Meditation: A Holistic Approach to Recovery
Addiction is a complicated condition. Substance use disorders often have roots in genetic makeup, exposure to trauma, mental illness, or distress of some kind. Addiction impacts every facet of a person’s life, and it requires an integrated, whole-body approach to treatment.
Meditation is an ancient practice with a proven ability to treat addiction. Much more than just simple relaxation, targeted meditation and mindfulness practice can help rewire the brain for better coping skills, improved physical comfort and higher resistance to addiction relapse.
What is Meditation and What Does it Mean to be Mindful?
Many people associate meditation with the image of a meditating Buddha or yogi, sitting with legs crossed, palms facing upward. In reality, meditation is not associated with any religion, it requires no specific pose and it can be done in everyday life. The goal of meditation is to become mindful, so it is also called “mindfulness practice.”
Indeed, mindfulness is a skill that does require practice, as it involves fully attending to the present moment, and calmly observing one’s own senses. It involves getting in tune with the body and mind and paying close attention to breathing, while noticing any passing thoughts and feelings without judgment or question.
While this seems like an easy task, the human mind tends to wander and disrupt the act of mindful contemplation and meditation. This distractibility can bring us out of the present moment. It can bring us back to our own anxieties, memories, to-do lists, or habits. A person who practices meditation daily will eventually learn to appreciate the present moment more fully, and in doing so, will become able to think more clearly in everyday tasks.
Meditation and mindfulness go hand-in-hand. We often learn to become mindful through a meditation practice. This may mean sitting and practicing a traditional meditation pose, but practices vary based on personality, lifestyle, and personal goals.
Of course, tasks that demand our full attention, such as driving, reading, or watching television are not good times or places to meditate. However, it is possible to mediate and be mindful while walking, while eating, while showering, or by engaging in a task like painting, cleaning, or coloring. Tasks that are rhythmic, calming, and do not require the full use of all parts of our brain are usually great opportunities to incorporate meditation into normal life.
Meditation is best learned through a coach, therapist or experienced meditation leader. A good teacher can help each person better understand how mindfulness works and how to apply it to real life. While it is not possible to engage in full mindfulness all day, every day, it is possible to incorporate mindfulness skills to even the busiest lives.
How Can Regular Meditation Change the Brain?
It may seem strange that such a simple practice could change the way we see the world, but it does. In fact, studies show that meditation and mindfulness practice may even change the human brain, enabling it to function better.
Numerous studies have demonstrated that several areas of the brain do, indeed, change as a result of mindfulness practice. The use of functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) have conclusively shown actual physical changes in the following brain areas after consistent mindfulness practice1:
- Anterior cingulate cortex – demonstrates that meditation practice helps us process difficult emotions
- Prefrontal cortex – demonstrates that meditation practice helps improve logical thinking and attention span
- Limbic areas – demonstrates that meditation practice can help us regulate our own emotions and increase self-awareness
Meditation must be practiced regularly and correctly in order to experience actual physical changes and psychological improvement. The brain is able to heal and change, but it requires consistent effort to enact those changes. Most studies show that it takes between eight to 12 weeks of regular meditation practice before changes can be observed2,3.
Mindfulness in Modern Addiction Treatment
Addiction is a complicated disorder that is often difficult to manage. The best addiction treatment programs target both physical cravings and accompanying thought patterns, psychological needs, or trauma experiences that may prevent full recovery. As part of an integrated approach, targeted meditation has been proven to reduce addiction relapse3.
Successful recovery involves healing both mind and body, working on a new set of coping skills and building a new support network. Coping skills are particularly important after treatment ends. Life is full of changes and stressors, and meditation offers a key skill to combat the effects of stress.
Meditation is non-invasive, cost-effective, and involves no medicine or chemicals. Over 27 controlled, scientific studies have shown that meditation practice can:
- Lower motivation to use substances
- Lower interest in thinking about a drug of choice
- Reduce actual use of substances
- Increase ability to resist temptation to use3
Regular meditation and mindfulness practice can also help treat process addictions, such as sex addiction or workaholism4,5. Because meditation is gaining recognition as an effective treatment, many mental health and addiction professionals are learning about and using this skill with patients. It is clear and proven that proper meditation, over time, can improve anyone’s life.
By Kathryn Millán, M.A., LPC/MHSP
Writer for Foundations Recovery Network
- Tang, Yi-Yuan, and Leslie D Leve. A Translational Neuroscience Perspective on Mindfulness Meditation as a Prevention Strategy. Translational Behavioral Medicine. 2016. Web. 24 July 2017.
- Harvard Women’s Health Watch. In the journals: Mindfulness meditation practice changes the brain. Apr 2011. 24 July 2017.
- Schulte, B. Harvard Neuroscientist: Meditation Not Only Reduces Stress, Here’s How it Changes Your Brain. The Washington Post. 26 May 2015. Web. 24 July 2017.
- Pruett, J. M., Nishimura, N. J. and Priest, R. The Role of Meditation in Addiction Recovery. Counseling and Values, 52: 71–84. 2017. Web. 24 July 2017.
- Van Gordon, W., et. al. Meditation Awareness Training for the Treatment of Workaholism: A Controlled Trial. Journal of Behavioral Addictions. Jun 2017. Web. 24 July 2017.
- Van Gordon, w., Shonin, E., Griffiths, S. Meditation Awareness Training for the Treatment of Sex Addiction: A Case Study, Jun 2016. Web. 24 July 2017.