In this post, we look at the science behind mindfulness and how this practice can be used as a healthcare treatment for addiction. We will also look at how mindfulness can be used in everyday life to reduce our stress levels and help us to stay present and aware of our mind, body, and emotions.

What is mindfulness?
Are you sitting comfortably in a quiet space? Take a deep breath with your eyes closed. Focus on your breath and how your body feels. Ignore those thoughts flitting into your head as you do this and take another breath. How does this make you feel? This practice is a common way to practice mindfulness and a great way to slow things down in our fast-paced world. 

Mindfulness refers to the practice of being aware, fully present, and engaged in whatever it is you are doing at a given moment. It champions doing things free from distractions and judgment whilst being completely aware of our thoughts and emotions as we do them. Typically, people learn how to practice mindfulness through meditation. However, it can be applied to daily life simply by training the mind to be present, to breathe, and to recognize our feelings and thoughts before reacting to them. 

Mindfulness does not seek to eliminate difficulties in our lives. Instead, it seeks to make us aware of challenging thoughts and feelings that seem to spring out of nowhere when we are faced with a challenging or stressful situation. This is because our mind can be in 3 places at once at any given moment, be that focusing on the past, present or future. Ultimately, mindfulness seeks to make your mind focus more on the present to help overcome unhelpful thoughts and focus on the preciousness of life.

What is the science behind mindfulness and its benefits?
These days, interest in mindfulness has exploded and it has been linked with a range of benefits from weight loss through to improving attention. These wide-ranging claims have led some people to question where the proof is that mindfulness meditation works. However, there are also plenty of studies revealing the benefits of mindfulness backed by science. Indeed, various studies have backed up the effectiveness across a broad spectrum of needs covering both mental and physical afflictions.

One study found that practicing mindfulness could improve the quality of sleep in people suffering difficulties sleeping. A review of 47 clinical trials also found mindfulness meditation could improve quality of life through the reduction of stress. This may be due to the reduced production of cortisol (the stress hormone) mindfulness practice can lead to. A Massachusetts study across 40 years found that people who were better able to control their stress levels through mindfulness practice were more likely to stave off disease and recover from sickness and even surgery.

Perhaps one of the reasons mindfulness can be effective in a number of areas is due to its success at reducing stress levels. When we are stressed our body is less able to properly rest, rejuvenate, and revitalize. This is thanks to the awakening effects practicing mindfulness can have on the parasympathetic nervous system which conserves our energy, slows the heart rate, and relaxes the body.

Mindfulness and addiction
Substance abuse is an affliction affecting more than 24 million Americans. Typically, treatment for substance abuse seeks to control triggers or avoid them to help prevent negative cravings or emotions arising. However, whilst effective for some people, around half of people seeking treatment suffer a relapse of their substance abuse from traditional methods. In response, a group of researchers designed a program known as Mindfulness-Based Relapse Prevention (MBRP). 

Unlikely other substance abuse therapy, MBRP doesn’t seek to prevent people experiencing challenging states of mind completely. Instead, it seeks to make people aware of triggers and give them the mental tools to recognize them and deal with them. When we recognize our feelings or cravings, we can become aware that we are free to respond to them as we wish. We can also be empowered to observe how we think and feel and wait until the cravings or difficult thoughts pass.

A review comparing ‘Treatment As Usual’ (TAU), Relapse Prevention (RP), and MBRP substance-abusers found positive results for MBRP. This study found that MBRP participants were likely to avoid relapse for longer, relapse for shorter periods, and relapse less often than the other methods. The method also compared better with the other methods over time, suggesting the MBRP approach leads to improved longer-term outcomes. 

Mindfulness and Triggers
One of the reasons mindfulness has been successful as a treatment for addiction is due to the fact it helps people manage things that trigger them. As mentioned, mindfulness helps people recognize the gap between a craving and a subsequent behavior. Recognizing this pause, between a craving and an action, creates space for a choice to be made. This works as well for addiction as it does for unhealthy behavior.

Whether you are triggered to reach for the remote, pick up a chocolate bar, or pour out some wine, to practice mindfulness in this moment the key is to notice your desire. Then, take the time to notice your feelings.  Next, consider how your feet feel against the ground, or how heavy your body feels on your chair. These steps help you to slow things down and create the space for you to respond to your emotions, rather than simply react to them.

Mindfulness everyday
As already explored, mindfulness can be beneficial in a range of areas and addiction is just one of these. Indeed, practicing mindfulness every day can help anyone become more in tune with their own emotions and how they relate to their body physically. A common technique to help with this that is used in yoga, meditation, and mindfulness is known as the bodyscan. 

Starting at your toes and working up through your body, you take time to recognize how each part of your body feels. People can become very emotional as they do this. Focusing on the body in this way helps us to understand our own emotional state. However, often people find their emotions feel like they are stored in certain parts of their body. Practice this enough and you can even see which part of your body experiences your anger, your stress, and your joy.

Practicing mindfulness everyday helps it to become a part of who you are. It can be used whenever you need it. Be that driving past a liquor store, putting down the tub of ice-cream, or calming your stress levels before an interview or presentation. Mindfulness can help you evolve emotionally, physically, and in your professional life. Backed by science, mindfulness therapy can work wonders for addiction and behavioural healthcare treatment.