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The Benefits of Mindfulness
by Helen Reason

‘Being in the here and now’ has long been hailed for its healing benefits, so it is refreshing to see that in the nation’s top rehabilitation centers, mindfulness is being give its due importance. Conventional therapy for substance addiction and alcoholism can involve a combination of medical treatment and cognitive behavioral therapy, yet addiction specialists are now relying on a wider gamut of treatments to tackle addiction from a multi-faceted perspective. Within this new mind-set, holistic activities such as yoga and mindfulness meditation have an important role to play.

Mindfulness and Cortisol

Addiction recovery can be a tremendously stressful time in anyone’s life. Not only do those in recovery have to battle powerful physical cravings, they are also suddenly forced to face the powerful stressors that may have triggered drug use in the first place. They may struggle to integrate into society, finding new friends, obtaining employment, and mending bridges with friends and family. When stress is too intense, our ‘fight or flight’ response is invoked, and when it becomes chronic, it can have serious effects for our mental as well as our physical health (chronic stress is linked to heart disease and Type II diabetes, for instance). Studies have shown that mindfulness lowers level of cortisol, as well as our heart and breathing rate. Therefore, it becomes easier to calm anxious states through practices such as controlled breathing.

Mindfulness has also been proven to reduce the size of the amygdala, which controls stress and anxiety. Interestingly, yoga (with a mindfulness meditation component) is currently being used with women receiving radiotherapy for breast cancer, since studies have shown that these millenary practices lower cortisol levels, reduce the symptoms of depression and tiredness, and enhance the sensation of vitality.

Mindfulness and Addiction

One recent study involved the comparison of mindfulness vs the American Lung Association’s (ALA) Freedom from Smoking program, to help in quitting smoking. Researchers found that participants in the study who followed a mindfulness program had a much higher quit rate than those who followed the ALA program. Scientists believe that the power of meditation when it comes to addiction may lie in its focus on not blocking or denying cravings, if not accepting them and acknowledging their power, without succumbing to them.

Currently, mindfulness is used as a component of many therapies for addiction, including Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT). This treatment involves teaching patients the important connection between how they think, feel, and behave. The key is to find positive strategies to deal with problems and to cease using destructive thinking patterns that may result in drug use or relapse. Some of the skills taught in DBT include mindfulness (observing, describing and taking part in a situation without judging or criticizing), distress tolerance, communication skills, and emotional regulation.

Sometimes, therapists focus on mindfulness-based stress reduction, guiding patients to “pay attention in a particular way, on purpose, in the present moment and non-judgmentally.” It is very important for those in recovery to be very aware of sensations, thoughts and feelings that could trigger drug use and mindfulness can help them achieve this aim.

Mindfulness Stops us from Thinking in Default

‘Thinking in default’, a practice that tends to occur when we allow our thoughts to focus on the future (thus producing worry) or the past (producing regret), is associated with higher anxiety and relapse rates. Researchers at Yale University have found that when we practice mindfulness, we spend far less time ‘in default mode’. Therefore, mindfulness can keep thoughts and emotions that can trigger a relapse, from taking over the brain.

Mindfulness Can Actually Change the Brain’s Structure

In one recent study, Harvard researchers found that in just eight weeks, mindfulness meditation rebuilds grey matter in the brain. MRIs were taken of participants’ brains before and after the study. Participants then took part in mindful meditation session for thirty minutes daily.

Scientists have also found that mindfulness thickens the brain in four areas: the area which is responsible for learning, memory and regulating emotions; the area related to compassion and empathy; the area where important neurotransmitters are created; and the area involved with daydreaming/mental wandering.

Although mindfulness is now part of many rehabilitation programs, it is important for patients to continue honing their mindfulness techniques after their stay in rehab. Most people find that mindfulness is a powerful tool that enables them to face life's biggest challenges with greater courage and tranquility. 

Further reading:

http://www.rehabs.com/pro-talk-articles/finding-a-fix-for-meth-addiction-can-exercise-help/

http://www.mindful.org/the-science-of-mindfulness/

https://nau.edu/research/feature-stories/mindfulness-training-has-positive-health-benefits/

http://www.brown.edu/Student_Services/Health_Services/Health_Education/common_college_health_issues/mindfulness.php

https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/inspired-life/wp/2015/05/26/harvard-neuroscientist-meditation-not-only-reduces-stress-it-literally-changes-your-brain/

http://www.forbes.com/sites/alicegwalton/2015/02/09/7-ways-meditation-can-actually-change-the-brain/#295b2ce87023

http://www.collective-evolution.com/2014/12/11/harvard-study-unveils-what-meditation-literally-does-to-the-brain/

Robert Althouse

Zen Life & Meditation Center, Chicago, 38 Lake Street, Oak Park, IL, 60302