Mindfulness in Recovery: How it Helps & Getting Started

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Have you ever stopped just to watch a sunset? Or stared for a few minutes at the ocean? Perhaps you caught shades of colors, the breeze in the air, and had a few moments of just being aware of yourself and the world.

This type of noticing, of being in the moment, is called mindfulness. While it comes easier for many during a serene moment in nature, we can actually practice it at any time, in any location.

Awareness of the moment can be a peaceful experience, but that’s not the only reason to practice it. Mindfulness and addiction recovery go hand in hand. Studies show that mindful recovery helps with thoughts, emotions, and cravings related to alcohol.

In fact, regularly practicing mindfulness actually changes your brain structure. MRI tests show that the brain not only changes during the mindfulness practice itself, but in everyday life as well. Mindfulness can make recovery easier, and life more enjoyable.

Practice the Basics

woman with her eyes shut, being present in the moment
Photo by Eli DeFaria on Unsplash

Perhaps the most difficult part of practicing mindfulness is simply understanding the process. Once that step clicks, it becomes more clear.

John Kabat-Zinn, one of the world’s most respected experts, uses a specific definition when describing this practice: “Mindfulness means paying attention, in a particular way, on purpose, in the present moment, without judgment.”

If you did nothing more than simply practice a bit of mindfulness each day, you would experience the benefits. More studies are needed to determine the optimum amount of mindfulness practice, but many experts compare it to exercise. A lot is great, but a little is better than none.

To get started, pick a simple activity or object to notice. For example, while taking a shower, use all of your senses. Bring your focus to the sounds, texture, smell, and feel of the shower. As your mind wanders, which everyone experiences, bring your attention back to the water.

You could also practice while putting on lotion, taking a walk, or listening to music. Become aware of your senses, and notice the feelings and sensations that are present. If other thoughts come up, notice that as well, and then come back to the moment.

If you struggle with the overall concept, try following a video or mindfulness app. These will walk you through the basic steps.

Once you get a sense of the basics of mindfulness, you can experiment with some of the more formal methods to see if these are helpful. Studies show that most of the well-known approaches work, but that each has specific strengths. Depending on your needs, different types of meditation may work better for you.

Here’s a look at some of the most common forms of meditation and mindfulness.

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Mindfulness Meditations

Mindfulness meditations are specific practices, sometimes including a particular script or set of instructions to direct you. Here are a few popular examples:

Body Scan

In a body scan, you move through each muscle group, often starting with your feet. Start by bringing your attention to your toes, noticing how they feel. Stay with that sensation for a moment, and then move to your heels. Continue up your legs, and complete each muscle group until you end at the top of your head. The body scan is helpful overall, but may help specifically with discomfort or pain.

Often we try to turn our attention away from physical pain or uncomfortable emotions. But in many cases this can make such problems worse over time, rather than curing them. By noticing, rather than distracting, you teach your brain to interpret this information differently. And, you learn that you can tolerate even the most uncomfortable experiences.

Breathing Mindfulness

woman overlooking the city, taking a moment to be mindful
Photo by Jeffery Erhunse on Unsplash

Breathing mindfulness is just like it sounds—noticing your breath. You don’t try to change your breathing, but rather become aware of it. Notice how it moves in through your nose or mouth, into your lungs, and out again.

Mindfulness of the breath is convenient since it’s always present, and can be practiced anytime. It’s one of the most common types of meditation used throughout the world, and in most types of meditation and mindfulness groups.

Loving Kindness Meditation

In the loving kindness practice, meditators practice sending positive thoughts to themselves and others. Many find this practice particularly meaningful, and it’s actually shown to make people more compassionate and empathetic with others. Most people follow a specific script, although outlines vary: many cultures around the world have their own version of this practice.

Observing-Thought Meditation

This type of meditation involves a helpful process: becoming aware of our thoughts. Many people don’t realize that thoughts are simply reactions in our brain. They don’t always reflect facts about a situation, what we actually believe, or anything that’s necessarily important.

By practicing noticing our thoughts, rather than being consumed by them, we can defuse strong emotions relating to them. For example, if you notice yourself getting upset and wonder why, you are experiencing a moment of observing your thoughts. Practicing this regularly can help you calm your mind, emotions, and reactions.

Leaves on a Stream

The leaves on a stream technique is a type of observing thoughts meditation, but includes a visualization aspect. It’s often used as part of acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT). In this practice, you imagine that you are at a gently flowing stream. As a thought arises in your mind, you imagine removing the thought from your brain and placing it on a leaf. You then watch the thought flow down the stream.

As you continue the meditation, you practice with each thought that enters your brain. This allows you to separate your experience from your thoughts, and realize that you aren’t tied to a thought just because it crosses your mind.

Daily Mindfulness

woman practicing mindfulness while taking a walk
Photo by Amadeo Valar on Unsplash

While there are many structured and specific mindfulness practices, you don’t have to limit yourself to these. Simply noticing your day to day experiences, good or bad, can give you the same benefits. Here are some ideas to get you started:

  • Take a mindful walk. Walk down a nature trail, or even a city sidewalk. Notice what colors you see, what sounds you hear, and how your feet feel on the ground. If a loud or annoying sound interrupts you, just notice that as well. If your mind wanders, notice that and come back to the moment.
  • Listen to instrumental music. Sit with your chosen music and listen for the sounds of the instruments. Notice what you hear, as well as how your body feels physically. Notice any emotions that come up. Don’t try to change any feeling—simply become aware of it.
  • Notice difficult emotions. Many who struggle in recovery aren’t sure how to deal with overwhelming emotions. Sometimes mindfulness can help. Rather than trying to push away the feelings, simply notice them. Ride the wave, and notice as the feeling gets stronger or fades. Just becoming aware of it can lessen its intensity.
  • Play with your children, staying in the moment. Ever notice how kids can get caught up in a game or toy, and seem focused on nothing else? They are natural at simply being in the moment. Practice simply playing with them, with a toy, during a game, or on a playground. Find joy by simply being with them.
  • Have a mindful meal. Prepare a meal you particularly enjoy, with rich tastes and smells. Rather than eating quickly, or even at a regular pace, slow things down. Take a moment between each bite, and simply notice the textures, smells, and sensations. This can also be helpful if you tend to overeat or eat too quickly.

Create Your Own Rituals

One of the fun parts of mindfulness is that there are endless possibilities. Perhaps you enjoy physical sensations, music, or being outside. You can create your own mindfulness practices that center around the activities you find most peaceful. As you regularly practice mindfulness with pleasant experiences, it will be easier to use it during difficult moments. Both are helpful.

Mindfulness may seem too simple to actually help with addiction. However, many experts believe mindfulness in substance abuse treatment has been the missing ingredient. Ongoing research will help us get a better understanding of how and why. Meanwhile, you can practice staying in the here and now.

In alcohol abuse recovery, mindfulness can help you deal with cravings, decrease stress, and increase happiness. At Ria, our online coaching team can help you develop mindfulness practices to control drinking urges, and overcome negative thought patterns linked to alcohol use. We also offer anti-craving medications, expert medical support, digital tools, and more—all from your smartphone.

Get in touch with a team member today, or learn more about how it works.

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Written By:
Jennie Lannette, LCSW
Licensed therapist, writer, and published author, with a focus on trauma recovery.
Reviewed By:
Evan O'Donnell
Evan O’Donnell is an NYC-based content strategist with four years’ experience writing and editing in the recovery space. He has conducted research in sound, cognition, and community building, has a background in independent music marketing, and continues to work as a composer. Evan is a deep believer in fact-based, empathic communication—within business, arts, academia, or any space where words drive action or change lives.
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