Mindfulness, a concept and tool that has been around for thousands of years, comes from the Buddhist tradition. In the last few decades, however, medical practitioners have discovered many uses for it, including in addiction treatment. Mindfulness helps people develop an increased awareness of their own mental state and helps them accept and come to peace with it. When it comes to substance use disorders, mindfulness can be extremely beneficial. It helps individuals recognize dysfunctional thinking patterns and cope with difficult cravings.
Mindfulness-based therapies are therapeutic modalities that are informed by its practices. These therapeutic approaches help clients learn to lead more satisfying and fulfilling lives in recovery and meet the challenges of everyday life.
Mindfulness and Meditation
Mindfulness has become so popular in recent years that it may just sound like a buzzword to you. In our fast-paced society where phones, computer screens, and other stimuli are constantly vying for our attention, it is no surprise that it has become popular. Mindfulness is a type of meditation, but it is notable for being approachable even for those who lead busy lives.
Unlike many stereotypical forms of meditation, mindfulness does not require a person to carve out an hour of their day to sit in absolute silence. It does not mean going to a remote mountain location and avoiding human contact. It distinguishes itself from these forms of meditation. It is a meditation practice that fits in perfectly with everyday life.
The Vietnamese Buddhist monk who originally spread the idea of this practice in the West is named Thich Nhat Hanh. He described mindfulness as follows:
“Mindfulness allows you to establish a life in the present in order to touch the wonders of life that are available in that moment.”
One of Thich Nhat Hanh’s students, Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn, who integrated traditional mindfulness practices with secular research, pioneered it as a therapeutic technique. His definition of it may be more straightforward: “The awareness that emerges through paying attention on purpose, in the present moment, and nonjudgmentally, to things as they are.”
Mindfulness can be boiled down to the simple practice of paying attention to one’s thoughts and one’s life. It may sound simple, but it’s surprisingly difficult — and often very helpful to people with drug or alcohol use disorders.
Mindfulness in Therapy
When patients take part in mindfulness-based therapies, they do not need to be Buddhists. Rather, their clinician will simply ask them to pay attention to their thoughts, feelings, and surroundings. During mindfulness-based therapy, clients work on accepting these experiences without passing judgment. Clinicians aim to use it to help their clients develop increased physical and psychological well-being.
This therapy is rewarding, but it can be challenging for clients who are new to the practice. After many years of active addiction, it is common for the brain to respond to any uncomfortable thought or emotion with a sudden impulse to escape or “fix” the discomfort. Generally, this escape or “fix” comes in the form of a drink or a drug. Mindfulness, however, means simply accepting the discomfort and learning to live with it without passing judgment or even trying to solve it.
Many clients struggle to move their thoughts away from the future or the past; living in the present moment can be painful. Over time, however, this therapy can help clients achieve a sense of freedom and peace.
Principles of Mindfulness Therapy
During mindfulness-based therapies, clients work on developing the following skills:
- Observation. Clients can become more mindful by paying closer attention to what is happening around them.
- Description. Learning to articulate what is happening or what one is feeling actually helps one be more present.
- Participation. Active involvement in activities reduces unhealthy self-consciousness.
- Taking a Non-Judgmental Stance. By accepting things as they are and not judging them, problems often go away on their own.
- Focusing on One Thing in the Moment. Trying to tackle too many problems at once often makes them impossible to solve. By focusing on one thing at a time without distraction, a lot more can be accomplished.
- Effectiveness. This principle involves doing what works instead of constantly doubting oneself.
These principles are ultimately designed to get people out of “autopilot.” When people are on autopilot, they act without thinking. Addiction is generally characterized by autopilot thoughts and behaviors. Individuals with drug or alcohol use disorders often feel like their thoughts, cravings, and emotions are not their own — that they are being controlled by their addictions. This therapy helps people reconnect with themselves and learn how to respond to their addictive cravings, rather than reacting automatically.
Types of Mindfulness-Based Therapies
Mindfulness-based therapies are increasingly common, and a large body of evidence supports their benefits. In many forms of talk therapy, it is one of the most important concepts.
Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR)
Mindfulness as a therapeutic practice picked up steam in the early 1980s when Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn created a formal program known as Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR). Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction was originally developed to assist inpatient hospital patients who suffered from anxiety and high blood pressure. Preliminary research showed that MBSR not only reduced blood pressure and markers for anxiety, but it also helped in a number of other ways. MBSR workshops rapidly became popular in hospitals, rehabs, high school classrooms, and even corporate offices.
Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction is a secular and highly structured approach to mindfulness meditation. MBSR workshops generally last for eight weeks. During these two to three hour long workshops, clients learn the following skills:
- Basic yoga positions
- Learning to feel and recognize the sensations of the body
- Accepting and being at peace with these sensations
- Practicing short periods of mindfulness meditation
MBSR is designed to be approachable to people from all walks of life. It makes the practice of this meditation simple and relatively quick. Research continues to show that regularly practicing MBSR reduces anxiety, stress, depression, and improves self-esteem.
Dialectical Behavioral Therapy (DBT)
Dialectical behavioral therapy is a therapeutic modality that combines cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) with mindfulness. Cognitive-behavioral therapy is a therapeutic technique that works to address people’s dangerous emotional and behavioral patterns by changing the way they think. Dialectical behavioral therapy utilizes many of the techniques of CBT, but it adds several principles derived from the tradition of mindfulness.
Dialectical behavioral therapy was developed in the 1980s by psychologist Marsha Linehan. While working at the University of Washington, Dr. Linehan found that combining mindfulness principles with CBT dramatically improved outcomes for patients suffering from a borderline personality disorder. Not only did their symptoms rapidly improve, but they experienced a reduction in suicidal thoughts.
In essence, dialectical behavioral therapy involves working with patients to develop a non-judgmental stance toward their own thoughts and feelings. While CBT involves learning to change thinking patterns, DBT first emphasizes learning to accept them, even if they are painful or “wrong.” The word “dialectical” refers to the fact that patients work to resolve conflicting or contradictory thoughts and feelings. Dialectical behavioral therapy is often conducted in small groups or during a finite course of one-on-one sessions. During these sessions, clients work with their therapist to recognize unhealthy behaviors and replace them with more positive ones.
Dialectical behavioral therapy works by helping patients reach distinct milestones, including:
- Feeling emotions without getting attached to them or critiquing them
- Feeling like the therapist is an ally
- Learning to live in the present moment without being distracted by the past or the future
- Developing a tolerance for emotional extremes
- Improving interpersonal communication skills
Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT)
Acceptance and Commitment Therapy is a therapeutic modality that is also informed by mindfulness practices. Often known as ACT, Acceptance and Commitment Therapy involves helping clients nonjudgmentally accept their emotions and behaviors without trying to fight them. In the process, clients learn to accept and live by their own personal value system. In the process, they eventually do change behaviors that do not fit in with their personal system of values.
The purpose of ACT, unlike many traditional therapies, is not to eliminate painful or difficult emotions. Instead, clinicians help clients open themselves up to these unpleasant emotions. During ACT treatment, clients learn to experience these thoughts and feelings without overreacting. In the process, they develop increased psychological flexibility.
The core principles of Acceptance and Commitment Therapy include:
- Cognitive defusion: Not letting thoughts control you.
- Acceptance: Allowing unpleasant thoughts and feelings to come and go.
- Contact with the present moment: Living in the here and now without getting distracted by past experiences or worries about the future.
- The observing self: Observing oneself and one’s circumstances.
- Values: Recognizing what one personally finds important.
- Committed action: Setting personal goals that correspond to these values and carrying them out.
Mindfulness Therapy for Addiction
Mindfulness therapy has been found to have countless applications in treating a wide variety of mental health disorders and addictions. One of the simplest ways that it helps is simply by slowing people down. During mindfulness practice, clients stop rushing from one source of stimulation to another. Instead of rushing between activities or between thoughts, they work on quieting their mental chatter. The increased feelings of tranquility that people develop can reduce their need for drugs like marijuana, opioids, and alcohol.
It is also worth noting that one of the most distinguishing features of addiction is a lack of mindfulness. When people act on cravings, they often do so without thinking. Even when drugs or alcohol have pleasure effects, individuals suffering from addiction often don’t even pay attention to them. Instead, they may be too busy worrying about their future drug or alcohol supply. By becoming more conscious of their thoughts, emotions, and behaviors, clients can learn to handle cravings more healthily and responsibly.
Beyond its direct effects on substance use disorders, however, it can also be a valuable tool for addressing the driving forces being a person’s addiction. Many people are driven to abuse drugs or alcohol as a way of coping with psychological pain. Drugs and alcohol offer temporary relief from the distressing symptoms of trauma, depression, and anxiety. Mindfulness reduces the symptoms of comorbid mental health disorders and thereby reduces motivation to abuse drugs and alcohol in the first place.
Mindfulness Therapy at NuView Treatment Center
NuView Treatment Center, one of West Los Angeles’ preeminent outpatient treatment centers, uses a wide variety of evidence-based therapeutic modalities to help clients recover from addiction and mental health problems. Among these evidence-based therapies are many types of mindfulness-based therapy, from DBT to Acceptance and Commitment Therapy. Our masters-level clinicians, psychiatrists, and physicians recognize work with clients to help them accept themselves and live in the present moment nonjudgmentally, while simultaneously helping them develop healthier coping techniques.
Our outpatient treatment programs cover all levels of care. No matter what severity of addiction or mental health disorder you suffer from, our clinicians will meet you exactly where you are. Our outpatient levels of care include:
- Partial hospitalization programs (PHPs)
- Intensive outpatient programs (IOPs)
- Outpatient programs (OPs)
- Aftercare planning
At NuView Treatment Center, we believe that mindfulness and compassion are key ingredients for any recovery plan. Our approach to treatment is never one-size-fits-all. Instead, our clinicians develop individualized treatment plans for each client who walks through our doors. We understand that everyone has a unique history and unique circumstances. By taking a whole-person approach to treatment, our clinicians help clients address underlying issues and move forward toward their personal life goals.
If you or a loved one is currently suffering from a substance use disorder or mental health condition, reach out for help today. Staff members at NuView Treatment Center are available at all times for free and confidential consultations.