Five Mindfulness Practices to Step Up Your Recovery
Ready to take your recovery from alcohol and drug addiction to a whole new level? Practice being mindful with these tried-and-true activities—they might be just what you’re looking for.Heard in a Twelve Step meeting:
“Sometimes I feel like I’m just going through the motions. I mean, I’m working the program but I’m not getting as much out of it as I used to.”It’s a common experience—no matter what the context. We start a new diet or join a fitness club or enroll in a class, and before we know it our enthusiasm fades and the stress ramps up.
We’re hit with the reality that there are no quick fixes. That self-improvement is a life-long journey.That’s precisely the moment when adding mindfulness to your addiction recovery program could reboot your enthusiasm and re-energize your journey.
What is Mindfulness?
Introduced by the Buddha as a path to spiritual enlightenment more than 2,500 years ago, mindfulness is essentially the art of being present in our own lives. It’s a gentle way of opening our mind to greater awareness; to a truer, deeper understanding of our self and our world. So why should we care about being mindful in today’s world?
Studies have shown that mindfulness activities can actually reshape our brain in positive ways, improving physical and mental health and promoting overall well-being. It can help tame anxiety, provide a greater self-awareness, and help us acknowledge and cope with emotions that may not be rooted in reality.
What’s more, incorporating mindfulness exercises into treatment is especially helpful for those of us who have struggled with addiction to alcohol, drugs, porn, unhealthy relationships, or other destructive behaviors. Here’s why.
The Mindfulness-Recovery Connection
The brain is the only organ specifically designed to be shaped by experience and practice, much like a muscle gets stronger with exercise. In the past, when we repeatedly engaged in the thoughts and behaviors that propel addiction, we unknowingly shaped our brain in ways that worked against us and prevented us from being mindful.
Mindfulness exercises empower us to intentionally reshape our brain in ways that bring greater control, awareness, and happiness to our life.
One of the strengths of mindfulness is that we can practice it any time, any place. We don’t have to adopt a particular belief system or invest a great deal of time and energy to take advantage of this expanded awareness. We need only be willing to try new ways of experiencing the world.
These five core practices are a good way of getting started:
1. Be Present
“Be where you are; otherwise you will miss your life.” The Buddha
Is it possible to be somewhere without actually being there? Of course it is. It’s the way most of us live every day. We’re talking to our kids or watching TV or sitting in a meeting, but our mind’s a million miles away. Usually, we’re feeling stressed about something that happened in the past or feeling anxiety about what might happen in the future. Or we’re distracted by our phones, our attention splintered by the relentless urge to type, tap, or swipe.
Only rarely do we focus on the present moment. Yet when our attention is continually somewhere else, we go through life on auto-pilot, never really seeing the richness of life or fully realizing our own potential. It’s like living with blinders on.
Being mindful is about being present, increasing our awareness, and opening our eyes to the reality of now. This moment.
Why it supports recovery: Most of us in addiction recovery are former escape artists looking to avoid the stress and anxiety that comes with daily life. We’re good at not being there. Being present helps us learn to cope with reality as it actually is—not how we perceive it.
Getting started: Being present starts with paying attention to ordinary things—the sensation of your feet rising and falling as you walk to the car, the feel of soapy water sliding over your hands as you wash the dishes, the taste and texture of food in your mouth as you eat a meal.
Remembering to do this regularly may take practice, but ultimately it is one of the easiest mindfulness exercises we can do. Noticing the little things grounds you in the present moment—the place where we live our lives.
2. Focus on the Breath
“Feelings come and go like clouds in a windy sky. Conscious breathing is my anchor.” Thích Nhat Hanh
Life is full of stress. Whether it’s the daily grind, a difficult relationship, a sudden calamity, or the relentless onslaught of the 24/7 news cycle, life gets to all of us sometimes. We constantly feel overwhelmed, and before we know it we’re exploding in anger or retreating in a sulk—or worse, turning to alcohol or another drug to cope.
There’s a simple remedy for all this: focusing on our breath. Instead of getting upset by external things over which we have little control, we can center our attention on an internal thing that we can control: our breathing. Mindfulness teaches us to use our body’s natural healing powers to manage stress.
Why it supports recovery: When we’re stressed, it’s easy to get sucked into a damaging spiral of self-defeating thoughts. We need to actively take care of our emotional health in these moments. Focusing on the breath can restore a sense of calm and control that keeps our recovery on track.
Getting started: Try taking small “breathing breaks” throughout the day—while you’re at a stoplight or waiting in line, for example, or before you open your email or go to a meeting. Inhale through your nostrils and exhale through your mouth, making your exhalation a little longer than your inhalation. Notice the sensation of air entering and exiting your body again and again, always there to calm and sustain you.
3. Recognize Your Thoughts as Thoughts
“Don’t believe everything you think. Thoughts are just that—thoughts.” Allan Lokos
Most of us give little attention to the thoughts that fill our head. They’re just sort of there,like background noise we’ve learned to tune out.
But whether we notice them or not, our thoughts are the driving force behind our feelings and actions. What we think about ourselves and others determines how we carry ourselves in the world, how we interact with people around us, and how effective we are at managing our life.
It’s easy to confuse our thoughts with reality—to believe that what we think is always true. In fact, we’re all prone to false assumptions, misconceptions, and unfounded beliefs.
Mindfulness teaches us to become aware of our thoughts, empowering us to let go of harmful ideas that work against us.
Why it supports recovery: Negative self-talk is a common activity—and it’s destructive. Thoughts like “I’m no good” or “Everyone’s against me” drain the hope and energy needed to sustain positive change in addiction recovery. Recognizing and then challenging such damaging thoughts allow us to see ourselves in a more hopeful, more accurate light.
Getting started: Check in with your thoughts throughout the day, especially when you find yourself becoming anxious or depressed. Ask yourself what thoughts triggered your feelings. Remind yourself that thoughts are just thoughts. Then work on letting them go.
4. Expand Your Circle of Compassion
“Only the development of compassion and understanding for others can bring us the tranquility and happiness we all seek.” Dalai Lama XIV
We humans are born to connect. Studies have shown that when we feel emotionally connected, we thrive mentally and physically. When we feel disconnected, we suffer.
Mindfulness helps us build connections by teaching us to view ourselves and others through the lens of compassion. We let go of the judgments, stereotypes, and prejudices that build walls and practice the tolerance, kindness, and empathy that build bridges.
This doesn’t mean that we have to like or approve of everything others do. It simply means that we think in terms of “us,” not “them.”
Mindfulness teaches us that all beings deserve loving-kindness because we are all part of the greater whole.
Why it supports recovery: Addiction limited our ability to connect with others in any meaningful way. Compassion strengthens our ability to build healthy, healing relationships, which ultimately positively affects our inner emotions.
Getting started: The phrase “just like me” is sometimes used in mindfulness meditations to promote compassion. Try remembering this phrase in your interactions with others, reminding yourself that they have hopes and fears, dreams and sorrows “just like me.”
5. Be Still
“Now we will count to twelve/and we will all keep still.” Pablo Neruda
As a society, we tend to equate busyness with goodness. The more activity we engage in, the better. We see multi-tasking as a virtue and admire people who somehow manage to “do it all.” After all, the more we do, the more worthwhile we are. Right?
Not exactly. In fact, philosophers have always known—and science has more recently confirmed—that there is tremendous value in allowing ourselves to step away from the busyness of daily life and simply be. It is in stillness, not in continual activity, that we are free to discover our own personal truths that give meaning and purpose to our life.
Mindfulness reminds us that in stillness we find the wisdom to become a human beinginstead of a human doing.
Why it supports recovery: Recovery is a journey, not a destination. Stillness opens our hearts and minds to the vast potential within us as we move through treatment.
Getting started: Mindfulness meditation sessions, yoga practice, and religious services can all promote a sense of inner stillness. So can gazing at the night sky, watching the ocean’s waves, or immersing yourself in activities like exercise, gardening, woodworking, painting, or playing music—any moment you can take for yourself.
The important thing is to find whatever works for you—your special connection to that quiet place in which to listen to your heart and renew your spirit again and again.
“Mindfulness isn’t difficult, we just need to remember to do it,” wrote the meditation teacher Sharon Salzberg. By remembering to take part in these mindfulness practices every day, our journey of recovery can become ever deeper, more meaningful, and more rewarding.
By: Beverly Conyers
Beverly Conyers, author of Addict in the Family, Stories of Loss, Hope and Recovery, is the mother of three grown children. She began writing about addiction when she discovered that her youngest daughter was addicted to heroin. She knows first-hand the anxiety and heartache that families endure, and she has gained deep insight into the process of recovery from addicts who share their experiences in her books.
Above all, she knows that there is no such thing as a hopeless case. Everything can change even when we least expect it, and the miracle of recovery happens every day.