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Mindfulness in Addiction Recovery and Treatment

Mindfulness is the human ability to be fully present, aware of where we are and what we are doing. It means that we are aware of our thoughts and feelings, and ideally, that we observe them without being overly reactive or overwhelmed. Mindfulness practices have their origins in ancient Hindu, Daoist, and Buddhist meditation practices.

Although people have been practicing mindfulness for ages, this practice became more accessible to modern Western society in the 1970’s. The scientist, writer, and meditation practitioner Jon Kabat-Zinn introduced this practice into the scientific world and successfully brought meditation and science together.

History of Mindfulness: From East to West

While mindfulness was generally popularized in the East by religious and spiritual institutions, in the West its popularity is traced to specific people and secular institutions.

The most prominent figure in bringing mindfulness to the West is Jon Kabat-Zinn. He founded the Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction Clinic in 1979 and the Centre for Mindfulness in Medicine, Health Care, and Society in 1995. He studied mindfulness under a couple of Buddhist teachers, including Thich Nhat Hanh, another reputable figure in Western mindfulness.

Jon Kabat-Zinn developed the Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction program (MBSR) which served as a model for another type of mindful therapy, the Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT). The MBSR is an eight-week program aimed at reducing levels of stress, while MBCT is used at treating Major Depressive Disorder. Kabat-Zinn gave this definition: “Mindfulness is the psychological process of bringing one’s attention to the internal and external experiences occurring in the present moment, which can be developed through the practice of meditation and other training.” 

Apart from Kabat-Zinn, it is Jack Kornfield, Sharon Salzberg, and Joseph Goldstein who also played a vital role in introducing mindfulness to the West. They founded the Insight Meditation Society (IMS) that is best-known for bringing mindfulness meditation to the West. It was this combination of mindfulness meditation and MBSR that popularized mindfulness in the West within clinical and non-clinical populations.

The Basics of Mindfulness Practice

Everyone can learn how to create a moment of pure joy and happiness, at any time of the time. By exploring these simple 5 steps, we can let go of our worries, fears, anger, and regrets, and become mindful of being fully here in the present moment.

Mindful Breathing

The first exercise towards obtaining mindfulness is practicing mindful breathing. It is an exercise to recognize the in-breath as an in-breath, and the out-breath as the out-breath. It is being mindful of your breath and focusing your attention on it. When you do this, the mental discourse stops and you do not think anymore. You stop thinking about your past, or your future. This mindful breathing can be quite pleasant and rewarding. It is a celebration of the fact that you are alive. It is the greatest of all miracles, the pure joy of being alive.


The second exercise is learning how to concentrate. While you breathe in, you follow your in-breath from the beginning to the end. You breathe out, and follow your out-breath all the way through. Your mind is always with your breathing in and breathing out. Your mind becomes uninterrupted and your breathing becomes deeper and slower, harmonious and peaceful.

Awareness of your body

The third exercise is to become aware of your body as you are breathing. Now, you have generated the energy of mindfulness through mindful breathing and you need to use that energy to recognize your body. You breathe in by being fully aware of your body. You breathe out, being fully aware of your body. Through this exercise, your body and mind become one and you feel fully alive.

Releasing tension

The next exercise is to release the tension in your body. There is tension and pain in your body that has been accumulating over time. Our mind is here to help release it. You can release this tension in a sitting, lying, or standing position by simply engaging in a total relaxation. Simply breathe in and become fully of your body. Breathe out, and release the tension in your body. You can do this at your workplace, while you are driving, cooking, or taking a shower.

Walking meditation

This exercise helps you enjoy your every step. You are fully alive, present in the moment, and your mind and body and aligned together. With every step, you experience the wonders of life that are in you and around you. Every step is joyous, miraculous, and peaceful.

How does Mindfulness in Addiction Recovery Work?

Mindfulness is an effective tool for addiction recovery. When practiced by patients, it can give balance in their lives, and help them escape difficult feelings or situations. It gives them an opportunity to become conscious about their difficult emotions and confront them directly without any negative thought patterns. Through mindfulness, recovering addicts can evaluate their addictive behaviors and take responsibility for their actions.

Mindfulness can also physically rewire the brain by changing neural pathways. Studies show that the mid-prefrontal cortex and the mid-insular region of the brain become thicker with greater mindfulness practice, promoting a sense of well-being and creativity. Other research suggest that mindfulness may increase grey-matter density in the hippocampus, which is an area in the brain connected to learning and memory, and can help regulate stress and anxiety.

Mindfulness is an excellent tool for relapse prevention. By practicing mindfulness, recovering addicts view cravings not as some overpowering force, but as a series of passing thoughts and feelings that appear and then disappear much as a wave. One study that compared Meditation-Based Relapse Prevention (MBRP) and standard relapse prevention programs found that addicts who completed the MBRP program has lower rates of substance use over the four-month follow-up period and reported fewer cravings and urges. Recovering addicts who practiced mindfulness also report feeling greater self-acceptance and lower stress levels, putting them in a better position to prevent relapse.

Mindfulness and Recovery

There are multiple benefits to cultivating mindfulness. By practicing mindfulness, recovering addicts learn how to:

  • Be fully present
  • Experience unpleasant thoughts and feelings safely
  • Become more connected to themselves, to others, and the world around them
  • Become less judgmental
  • Increase self-awareness
  • Become less reactive to unpleasant experiences
  • Have more direct contact with the world
  • Learn that thoughts and feelings come and go like weather
  • Have more balance
  • Experience more calm and peacefulness
  • Develop self-acceptance and self-compassion
  • Deal better with stress
  • Experience less anxiety
  • See their cravings for what they are and overcome them

The practice of mindfulness has been incorporated into a variety of therapies and settings, including:

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