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Working in a residential treatment program for behavioral addiction, meditation is an important part of daily programming. Despite meditation having powerful benefits for persons with an addiction, it is an area of programming clients often have difficulty getting into.
Many clients also underestimate the power of meditation, compared to other facets of addiction treatment. Meditation’s recent growth in popularity is more than merely a personal development trend, as researchers discover its surprising neurobiological benefit.
So what are the benefits of meditation for addiction?
Meditation can reduce symptoms of depression, anxiety, and improve emotional regulation, leading to improved coping skills for persons with addiction. This allows for increased behavioral control and spiritual development.
Let’s take a look at the science supporting the benefits of meditation for addiction treatment, then I will share an inspirational recovery story to illustrate the transformational power of meditation.
Table of Contents
What is Meditation?
Meditation often congers up images of eastern mystics basking in sublime ecstasy while dwelling in solitude for years on end.
This is not what meditation looks like in the real world.
Although the practice was developed in eastern spiritual traditions, the field of psychology recently adopted secular versions of the practice. This means meditation can now be approached as simply a form of mental exercise. Like going to the gym, you don’t need to pledge allegiance to any particular faith tradition.
One of the most prominent figures who popularized a secular version of meditation is Jon Kabat-Zinn, a biomedical researcher, and founder of Mindfulness-based stress reduction. He defines mindfulness as the following:
“…awareness that arises through paying attention, on purpose, in the present moment, non-judgementally.”
So much of our daily lives are filled with operating on autopilot, inattention to the present, and judgment.
“What if I’m not good enough? What do they think of me? What if I didn’t do that report properly? What if I fail this class and don’t graduate on time? Am I a failure?”
These thoughts keep us trapped in our heads, mentally replaying catastrophic scenarios. This way of operating spikes cortisol, leaving you feeling stressed and anxious. As a result, many people turn to alcohol, substances, or addictive behaviors to escape the underlying tension.
Meditation is simply a mental exercise applying mindfulness, mantras, or focus on a particular emotion or intention. This psychological exercise builds mental resilience, leading to better coping strategies.
For the purpose of this article, I am generally referring to mindfulness, as defined above by Jon Kabat-Zinn.
Science on the Benefits of Meditation
In a meta-analysis on The Psychological Effects of Meditation, the researchers found meditation may serve two different purposes:
“…as a means for psychotherapy or/and for personal and spiritual advancement. Yet the boundary between these two purposes is not clear-cut, and we feel that it is perfectly all right to use meditation whenever it might have benefits.”
In addiction treatment, the psychological and spiritual realms are often interlaced, given the addiction field’s spiritual roots in 12-step programming. This does not mean one has to adopt any particular perspective; instead, the focus is on emphasizing whatever works for an individual.
A systematic review and meta-analysis on Meditation Programs for Psychological Stress and Well-being, published in the Journal of the American Medical Association found:
“…meditation programs can reduce the negative dimensions of psychological stress. Mindfulness meditation programs, in particular, show small improvements in anxiety, depression, and pain with moderate evidence and small improvements in stress/distress and the mental health component of health-related quality of life….”
Despite the power of meditation, only 58% of treatment centers in a U.S. national sample used meditation as part of treatment for substance use. This compares to 91% of programs endorsing a twelve-step orientation. Although both can be effective, especially if combined, the power of meditation has yet to be fully recognized.
How Does Meditation Work for Addiction?
According to a study looking at The Role of Meditation in Addiction Recovery:
“…incorporating meditation into the lifestyle of individuals recovering from addiction provides a consistent means of preparing for inevitable, addiction‐related life challenges and a coping skill that can help maintain equilibrium in living with ever‐present peril.”
Meditation is one of many useful tools for persons in recovery, helping a person maintain a sense of control when faced with difficult thoughts or emotions.
One key area impacted by meditation is emotional regulation. Meditation strengthens parts of the brain associated with emotional control, allowing someone to respond to situations thoughtfully rather than simply reacting.
In a study titled, Mindfulness meditation improves emotion regulation and reduces drug abuse, the researchers analyzed the impact of a mindfulness practice called integrative body-mind training (IBMT). After only five days of practice, they found significant changes in the brain and hormonal activity among participants. They state:
“…short-term IBMT can significantly reduce craving (Tang et al., 2013). These results lead us to speculate that the increased ACC activity (related to self-control) suppressed craving even without the participants’ conscious intention. There are several routes through which mindfulness could influence addiction. IBMT reduced the amount and duration of cortisol to a stressful challenge (Tang et al., 2007), which may work to reduce addiction. Another possible explanation is based on the finding that mindfulness practice leads to a non-judgmental stance (awareness and acceptance) regarding addiction, which could reduce negative emotion, conflict, and stress, and thus lead to reduced smoking.”
Comparing the brains of smokers and non-smokers, the study goes on to show that the smokers had deficits in the pre-frontal cortex—the area of the brain associated with self-control. After the five days of mindfulness training, these deficits were improved. The study concluded that mindfulness is useful for both addiction treatment, as well as prevention.
An Inspirational Story of Recovery
To illustrate what the science of meditation means in human terms, I thought it would be helpful to share the experience of Jillian Leonard.
Experimenting with various substances since she was 14, Jillian spent roughly a decade trapped in the chaos of addiction. She developed addictions to opioids (morphine, Percocet, and oxycodone) anxiety medications (Ativan and Clonazepam), and stimulants (cocaine, ecstasy, and speed).
At the height of her addiction to speed, she states:
“I was taking 7 or 8 pills per day most days, awake typically 3 to 4 days straight, working full time and eating and drinking almost nothing.”
She was eventually hospitalized for psychosis and was at a crossroads. After being discharged from the hospital, she was left with no direction on how to cope with all of the racing thoughts about what she had just been through.
“The memories of the psychosis were at the forefront of every thought that I was having. I figured that maybe if I listened to calming music at night while I slept, it would be comforting enough to ease the anxiety and fear that I was experiencing. I began by searching YouTube for meditation music and found several that would play for 8 hours straight. For about two weeks I played them every night while I slept, and started noticing a drastic positive switch concerning my thought patterns. I was feeling calmer throughout the day. At that point I did my first sit down guided meditation and immediately was able to drop into a deep meditative state with periods of calm, peace, and bliss throughout the day afterward. Those peaceful states, brought on by the meditations, almost completely override the desire to cover up any negative emotions that I may be having with a substance.”
Her meditation practice did not take away the struggles that came with recovery. Instead, it made life easier to manage when those struggles were present. A major part of these struggles was the low self-esteem caused by severe bullying in middle school. Using substances became a way to escape the mental pain.
Her meditation practice started her on a spiritual journey, changing her perspective on the bullying she experienced and its impact on her self-esteem. She states:
“Throughout my spiritual journey, I have developed the belief that polarity in life experiences is there as a teacher. Without the negative experiences we are not able to fully appreciate the positive ones as much as we could. By having negative experiences with bullying, I am now able to appreciate the positive mental states I achieve by practicing meditation and mindfulness.”
Beyond appreciating the contrast of these positive mental states, meditation allowed her to gain distance from her negative thoughts and painful emotions, rather than identifying with them when they come up. Jillian states:
“It’s being able to view my past experiences through a state of observation as opposed to being immersed in the negative emotions caused by the memories. I am now able to have the negative memories of that time come up and not be sucked in by the emotions that typically come from the memories. As a result of these changes of perspective, I can now cope with low self-esteem issues by not identifying myself with them anymore. The thoughts and emotions of low self-esteem will still come up but I am able to separate from them.”
Meditation does not erase negative thoughts or stop painful emotions. Instead, it allows you to observe them, accept their existence, and keep living your life.
Like clouds in the sky, negative thoughts might roll in, but ultimately, you cannot control the clouds. You can notice them, but it is ultimately your decision to turn your attention to other things. Watching the clouds all day won’t change the weather. Instead, you can acknowledge they are there and focus on other things that matter, knowing the clouds will eventually part. Regarding her negative thoughts, Jillian states:
“I observe them, accept they are happening, and I do not attach my identity to them because I understand I am not my thoughts. Had I not developed the tools to distance myself from my thoughts, I am not sure I would be on the path I’m on today.”
Throughout her recovery, her perspective changed from being inwardly focused on medicating her low self-esteem to being outwardly focused on the impact of her behavior on others:
“My focus changed by elevated states of empathy brought on by meditation and learning about spirituality. I started to understand that my behaviors have a ripple effect onto others, whether I see it or not. I started to view other people through a lens of empathy and connection, considering their own personal states as opposed to being absorbed in my own. The way that it happened was by looking internally and asking myself if my own self-focus was the type of energy that I wanted to put out in the world or not. I then decided—emphasis on it being a decision—that I would rather live my life in a state of giving and understanding rather than self-centeredness.”
She attributes her ability to make this decision to the new perspective offered by meditation. Identifying with troubling thoughts keeps you trapped in negative, self-focused thought patterns. Jillian states:
“Once we start to observe instead of immerse, we start to see that we are not the identity of the thoughts, therefore, making it less of a challenge to create new thought patterns, such as the ability to identify whether or not we are in a state of self-focus or a state of empathy.”
Regarding the role of the ego, Jillian states:
“I feel like the ego has its place, but is the enemy when it runs the show. By bypassing the ego in any given situation and instead communicating from a place of love, authenticity, and empathy, that is how I believe the ego can be pushed aside and contained. Once the ego is running things, that is when it becomes the enemy and a person might find themselves in lower states of consciousness such as fear, guilt, and lack.”
Jillian began her meditation practice without any formal training, as an attempt to relax before bed. Throughout her journey, she discovered some helpful resources for persons interested in starting their own meditation practice:
“I find myself using guided meditations that are facilitated by a great practitioner named Lilian Eden. She has a YouTube channel with a wide variety of meditations geared towards different areas such as stress coping, sleep aid, sound healing, connection with spirit, the list goes on. I also use an app called Insight Timer. The app is full of meditations for whatever areas in life you might want to focus on. I attend sound healing group meditations occasionally and they are great for getting out of your own space and connecting with others while meditating in a group setting. I also recommend picking up books on spirituality. They can help a person understand the why question as to whether someone should start a meditation practice or not.”
If you are still skeptical about meditation, or have tried it and didn’t notice any results, Jillian has some words of encouragement:
“If a person is starting a meditation practice and finds themselves wondering why they are doing it and if there is actually any benefit, I can personally assure that there is. It takes time and practice but what you will eventually get from it is invaluable if you allow yourself to work on it.”
Jillian attributes all of her addiction recovery to meditation. She states that after leaving the hospital, she never took medication and never sought counseling:
“It has been the number one key for me personally… everything else followed.”
If you want to reach out to Jillian, you can connect with her on Facebook, here.
Interested in Learning More?
If you are interested in learning more about how to apply mindfulness training to your own recovery, I offer practical exercises in my article on How to Stop Living in Your Head.
My approach to mindfulness is based on the psychological principles of Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT), supported by over 330 clinical trials.
To read more of my writing on addiction, visit my Addiction and Recovery article page.