen the prefrontal-mediated brain circuits integral to cognitive control while decreasing automatic habits often disrupted by chronic drug use. Concerning substance abuse treatment, mindfulness training can improve working memory, attention, and decision-making skills attributed to the prefrontal cortex. 

Additionally, by gaining awareness of their substance use patterns, the automaticity related to their use, and the amount to which they are self-medicating negative emotions with substances, individuals can use mindfulness skills to address their SUD symptoms. For example, through mindfulness, a person struggling with alcohol abuse may realize they are attempting to self-medicate aversive emotional states. They may also use mindfulness as a response to substance-related triggers. If alcohol consumption is causing severe consequences in their life, such as being unable to focus at work or isolating from their family, mindfulness may help. 

Utilizing mindful techniques that allow individuals to slow down, breathe, and eliminate automized substance use responses can strengthen their ability to self-regulate and exhibit greater self-control. When a person experiences a craving, stepping in and practicing mindfulness can help them deconstruct the layers to this intense and all-consuming feeling. They can begin to see the experience of craving and its effect on their cognition and behavior. In doing so, after a person has received treatment and is experiencing a craving, this mindful process can reveal the transitory nature of craving and realize that it is not inextricable to substance use.  

Mindfulness Techniques

As an individual progresses through treatment and recovery, there are several ways to continue practicing mindfulness meditation. Whether a person struggling with SUD needs to cope with stress, cravings, or feels the need to slow down, these practices can help them overcome these feelings and challenges. The key is to slow down, use attentive focus on breathing, senses, or mentally scanning the body. Then, acknowledging, accepting, and letting go of thoughts and emotions as they come. Some practical techniques include:

  • Sit quietly and focus on your breathing
  • Do not judge or suppress any thoughts that go through your head
  • Focus on each body part, moving from your mind, your head, and down to your toes in a scanning-like manner
  • Take notice of any sights, sounds, smells, tastes, and touches
  • Acknowledge emotions without judging whether they are good or bad, then let those emotions go
  • Accept yourself and the process

For individuals in recovery from substance use disorder, developing mindfulness skills may lead to the awareness of their harmful behaviors and allow them to cope in healthier ways. Although mindfulness meditation does not replace treatment, it can be a helpful tool in allowing clients to self-regulate and manage their stress. Instead of falling into the automatic and all-immersive tendency to use a substance, practicing the skill of slowing down and becoming aware of one’s thoughts and emotions can help individuals consciously contemplate the negatives of substance abuse and the positives of abstaining. In addition to other therapies and techniques, incorporating mindfulness into the treatment of SUD can help individuals develop insight into the reasons for their substance use and a path to recovery. At Alta Centers, we believe recovery is a process, and there is no one path forward. We provide quality treatment to those ready to embark on their journey towards recovery and healing. Call us at (888) 202-2583.

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