How Mindfulness Can Help Your Brain Recover from Addiction
Conscious changes in the way you think can lead to huge changes in your life
How can an “alternative” practice like meditation relate to neuroscience? Thanks to the efforts of scientific research, experts are learning more about the positive effects of mindfulness meditation on the brain and how it relates to recovery.
What is Mindfulness?
The term may sound like a new-age idiom without a concrete meaning, but mindfulness is actually a very specific and disciplined practice. It can be described as the effort to intentionally focus one’s attention on the present moment without judging the thoughts, feelings or circumstances experienced in that moment. The goal is not to suppress thoughts or feelings, but to separate our feelings from our actions. In practicing mindfulness meditation, we can acknowledge when the desire to use drugs or alcohol is present without acting on that desire.
Mindfulness isn’t about suffering, it’s about attaining freedom from suffering. It’s also not a religion or religious practice. Though rooted in Buddhism, people from all cultures and religious or non-religious backgrounds can apply mindfulness to their lives. However, it is a discipline that must be practiced regularly to receive lasting benefits.
Most proponents of mindfulness practice daily meditation in which they allow thoughts and feelings to come and go without judgment as they sit in silence for a predetermined amount of time or listen to a recorded meditation. With practice, mindfulness meditators can experience a level of “quiet mind,” peacefully existing in the moment without worrisome thoughts demanding their attention.
Mindfulness strengthens the understanding that our thoughts don’t have to rule our actions.
Mindfulness and the Brain
Mindfulness meditation reaches back more than 2,500 years. Western science has only just begun to research the practice in the last decade or so, but already findings support the theory that mindfulness can result in long-term behavioral changes. Regular mindfulness practice builds new connections between brain cells, literally rewiring the brain and improving its capacity to minimize feelings of fear, anxiety and depression. According to Addiction Treatment Magazine, practitioners of mindfulness meditation can begin realizing the benefits in about 8 weeks.
A walnut-sized portion of the brain called the amygdala regulates our emotions. Mindfulness can counteract anxiety, by relaxing the amygdala which then slows the heart rate and stops the release of stress hormones into the bloodstream. In addition, mindfulness meditation has been shown to change the shape of the brain, thickening the area that’s responsible for creativity, optimism and a sense of well-being.
Mindfulness and Addiction
The fear that they’re incapable of change can emotionally paralyze people who suffer from addiction disorders. It’s not uncommon for addicts to resolve to beat their addictions, only to end up back where they started. In time, this “try and fail” cycle leads to guilt, depression and the idea that things won’t ever get better. Research into mindfulness shows that the mind can be retrained. You can change your thought patterns and behavior not through sheer willpower, but by actually altering the way your brain thinks and responds.
Clinical case studies conducted with problem gamblers who received mindfulness training resulted in the reduction of depression, anxiety, gambling urges and gambling-related thoughts. These findings are similar to the outcomes from studies that assessed the efficacy if mindfulness practice with substance addicts. The practice of mindfulness has also been useful in easing withdrawal symptoms and reducing the frequency of relapse.
Your brain can recover from addiction, and mindfulness can help. The regular practice of mindfulness meditation can rewire your brain and strengthen the portions responsible for personal confidence and positive thinking. Mindfulness isn’t a bandage that will magically cure addiction disorders or make recovery easy. When practiced regularly and used as part of a comprehensive treatment plan, mindfulness meditation can be a powerful tool, helping to build your road to addiction recovery.