The addict has a restless brain, and substances or compulsive behaviors are used to self-regulate the overworked brain. That process eventually leads to a trail of destruction: lost jobs, failed marriages, neglected children, plundered fortunes.
Medication can be helpful to rein in racing thoughts and impulsive decisions, but it can only go so far. What an addict really needs are coping skills, and the most important one is mindfulness.
What Is Mindfulness?
Derived from Buddhist practice, mindfulness is the intentional, non-judgmental self-focus on one’s thoughts and feelings as they occur in the moment. Awareness is often lacking in the addict’s life, so learning to tune in to what’s going on in the body and mind can help a person consider the likely consequences of their actions. This way, they can choose consciously instead of making impulsive, damaging choices.
Addicts get lost in a spiral of shame. They feel bad about themselves, so they use or act out, which then makes them feel even worse, so they repeat the same behaviors to keep from thinking about how they feel, which just leads to more shame and acting out.
So a key component in mindfulness is non-judgment. Urges aren’t bad or good, they just are. Once you remove the shame from your mind, you have one less trigger for acting out.
How to Practice Mindfulness
Mindfulness is free and you can do it anywhere. It helps to have a quiet place, but it’s not essential — you just need a place to sit. For the beginner, it’s a good idea to begin and end your day practicing mindfulness.
Start with practicing mindfulness for a short period of time. If you find it difficult to sit still, aim for five minutes. Set a timer. Close your eyes and try to tune into your breath. Notice the sensations in your body. Observe the thoughts crossing your mind as if you’re gazing out a car window.
When a negative thought comes up or you feel your stomach clench, just notice it — but practice doing so without a negative statement attached, such as “Yesterday I drank” or “Last night I spent two hours watching porn instead of getting work done” or “I’m worried that my girlfriend is going to break up with me because I’m using again.”
The goal of mindfulness is to be willing to sit with what is, not disappear into a fantasy about what you wish your life were like. As unpleasant as your feelings might be, they’re just feelings. They won’t destroy you. They’ll pass and morph into something else. The more you can manage uncomfortable thoughts, feelings and sensations, the less need you’ll have for your drug of choice.
When Not to Practice Mindfulness
During a crisis isn’t the time to begin mindfulness training. You don’t want to sit quietly with your feelings during an acute crisis or if you’re experiencing post-traumatic stress disorder flashbacks. These are times for crisis management with hospitalization or enrollment in an inpatient facility.
Once the immediate crisis has passed, you can begin to practice mindfulness. Inpatient facilities are a great place to start because you can get the support you need to begin your practice from trained professionals.
The Benefit of Mindfulness
Over time, the thoughts and feelings that used to overwhelm you will lose their power. Developing a mindfulness practice will enable you to calm your unquiet mind without resorting to drugs, alcohol, food, sex or any of your dysfunctional go-tos.
Although it may feel as if you’re just sitting there “doing nothing,” you’re actually developing discipline, which is what your addiction has robbed you of. Instead of trying to control people and events, you’ll gain mastery over the one thing you can control, which is yourself.
By Virginia Gilbert, MFT
Follow Virginia on Twitter at @ VGilbertMFT