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Mindfulness and Addiction: What It Is & Is It Effective?

Addiction is a complex disease that can be approached very differently from case to case. In recent decades, mindfulness-based interventions (MBIs) have been studied as an alternative to treat an array of addictive behaviors, including substance abuse.1

What Is Mindfulness?

Mindfulness is the practice of cultivating a state of awareness. One of the most cited definitions of mindfulness speaks to the awareness that arises through paying attention in a particular way, in the present moment, and in a nonjudgmental way.1

Mindfulness is one of the many forms of meditation. Meditation uses different practices to help quiet the mind and achieve a higher level of consciousness, one of which is mindfulness.

The practice of mindfulness has its origins in Buddhist and Hindu teachings. The practice was first popularized in the West through the work of Jon Kabat-Zinn, who started mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) to help treat pain, anxiety, and chronic stress, ultimately bringing mindfulness into clinical practice.2 Since then, many other interventions have developed mindfulness meditation as a behavioral intervention for clinical problems.2

How Does Mindfulness Work?

Mindfulness is linked to changes in the brain and the body’s production of hormones and other chemicals that affect our physical and mental health. Brain imaging studies from 2014 associate mindfulness with changes in the structure and function of the brain, as well as changes in behavior. Mindfulness may lessen the emotional experience of pain and reactive and fearful responses while enhancing thoughtful appraisal of events.3

A mindfulness session may be led by a clinical psychologist, mindfulness facilitators, therapists, or counselors. Each session includes meditation skills practice, followed by discussions about the participant’s experience with meditation.4 Throughout mindfulness practice, patients are taught various meditation skills, including:4

  • Body scan: A practice that involves noticing and observing physical sensations in sequential parts of the body. The goal is to see if there are any thoughts or feelings attached to these sensations and how they flow over time.
  • Mindful movement: This practice introduces movement to the body scan. It focuses on noticing any physical sensations and thoughts or feelings attached and how these move through the body as we pay close attention to them.
  • Guided practice: A practice that forces participants to become aware of external sounds, breathing, and physical sensations as they notice thoughts or feelings as they arise.

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Mindfulness in Addiction Recovery

Initially, mindfulness training programs focused on reducing psychiatric disorders’ emotional distress.5 More recently, MBIs have been tailored directly to address the mechanisms that underlie addiction.5 Several controlled research studies have demonstrated that MBIs can significantly benefit users of addictive substances, including nicotine, alcohol, cocaine, and opioids.5

Using MBIs for addiction tends to be a multi-week intervention of approximately 8 weeks, usually delivered in a group therapy format. Because of this, it’s common to see it available in residential treatments, outpatient treatment programs, and holistic addiction treatment programs.5 Since MBIs involve regular practice and motivation, many inpatient addiction treatment programs also introduce several motivational interviewing sessions before initiating mindfulness training.5

Overall, there’s support for the effectiveness of MBIs in reducing stress and improving clinical outcomes.6 Other reports suggest that MBIs can help mitigate the effects of cravings and substance misuse, reducing the risk of relapse after treatment.5

Is Mindfulness-Based Substance Abuse Treatment Effective?

When it comes to therapies for substance abuse, multiple studies reviews suggest MBIs appear to be as effective as an evidence-based treatment for substance misuse at reducing the frequency and quantity of substance use, substance-related problems, and cravings and increasing the rate of abstinence among participants.7

Specifically, mindfulness-based substance use treatment can help:5

  • Decrease habit behavior and addictive responses to reduce or prevent substance use.
  • Improve self-reported ability to regulate alcohol or drug urges.
  • Reduce stress levels as it relates to substance use-related cues.
  • Regulate emotional processing amid a negative situation.
  • Increase reward experience and positive emotion.

In one study, compared to treatment, as usual, groups that undergo mindfulness-based relapse prevention (MBRP) showed a 54% decreased risk of relapse to drug use and a 59% reduced risk of relapse to heavy drinking.7

Finding Mindfulness Addiction Treatment

Many addiction treatment programs offer mindfulness-related treatment, but not all. It’s important to talk with each facility to confirm whether it’s delivered or not. Mindfulness treatment and other practices might be part of alternative therapy in group settings.

In any case, finding a treatment center that is in-network with your health insurance provider is essential. Call your insurance provider directly or speak with an admissions navigator to help you find an in-network addiction treatment center near you.

Mindfulness FAQs

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