Addiction is a disease of compulsive mood altering with the aid of drugs or behaviors, which suggests the natural mood state is intensely undesirable—even intolerable. Those suffering from addiction will go to great lengths and take extreme risks, compromising their morals and values to change their internal experience. These actions lead to negative consequences and tremendous guilt and shame—worsening the chronic internal pain.
Upon entering treatment most patients describe intense feelings of guilt, shame, remorse, failure, self-loathing, even self-hatred. They are literally trapped in their own skin with someone they detest and have been fighting to escape. Additionally, those in treatment who hold positions of leadership and power in business, community, clergy, caregivers, etc., generally also struggle with “imposter syndrome”—meaning they feel undeserving and/or inadequate for their position—which intensifies those feelings.
Within the small percentage of those who achieve a state of sobriety, relapse into using behavior is relatively common, and many do not make it back into recovery—the internal pain is just too great and therefore the compulsion to use wins.
Some approaches that work in achieving and sustaining sobriety include group and individual therapy, 12-step programs, sponsorship, meetings, medications and treatment of co-occurring mental illness. These are effective tools for healing the internal pain associated with addiction, but they take time—frequently months and even years. And even then, of those who achieve sobriety, many do not sustain abstinence.
Yoga, Mindfulness, & Meditation
Yoga and meditation have been around for years, but mindfulness is relatively new and has become quite the buzzword—but all three activities are mindful activities that net similar results. There is general consensus among experts that they all aid in the recovery process and healthful living. They are credited with improving states of health in many chronic diseases—physical and mental.
“The neuroscience of mindfulness meditation,” a review of the research published in Nature Reviews/Neuroscience (Tang, Hotzel, & Posner, 2015), defines meditation as “a form of mental training that aims to improve an individual’s core psychological capacities, such as attentional and emotional self-regulation. Meditation encompasses a family of complex practices that include mindfulness meditation, mantra meditation, yoga, tai chi, and chi gong. Of these practices, mindfulness meditation—often described as non-judgmental attention to present-moment experiences—has received most attention in neuroscience research over the past two decades.”
Yoga, mindfulness, and meditation are methods of engaging lovingly with oneself versus the chronic hostile engagement of negative self-talk and criticism that is rampant with active addiction. Addicted thought patterns demonstrate a futile attempt to split off from oneself—an act of disowning the self, yet we all know this is impossible. It creates a very hostile internal environment that propels using.
The National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence, Inc., has stated that “Many people with addiction problems find it very difficult to be present and will commonly ‘act out’ or use [to change their mood state],” and that “Yoga cultivates bodily awareness in a kind, nurturing way. It allows students to start connecting with the body and breath and learn to sit and look within. Compassion for oneself arises and with it, a new ability to deal with stressful situations, leading to positive change.”
Steve Sussman, PhD, a professor of preventative medicine and psychology at University of Southern California was quoted by Jeanene Swanson in an August 2014 article in Alternatives to 12-Step Recovery, Healthy Living, Living Sober saying about meditation, “When done appropriately, it is a discipline of ‘not acting out’—of keeping still and letting thoughts pass, and observing them as they do, and of being in touch with the present moment. Thus through meditation, one can ‘clean out the tapes,’ be better able to tolerate frustration, and become more aware of one’s own thoughts and sensations.”
In a May 2013 American Psychological Association article, Amy Novotney wrote that “…there is a growing body of research documenting yoga’s psychological benefits. Several recent studies suggest that yoga may help strengthen social attachments, reduce stress and relieve anxiety, depression and insomnia. Researchers are also starting to claim some success in using yoga and yoga-based treatments to help active-duty military and veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder.” Novotney quoted Stanford University psychologist and yoga instructor, Kelly McGonigal, PhD, as saying “The evidence is showing that yoga really helps change people at every level.”
In that same article, Novotney quoted Richard Miller, PhD, who developed a yoga treatment program in 2006 for veterans diagnosed with PTSD involving a twice weekly yoga practice. “At the end of the program, participants reported a reduction in insomnia, depression, anxiety and fear, improved interpersonal relations, and an increased sense of control over their lives,” said Miller. Since then, a program called iRest, has “been established at VA facilities in Miami, Chicago and Washington DC and Miller has also helped develop similar programs for veterans, homeless people and those with chemical dependencies and chronic pain. The program teaches them skills they can integrate into their daily lives, so that in the midst of a difficult circumstance, they have the tools to be able to work in the moment.”
The National Institutes of Health (NIH) cited research findings published in the journal, Cerebral Cortex, in May 2013 (“Yoga Practice May Improve Pain Tolerance and Alter Brain Anatomy“) that “yoga practitioners had greater gray matter volume in brain regions related to pain processing, pain regulation, and attention.” In addition, “yoga practitioners had increased white matter integrity within the left insula. Finally, researchers observed that to tolerate pain yoga practitioners used cognitive strategies that are integral parts of yoga practice, such as observing the sensation without reacting, accepting the sensation, using the breath and relaxation while most control participants did not.”
There are endless articles touting the effectiveness of yoga, mindfulness, and meditation for treating and coping with all manner of mental and physical ailments. There are treatment methodologies—Mindfulness-based Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (MBCBT) and Mindfulness-based Relapse Prevention (MBRP)—that have been developed to incorporate these coping skills into existing proven treatment methods.
MBRP author, G. Alan Marlatt, wrote that, “In stark contrast to aversion therapy, which is designed to punish one’s craving responses, mindfulness practice can foster exploration and acceptance of craving and urges. Instead of giving in to the desire for immediate gratification, mindfulness practice provides an opportunity to observe the cresting of the craving wave without getting ‘wiped out’ by it. As one of my clients observed, the words addiction and dictation have the same Latin stem: dicere [‘to impose or give orders with or as with authority’]. She observed, ‘I still think I want to drink a lot when I get depressed, but since I finished the meditation course, I no longer have to be dictated to by my thoughts. I accept them and let them pass.’”
In the Tang, Hotzel, and Posner article in Nature Reviews/Neuroscience (2015), the review shows various positive effects on one’s ability to process negative emotions, including:
- Reduction in emotional interference by unpleasant stimuli;
- Decreased physiological reactivity;
- Facilitated return to emotional baseline after response to a stressor film;
- Decreased self-reported difficulties in emotion regulation.
Yoga, mindfulness and meditation enable the above statement towards others to be applied within oneself.
Early studies show mindfulness training brings about a more positive self-concept, self-esteem, and higher acceptance of oneself. Also, it appears present-moment awareness and self-awareness are improved.
In summary, it is believed and early research indicates that yoga, mindfulness and meditation enable a less judgmental, more accepting attitude toward self, thus enabling a less reactive, more thoughtful and deliberate response to unpleasant stimuli.
This gives those with addiction the ability to experience the discomfort of life without mood altering and manage the day-to-day stressors of life without using/acting out. Over time, therapy, 12-Steps and increased relatedness improve their overall internal experience and quality of life.
Research on mindfulness practice is in its infancy and more is needed. Studies suffer from low methodological quality and interpretations are speculative. “However, there is emerging evidence that mindfulness meditation might cause neuroplastic changes in the structure and function of brain regions involved in regulation of attention, emotion and self-awareness.