Mental Illness and Meditation
Mindfulness Training in Recovery
Ten years ago, I never imagined that I’d ever be touting mindfulness meditation as a key component of treatment for mental illness and substance use disorders. At that point, I was just embarking on a counseling career after working for over a decade in the fields of science and medicine. The skeptical scientist in me looked for tangible things to grasp, and I couldn’t see how mindfulness had anything to do with science. Fortunately, seasoned scientists also know to be skeptical of their skepticism! I began looking into some of the research (as well as practicing the techniques to see what all the fuss was about) and I’ve now completely changed my tune. The ever-growing body of research is nothing short of overwhelming, and clearly establishes how critical it is that we integrate this training into therapeutic programs – especially substance use disorder treatment.
No one struggles with drug abuse because they always wanted to be a drug addict. Beneath the (often toxic) behaviors we see and experience in addicts, there are extremely sophisticated and complex mechanisms at work. In general, the most debilitating problems and consequences of addiction stem from a struggle to manage emotions or communicate with others in a healthy, adaptive way. The mind becomes hijacked by negative thoughts and memories, and fighting back can feel like (and usually is) an impossible task. Using mindfulness skills can help us view all emotions (positive and negative) as impermanent in nature – and far less life-threatening than the substances used to cope with those emotions.
Mindfulness exercises are valuable and useful for anyone; you may have seen articles about how they are being used in hospitals to help people manage pain or the side effects of chemotherapy, for example, or in schools to support kids’ ability to pay attention and concentrate in class. So just think of what training can do for adults recovering from substance abuse – who may feel like crawling out of their skin as they withdraw from drugs, can’t bear another minute of their cravings, or worry that they’ll never feel joy again. At Flatirons Recovery Center, mindfulness-based stress reduction techniques (MBSR) will be a core component of your treatment (among other evidence-based practices).
Let’s talk about meditation – just one of the many techniques of MBSR. This term is a tough one for some clients to get on board with; it’s loaded with stereotypes and preconceptions (anyone thinking of a bunch of hippies on a mountaintop chanting “om?” That’s what I was just thinking about!). Meditation can be summed up in one sentence: noticing what is happening while it is happening. That’s it! So while some clients are skeptical of meditation or insist they “can’t do it” (or just outright roll their eyes – don’t worry, we won’t take offense), they almost invariably report that the practice is helpful in managing anxiety, worry, and self-criticism. During the initial stages of training, it may feel awkward or unwieldy to just sit and observe what your mind is doing; that is completely normal and won’t last forever. As you continue practicing, you may even find yourself befriending your mind – no matter how impossible that may seem at first.
There’s many ways to incorporate less formal mindfulness exercises into daily life. I often suggest to clients that they develop a routine that allows them to practice in small doses throughout the day. Maybe this means that while you’re washing the dishes, you’re turning your attention to the direct experience of the process – noticing the sound of the water coming out of the faucet, the sensation of the warm water on your skin, the smell of the dish soap. Just noticing those details and gently guiding your mind back to those details if you start getting caught up in other thoughts. There are apps you can download on your phone that allow you to engage in mindfulness activities while you’re doing practically anything (such as waiting at the bus stop, standing in a long line at the grocery store, or brushing your teeth, for example)…and none of these involve chanting “om!”
These sorts of mindfulness activities, practiced routinely, can help you begin to detach from obsessive or harmful thoughts, and instead maintain some curiosity and a nonjudgmental attitude about those thoughts. You’ll find, for instance, that your cravings or urges are not emergencies, and they will pass. You’ll find yourself feeling more patient with others, as well as yourself. You’ll realize you feel “okay” more than you ever realized…and if you don’t feel “okay,” you’ll realize that that’s okay, too.