Studies have shown that mindfulness activities can reshape our brain in positive ways, improving physical and mental health and promoting overall well-being. Mindfulness can help tame anxiety, provide a greater self-awareness, and help us acknowledge and cope with emotions that may not be rooted in reality.
Practicing mindfulness exercises is especially helpful for those who have struggled with addiction to alcohol, drugs, or other destructive behaviors.
The Mindfulness-Recovery Connection
The brain is the only organ specifically designed to be shaped by experience and practice, much like a muscle gets stronger with exercise. When we repeatedly engage in the thoughts and behaviors of addiction, we unknowingly shape our brain in ways that work against us and prevent us from being mindful.
Mindfulness exercises empower us to intentionally reshape our brain in ways that bring us greater control, awareness, and happiness.
One of the strengths of mindfulness is that we can practice it any time, any place. We don't have to adopt a particular belief system or invest a great deal of time and energy to take advantage of this expanded awareness. We need only be willing to try new ways of experiencing the world.
These five core practices are a good way to get started:
Most of us in addiction recovery are former escape artists looking to avoid the stress and anxiety that comes with daily life. We're good at not being there. We rarely focus on the present moment causing us to miss out on the richness of life or fully realizing our own potential.
Being mindful is about being present, increasing our awareness, and opening our eyes to the reality of the moment. Being present helps us learn to cope with reality.
Being present starts with paying attention to ordinary things—the sensation of your feet rising and falling as you walk to the car, the feel of soapy water sliding over your hands as you wash the dishes, the taste and texture of food in your mouth as you eat a meal.
The aim of mindfulness is not quieting the mind or attempting to achieve a state of eternal calm. The goal is simple: we’re aiming to pay attention to the present moment, without judgment. When we notice judgments arise during our practice, we can make a mental note of them, and let them pass, returning to observing the present moment as it is. Don’t judge yourself for whatever thoughts crop up, just practice recognizing when your mind has wandered off, and gently bring it back.
Our minds often get carried away in thought. That’s why mindfulness is the practice of returning, again and again, to the present moment.
That’s the practice. It’s often been said that it’s very simple, but it’s not necessarily easy. The work is to just keep doing it. Results will accrue.
Remembering to do this regularly may take practice, but ultimately it is one of the easiest mindfulness exercises we can do. Noticing the little things grounds you in the present moment—the place where we live our lives.
Focus on Your Breath
Life is full of stress and gets to all of us sometimes. Instead of getting upset by things over which we have little control, we can center our attention on an internal thing that we can control: our breathing. Focusing on the breath can restore a sense of calm and control that helps keep our recovery on track.
To get started, take small "breathing breaks" throughout the day. Notice the sensation of air entering and exiting your body again and again.
Throughout the practice you may find yourself caught up in thoughts, emotions, sounds—wherever your mind goes, simply come back again to the next breath. Inevitably, your attention will leave the breath and wander to other places. There’s no need to block or eliminate thinking. When you notice your mind wandering gently return your attention to the breath.
Instead of wrestling with your thoughts, practice observing them without reacting. Just sit and pay attention. As hard as it is to maintain, that’s all there is. Come back to your breath over and over again, without judgment or expectation.
Try following along with this video for a 5-minute guided mindfulness meditation.
Recognize Your Thoughts as Thoughts
Our thoughts are the driving force behind our feelings and actions. What we think about ourselves and others determines how we interact with people around us and how we manage our life.
Negative self-talk is a common activity, especially for those in addiction recovery. Thoughts like "I'm no good" or "everyone's against me" drain the hope and energy needed to sustain positive change. Mindfulness teaches us to become aware of our thoughts, empowering us to let go of harmful ideas that work against us.
Check in with your thoughts throughout the day, especially when you find yourself becoming anxious or depressed. Ask yourself what thoughts triggered your feelings. Remind yourself that thoughts are just thoughts. Then work on letting them go.
Strengthen Your Circle of Friends/Family
Studies have shown that when we feel emotionally connected, we thrive mentally and physically. When we feel disconnected, we suffer.
Mindfulness helps us build connections by teaching us to view ourselves and others through the lens of compassion, letting go of the judgments and prejudices that build walls and practice the tolerance, kindness, and empathy that builds bridges.
Addiction limited our ability to connect with others in any meaningful way. Compassion strengthens our ability to build healthy, healing relationships, which ultimately positively affects our inner emotions.
The phrase "just like me" is sometimes used in mindfulness meditations to promote compassion. Try remembering this phrase in your interactions with others, reminding yourself that they have hopes and fears, dreams and sorrows "just like me."
As a society, we tend to equate busyness with goodness. We see multi-tasking as a virtue and admire people who somehow manage to "do it all".
But the fact that philosophers have always known—and science has more recently confirmed—is that there is tremendous value in allowing ourselves to step away from the busyness of daily life and SIMPLY BE. It is in stillness, not in continual activity, that we are free to discover our own personal truths that give meaning and purpose to our life.
Stillness opens our hearts and minds to the vast potential within us as we move through treatment.
Mindfulness meditation sessions, yoga practice, and religious services can all promote a sense of inner stillness. So can gazing at the night sky, watching the ocean's waves, or immersing yourself in activities like exercise, gardening, woodworking, painting, or playing music. The important thing is to find whatever works for you—your special connection to that quiet place where you listen to your heart and renew your spirit.
By taking part in these mindfulness practices every day, our journey of recovery can become deeper, more meaningful, and more rewarding.
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