March 28, 2023

Meditation for Addiction Recovery and Substance Abuse Treatment

An image of someone meditating on the beach, showing the importance of mediation for addiction therapy

Meditation for Addiction

Drug addiction and substance abuse are all about escaping from something. The stresses of your life, past traumas, and any number of things. This is why recognizing that pattern and becoming aware of your need to escape is a big part of recovery. Mindfulness and meditation holistic treatment techniques that are all about focusing on yourself and becoming aware of your unconscious thoughts and patterns. Naturally, meditation for addiction recovery can be a hugely useful tool in tackling substance abuse.

What is Meditation?

Meditation, broadly speaking, is the practice of self-awareness. Sometimes referred to as ‘mindfulness’, the specific kind of self-awareness that meditation aims to achieve is an awareness of the here and now. There are many different schools of meditation that span history and the globe. However, all of them share a common goal of heightening their practitioners’ connection with their mind and body. 

The origins of meditation are not precisely known. And that’s largely because it is very, very old. Written evidence of meditation dates back as far as 1500 BCE. Artwork appearing to depict meditation goes back many thousands of years further than that. Seemingly originating in South and East Asia at around the same time, meditation’s earliest practitioners were followers of the Vedic and early Hindu schools as well as the Taoist monks of China.

Benefits of Meditation for Addiction

Despite being practiced for thousands of years, meditation’s benefits have only recently begun to be recognized by modern science. Studies have found that regular meditation can have a range of potential benefits, both mentally and physically. Depression and anxiety can be helped by regular meditation, as can chronic pain and other physical ailments.

Research into the long-term impact of meditation is relatively new, so there is likely lots more to discover. Every year, more studies look into meditation’s effects. We already know that even short daily meditation sessions can help with a number of conditions. Some beneficial effects of meditation are:

Mental Health Benefits of Mediation

  • Reducing stress
  • Limiting anxiety 
  • Mood improvement
  • Alleviating symptoms of depression
  • Enhanced self-awareness 
  • Improved memory
  • Lessen cravings for addictions

Physical Health Benefits of Meditation

  • Reducing stress
  • Limiting anxiety 
  • Mood improvement
  • Alleviating symptoms of depression
  • Enhanced self-awareness 
  • Improved memory
  • Lessen cravings for addictions

How Meditation for Substance Abuse Treatment Can Help

Addiction recovery is one of the intersections of physical and mental health where meditation has been shown to have a huge impact. This may be due to the fact that such a large number of addicts also have co-occurring disorders. Approximately 26% of people with substance use disorders are also diagnosed with some form of anxiety or mood disorder. The effectiveness of meditation in treating and managing anxiety and mood disorders makes it an excellent tool in treating substance abuse. Many grounding techniques for addiction involve meditation-like practices to help people manage withdrawal symptoms.

At the heart of all recovery programs is the goal of rewiring the brain. Replacing old, bad habits with good new ones. Replacing cravings with new hobbies and impulses. Meditation has been proven to be very effective at rewiring neurological pathways. By aiding in the rebuilding of positive neural connections in the brain’s reward center, meditation can be a very effective secondary therapy in treating and alleviating the symptoms of substance abuse and withdrawal.

There is a growing body of research that shows the effectiveness of meditation in addiction recovery. A 2006 study showed that incarcerated individuals who engaged with a meditation program reported using significantly less alcohol, marijuana, cocaine, and crack than those who received only traditional evidence-based treatment.

A more recent 2018 study discovered that mindfulness meditation can be effective in preventing relapse and sharpening awareness of triggers for substance use. Researchers found that this form of meditation may also help those with addictions to generate more positive emotions and contemplate their reasons for sober living.

Here are some ways in which meditation can be especially effective in addiction recovery:

  • Controlling cravings
  • Activating the happiness center of the brain
  • Mitigating withdrawal symptoms
  • Tackling issues underlying addiction

Controlling cravings

Most people with addictions experience intense cravings for drugs or alcohol that can feel so overwhelming that they continue using the substance. Meditation can be an effective means of training your brain to observe cravings coming and going without attachment instead of trying to avoid, ignore, or suppress cravings. The more you are able to control your desires by practicing detachment in meditation, the less power cravings will have when they strike.

If you are addicted to a substance and you satisfy your craving by using the substance, this triggers the release of high amounts of dopamine in certain areas of the brain. Dopamine is a chemical messenger associated with positive mood. As the effects of the substance start to wear off, so dopamine levels fall, prompting a vicious cycle as the brain demands more dopamine. Research shows that meditation may help regulate the production of dopamine. Participants in a 2002 study experienced a 65% boost in dopamine levels while meditating, with levels remaining optimal even outside of meditation.

Activating the happiness center of the brain

If you ingest addictive substances, this stimulates the happiness center of the brain – the pre-frontal cortex. This area of your brain triggers feelings of happiness, joy, and satisfaction. During periods of drug or alcohol withdrawal, this area of your brain abruptly becomes under-active. This crash often prompts feelings of shame and guilt, as well as episodes of depression and anxiety.

Research suggests that meditation may induce a natural high, promoting activity in the happiness center of the brain. Meditation is believed to increase cortical thickness and neural density with sustained practice. Over time, you can train your brain not to require addictive substances.

Mitigating withdrawal symptoms

If you are dependent on an addictive substance, you will experience an array of unpleasant side effects during the detox phase of recovery. Withdrawal symptoms can be so aggravating that they trigger relapse.

Many studies indicate that meditation may be beneficial during drug or alcohol detox by promoting emotion regulation and decision making and moving your body away from a stress-based fight or flight response.

Additionally, meditation causes the release of endorphins, chemicals in the brain that work as natural painkillers by prompting a euphoric high.

Tackling issues underlying addiction

Meditation can help you to change negative and destructive patterns of behavior like substance abuse. The more you practice meditation, the more you will become mindful of your thoughts and actions, and the more confident you will feel of avoiding automatic behaviors.

What Types of Meditation Are Effective for Addiction Recovery?

The type of meditation that works best for you in your addiction recovery will depend on your personal preferences. Those who enjoy being active may like to try moving meditation, while focused meditation may be beneficial for those looking to improve focus.

Most forms of meditation have three core components that are central to their effectiveness:

Awareness of and attention to the present moment by detaching from thoughts of the past and future and allowing you to reconnect with your body and the world around you.

Focus balanced with relaxation to promote fresh insights.

Non-judgmental attitude toward yourself and others to improve clarity and compassion.

These are some of the most common types of meditation for addiction recovery:

  • Mindfulness Meditation
  • Breathing Meditation
  • Focused Meditation
  • Guided Meditation
  • Moving Meditation
  • Spiritual Meditation
  • Mantra Meditation

Mindfulness Meditation

All types of meditation involve being mindful of the present moment, but mindfulness meditation focuses entirely on this concept. In this form of meditation, you work to build your awareness of what is happening right now in your life. Through mindfulness meditation, you will examine your feelings, thoughts, and experiences with detachment and without labeling them. As you breathe deeply, you will allow any thoughts or sensations to pass with detachment – more on mindfulness meditation below.

Breathing Meditation

The goal of breathing of meditation is calm the mind while developing inner peace. You close your eyes and sit in a comfortable position and then focus on your breath as you inhale and exhale. Keep breathing slowly and deeply. Relax your muscles. If your mind wanders to the past or future, refocus on your breathing to return yourself to the present moment.

Focused Meditation

During focused meditation sessions, you will use one of your five senses as the focal point of meditation. If your mind drifts during the meditation, return your focus to the chosen sense.

Guided Meditation

A trained facilitator leads a guided meditation using a visualization exercise. As you sit in a comfortable position, close your eyes and take some deep and relaxing breaths. The facilitator will then take you through a visualization scenario and you will use your imagination to bring about states like peace, happiness, growth, or connection.

Moving Meditation

Moving meditation involves gardening, walking on the beach, or similar gentle movements. You will focus on steady and purposeful movement, while at the same time being present and aware of your physical experience.

Spiritual Meditation

In spiritual meditation, you will use silence as your connection with the universe or God. This type of meditation often involves essential oils to intensify the the experience.

Mantra Meditation

Mantra meditation involves selecting a word or phrase and repeating it. This serves as a substitute to focusing on your breathing.

Focus Your Thoughts and Breathing

an infographic created by Gratitude Lodge detailing how to meditate

Meditation takes practice, but it’s free and accessible to anyone who tries it. Below is an example of mindfulness meditation. Mindfulness meditation is a way to meditate anywhere, at any time, without needing any equipment.

  • Find a quiet place where you can sit or lie down and think without interruption. This can be on your bed, in the sun in the park, or in your backyard.
  • Close your eyes and breathe naturally. 
  • Focus on your breath and the calamity of your body.
  • Observe your thoughts and let them pass by without judgment. This way, you can see patterns in your thoughts and feelings.
  • Clear your mind of any thoughts. 
  • If you have a thought, let it pass by like a cloud.
  • If you hear a noise during your meditation, acknowledge it, and let the thought of it go.
  • Focus on the new space freed up in your mind that was once taken up by thoughts.

After this, you’ll feel mental clarity. If you aren’t able to let certain thoughts go, that’s perfectly natural for beginners and you can work your way up to it each time you meditate.

In addition to mindfulness meditation, you can also try other meditation, such as concentration meditation, which involves focusing on a certain object such as candlelight, and immediately redirecting your attention to the object when you catch your thoughts drifting.

There are also free apps that provide narration for guided meditation to help you focus through the process. The narration of a yoga instructor can also help improve your mindfulness, and you can practice mindfulness meditation in the final resting pose of the class.

The Role of Mindfulness Activities In Addiction Recovery

In practicing mindfulness, you not only becomes more aware of what is happening around you, but  you will also pay closer attention to how you feel about and how you react to external circumstances. Practicing mindfulness can help you to retain peacefulness no matter what is happening around you. This can be vital during recovery from addiction.

There is only so much that you can control, and having the knowledge and tools to be able to choose how to react to situations beyond your control can help keep you on the track to recovery.

In studying mindfulness and addiction, researchers published findings of their clinical trial in JAMA (Journal of the American Medical Association).  Participants were separated into three groups for the study:

With check-ups at 6 months and 12 months, researchers found that when compared to study participants who received only “Treatment As Usual” or “Relapse Prevention”, those who participated in the “Mindfulness-Based Relapse Prevention” fared better. Those in the combined program experienced fewer days with alcohol as well as substance abuse.

Meditation In Recovery: Get Started Now

While in recovery, you should certainly seek out all opportunities for healing and restoration. Speak with your doctor or recovery team about adding meditation to your treatment plan. There are many different methods of meditation, and it might take time to find what works best for you. It never hurts to get started, though, and some things you can do right now are:

  • Downloading a free meditation app
  • Take a relaxing walk and focus on yourself, your posture, your breathing, etc.
  • Sign up for a meditation class
  • Think positively
  • Pay attention to your body and the sensations you are experiencing
  • Concentrate on the good things
  • Breathe deeply

Put Your Mind at Ease with Gratitude Lodge

In conclusion, meditation has been practiced since ancient history for a reason. It has substantial benefits when practiced short-term and long-term. When you practice meditation and mindfulness while on the road to recovery, you can help your body and your mind defend itself against anxiety, depression, withdrawal symptoms, and cravings.

When you incorporate meditation as a long-term habit in your aftercare, you will help your brain improve memory, control emotional responses, and rebuild connections in the reward center that have been damaged by drug abuse. Best of all, you can get the benefits of meditation anywhere and at any time.

Life-Focused, Holistic Recovery

At our holistic recovery centers in Orange County, we pride ourselves on offering holistic recovery resources including meditation. Learn more about Gratitude Lodge today. 

Meditation for Addiction FAQs

Does meditation work for addiction?

Yes, research shows that meditation can be an effective component of a comprehensive addiction treatment program. Meditation may help you discover how to manage difficult emotions and reduce stress more effectively, both common triggers for addictive behaviors.

Many studies indicate that mindfulness meditation – a specific type of meditation – that focuses on awareness of the present moment may help reduce cravings for drugs and alcohol. Mindfulness-based interventions like mindfulness meditation have been proven effective for reducing relapse rates in those with substance use disorders (addictions).

What is the role of meditation in addiction recovery?

Meditation can play a significant role in addiction recovery by helping you develop greater self-awareness, manage stress and anxiety, and cultivate a greater sense of inner peace and well-being. Addiction is often rooted in deep-seated emotional pain or trauma, and meditation can help individuals confront and process these underlying issues. Through regular practice, meditation can help you develop greater mindfulness – the ability to be fully present and aware of your thoughts and feelings in the present moment. This increased awareness can help you recognize the triggers that contribute to your addictive behaviors, and can also help you develop healthier coping mechanisms.

How does meditation fight addiction?

Meditation can be a valuable tool in the fight against addiction by promoting greater self-awareness, emotional regulation, and stress reduction. Regular meditation practice helps individuals recognize their cravings and triggers without immediately acting on them, allowing them to develop healthier coping mechanisms. Additionally, meditation fosters a sense of inner calm and balance, reducing the need for external substances to escape from emotional distress, ultimately supporting individuals in their journey towards recovery and sobriety.

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Joe Gilmore

Joseph Gilmore

Joseph Gilmore has been working in the addiction industry for half a decade and has been writing about addiction and substance abuse treatment during that time. He has experience working for facilities all across the country. Connect with Joe on LinkedIn.
Jenni Bussi

Jenni Busse MS, LPCC

Jenni Busse MS, LPSS is the Clinical Director at Gratitude Lodge. Jenni oversees the clinical program and the clinical team at Gratitude Lodge as a whole. Jenni has worked in treatment for almost 14 years. Her background as a licensed therapist and her passion for helping others intersected with addiction recovery when she started working primarily in detox residential treatment.

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