You hear a lot about mindfulness these days. The American Psychological Association lists stress reduction, fewer depressive symptoms, and less emotional reactivity among the empirically supported benefits of mindfulness.
Meditation teacher Sylvia Boorstein describes it as “the aware, balanced acceptance of the present experience,” and that is what makes it so valuable as a tool in addiction recovery. No wonder then that mindfulness has been embraced by behavioral health experts across the country.
“Mindfulness involves getting in touch with what’s going on right now,” says Glenn Wheeler, a therapist with Stepping Stone, the sister center of Lakeview Health. “Recovery is done one day at a time, so being able to stay in the moment is crucial for patients.”
“People in recovery cannot afford to get stuck in the past or obsess about the future,” says Glenn Wheeler. “That’s why they need to learn how to be present in the now as quickly as possible.”
At Lakeview, patients can join the Holistic Group to practice mindfulness skills. “It’s an alternative approach to spirituality for people who do not naturally connect with our Christian track program,” says therapist Amanda Swartzlender, who leads mindfulness sessions as a part of the holistic treatment.
“Our patients tend to get caught up in the past, dwelling on feelings of self-loathing and shame,” says Swartzlender. “Mindfulness helps them anchor the mind in the present moment.”
“All too often, painful memories of drug use during active addiction surface in recovery and they don’t have the drugs to numb that pain. Sometimes, patients get stuck mentally, and there is a real danger that they will spend large parts of the day dwelling on their addiction past.”
And if patients are not dwelling in the past, they are worried about the future. “There’s a lot of anxiety about anticipated changes in their lives. They might have to move or get rid of friends, and they will have to deal with sober living.” Swartzlender often asks them, “How much time do you actually spend in the present moment?”
Many people are surprised when they realize that they are constantly outside the present moment. “So the group explores what it is like to be here now. They learn that everything is fine as long as they stay in the present moment.” Contemplating sobriety lasting far into the future is a huge challenge for people in recovery. Using mindfulness to stay present can help put the focus on “just for today,” which is much more manageable. Holistic treatment can enable a person to cope better, heal faster, and be healthier.
For Glenn Wheeler, mindfulness is more than just a coping skill for patients. “It’s the foundation of the recovery program. Recovery is foremost a spiritual journey and mindfulness helps people understand that they are spiritual beings instead of just physical beings.”
How is this achieved? By progressive relaxation and simple exercises. “When patients gather for the final session of the day, they learn to relax the body and do breathing exercises,” explains Wheeler. “Once the body is relaxed, we do exercises to center us in the present.”
Here is an example: once people in the group are relaxed enough, they are requested to ask themselves the simple question, “I wonder what my next thought will be?”
“When most people ask that question, their mind shuts down and they are simply quiet in that moment,” says Wheeler. “It’s an interesting experience for most people, and they can build on that. It is a simple method of getting in touch with the present moment.” Building on this experience by continuing to practice mindfulness and meditation helps people in recovery maintain their spiritual journey after they leave treatment, which will help them stay sober.
Wheeler hears from alumni all the time who tell him that they are continuing with the mindfulness exercises at home and that it has become a big part of their recovery.
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