When I started gathering information for my graduate degree research project, it was just getting colder in Michigan. We were inching toward the winter months, and my anxiety spiked with each grey day on the horizon. The stress accompanying literature reviews and all things research in graduate school appeared to double each moment I procrastinated. The stress, at times, felt insurmountable. Desperate, I turned to two old friends I had temporarily lost touch with – yoga and deep breathing.
Mindfulness and Managing Stress
I had let my personal mindfulness journey fall by the wayside for a few months. And I was relieved to find it effective yet again. I credit mindfulness for propelling me to do uncomfortable work with manageable stress. I started to re-frame my anxious feelings as “healthy striving,” and I developed a new sense of purpose. This new purpose helped me dive into academic and professional pursuits that would later translate into opportunities at the Sanford Outpatient Center.
I started to pose this question: If I could take the wealth of research on the effectiveness of mindfulness in outpatient treatment and funnel it into evidence-based practice, could I offer a fresh new approach to coping in early recovery?
And so, I completed my research project studying mindfulness meditation groups and compiled my information into a capstone project at the end of my Social Work master’s degree. I parlayed all that learning into my full-time position as a Clinical Therapist at the Sanford Outpatient Center. Fueled by personal experience and garnished with many hours of research, the Mindfulness Group run at our Outpatient Center is a great joy to participate in.
What is Mindfulness?
Mindfulness traces back to ancient and sacred practices stemming from Eastern religion and culture—specifically, Buddhist practices and teachings. The most common type of mindfulness became popular in the Western world about 2,500 years after its creation. It is called Vipassana. Otherwise known as “clear awareness” or “insight.”
Mindfulness can be quickly and efficiently described as living in the present moment.
We focus on the breath and the mind-body connection instead of worrying about the past or planning for the future. With this basic definition, mindfulness can be introduced into many different facets of life. This is particularly interesting to me as an addiction therapist, because I want to equip my clients with evidence-based tools and try to practice what I preach. Mindfulness has transformed how I approach every aspect of my life. Through internships, my undergraduate degree, my graduate degree, and different work opportunities – my clarity and mental health rested upon mindfulness practices. Was I perfect at it? Definitely not. Even today, I am a work in progress.
But that is the benefit of getting into the mindfulness head-space; the pursuit and the process are far more important than the end product. I want our clients to know that their process is a thing of beauty in and of itself.
Healing the Addicted Brain with Mindfulness
Recent and extensive research on addiction has shown the increased need for practices that assist in healing the brain from compulsive substance use. Mindfulness meditation can be portrayed as a stress-relief and stress-coping strategy for those who previously relied on substances to self-medicate mental health symptoms.
Mindfulness, Stress & Addiction
Stress plays a large part in both substance use disorders and their treatment. The ability to quiet the mind with mindfulness meditation can contribute to emotional regulation and stress coping. We also know that mindfulness meditation can influence how we experience external stress and how we perceive it internally. It contributes to an individual’s overall resiliency.
Profoundly Unique in Practice
Mindfulness works best when aligned with a person’s unique values, morals, and worldviews. In other words, mindfulness can be profoundly unique to the individual practitioner. As such, therapists and group facilitators are encouraged to assist their clients in finding the best “fit” for mindfulness in their lives. Maybe it coincides with their religiosity or spirituality. Perhaps it can be found in their philosophy on life or reflected in the beauty they see in nature. Connectedness with oneself comes from understanding our values, which informs the ability to practice mindfulness effectively. Practicing mindfulness based on values is allowing the gift of less stress in daily life.
The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) named mindfulness-based stress reduction as a comparable intervention that has been evaluated in research studies. We also know that mindfulness-based stress reduction has been proven to be effective in reducing symptoms of depression and anxiety. By learning to sit and be aware of one’s emotions without judgement, clients find it easier and easier to choose “the next right thing” instead of reacting impulsively. When practiced consistently, mindfulness can provide a safe space in the brain where symptoms of depression and anxiety exist without judgment. This intentional decision not to place bias and judgment on one’s own emotions can change an individual’s mood.
When integrating a mindful worldview into one’s life, the real work is not avoiding all symptoms of anxiety and depression and, instead, living alongside the symptoms without granting them rights to control one’s day.
I have seen it in our outpatient groups and individual therapy sessions firsthand and in my own life. Mindfulness gives individuals with mental health disorders the awareness of and the ability to track emotional variance. This emotional intelligence offers individuals the power to decide how to respond. The intention behind this philosophy is that clients will use this newfound power by integrating coping skills and activities into their lives that build their self-worth, confidence, and distress tolerance to the point that their mental health symptoms become lighter and more manageable.
Research on the connection between mindfulness and addiction treatment
Extensive research confirms mindfulness as an intervention for Substance Use Disorder (SUD) treatment. At Sanford Outpatient Center, I see three significant benefits from the introduction of mindfulness into the treatment setting:
Benefits of Mindfulness at Sanford Outpatient Center
When living mindfully, clients will find it easier to notice relapse drift, symptoms of Post-Acute Withdrawal Syndrome, or emotional dysregulation due to increased self-awareness. This can assist in anticipation and (hopefully) prevent further drifting toward relapse or other potential issues that can arise in early recovery.
Clients will find that when triggers, cravings, or negative emotions are unavoidable, they have more skills and tools to “ride the wave” until stabilization. This can assist in emotional coping, better quality of daily life, and even prevent a potential relapse.
Clients who experience situations that involve triggers, cravings, and potential relapse will have the tools to perform a “relapse autopsy.” Mindfulness can assist in the self-evaluation needed to understand the thoughts, emotions, and behaviors that preceded the event. This information is vital to preventing a recurring issue.
Mindfulness is a Practice
Mindfulness is a practice. It is also a muscle that needs to be “flexed.” If starting with a five-minute meditation is too complicated or intimidating – take six deep breaths instead. Visualize a happy memory before you head into Meijer on a busy Sunday afternoon. When you walk to your car in the morning, notice your sensory experience with the sun, the breeze, and the smell of being outside.
Mindfulness is not always an “event.” It can seamlessly be integrated into your life to provide support and promote a happier daily experience.
When I sit with my clients in individual sessions and groups, I hope we all have a mindful/meditative experience. We let our bodies, breath, and minds focus on the present and do uncomfortable work with manageable stress – without judging ourselves or one another.