Over 23 million people struggle with drug and alcohol addiction in the United States; that number is roughly the population of the entire state of Texas. While historically addiction was stigmatized as something only weak people were unable to control, solid and consistent medical research has shown addiction is a chronic and treatable illness and must be treated like a disease, not a personal inadequacy, in order to be dealt with effectively.
One increasingly popular treatment in use across many addiction programs is meditation — regardless of whether the program takes place within a private drug rehab facility or a state-funded one. A mindfulness practice included in human culture, spirituality and history for thousands of years, meditation is being recognized more and more as a useful tool in everything from stress and anxiety reduction to lowering blood pressure and aiding in smoking cessation. For people in the throes of addiction, it is also proving to be a welcome and beneficial ally. Here are a handful of ways meditation and mindfulness training assist in recovery from addiction.
The Role Stress and Its Reduction
Drug and alcohol use and abuse often begin and develop into disease because of a need to manage the uncomfortable feelings accompanying stress. While meditation was originally practiced as a path toward a deeper understanding of life and the mysteries of existence, it is commonly used these days to cope with and reduce the effects of stress and the discomfort it brings. Reducing the amount of stress an addict experiences can help reduce cravings for drugs or alcohol. A University of Maryland Center for Integrative Medicine study found that, out of 548 IV drug users, those who participated in meditation and stress-reduction techniques reported lowered stress levels and believed the practices aided in their recoveries.
One of the primary benefits of mindfulness training is an increase in self-awareness. Loosely defined as the collective and conscious knowledge of one’s own motivations, feelings, desires, thoughts and character, self-awareness is knowing one’s actions and motivations, and increasing this self-awareness — without self-judgment — is one of the main goals of almost every addiction program. Meditation is simply a path to getting to know and understand the self because it doesn’t try and change the one practicing. The more self-aware an addicted person can become, the more he will be able to move forward in recovery and wellness.
While it isn’t a necessary part of meditation or recovery from addiction, an increased sense of spirituality often accompanies both mindfulness practice and many recovery programs. After all, meditation began as a way to connect with and ponder the ineffable in the world, the mysteries of life’s origins and the divine. A primary tenet of most addiction programs is the person suffering from the disease must give up trying to control or overcome their addiction; this willingness to give up control often leads to an increase in spiritual awareness and a sense of something — or someone — to whom control can be given. When coupled together, the resulting increase in spirituality can be a powerful force that aids greatly in recovery.
Meditation’s Physical Benefits
Meditation allows for a remarkably wide range of physical benefits, too. People who engage in a daily meditation practice not only report increased mindfulness, reduced anxiety and lower depression rates, but tests also reveal a decrease in cortisol, the stress hormone regulating human motivation. Addicts frequently show altered functioning within the brain’s motivational systems, so lowering cortisol through meditation can be highly beneficial in controlling triggers. Another physical benefit to meditation is it promotes and supports the immune system by increasing the protein interlukin-6. A strengthened immune system is helpful in recovery from addiction as a healthy body is more able to withstand the difficulties of treatment.
Meditation is highly useful in generating peace of mind, and it reduces the experience of stressors that can lead to relapse. Numerous studies have noted increased sobriety outcomes when meditation is a part of a program’s addiction treatment, regardless of whether the program is inpatient or outpatient. Meditation also leads to a lowered experience of cravings, an increased level of self-awareness and self-acceptance — all essential components for an individual’s ability to avoid relapse.
The treatment of addiction must address the physical, psychological, emotional and spiritual needs of the whole person, and meditation’s usefulness in each of those areas is becoming more and more certain. From reducing stress and the potential for relapse to improving immunity and self-awareness, meditation is a vital ally in the ongoing treatment of the disease.