Mindfulness In Substance Abuse Recovery - Rehab Guide

Mindfulness In Substance Abuse Recovery

What is mindfulness?

The meaning of mindfulness is essentially the practice of living in the present moment and learning how to deal with and manage any intrusive negative thoughts that tend to dominate our minds over and over again.

Thoughts are so powerful and tend to strongly influence our feelings, so much so that even a small break from the cycle of cognitive despair that many people experience can be vital in helping them achieve instant relief and calmness.

The term mindfulness has undoubtedly entered the public consciousness to a large degree over the last ten years. You may have heard the term and wondered what it means and why it is so significant. This article will explain what mindfulness is, why it is important, how you can use it to enhance your recovery, and how it can help you attain and maintain a healthy state of mind.

Many drug and alcohol rehabs have recognised the benefits of this easy to access practice and implement its teachings as part of their rehabilitation programme.

Origins of mindfulness

The idea of mindfulness is a key feature of ancient Buddhist practice. Still, it first entered the area of healthcare in the United States during the 1970s, when an American doctor named Jon Kabat-Zinn noticed how it seemed to help patients who were ill, in pain and distressed. It has gradually developed into a highly recommended therapeutic intervention for many psychological and physiological problems, including addiction treatment. It has a significant and growing amount of scientific evidence to back up its therapeutic claims.


Being in the present moment gives us something else to focus on besides our profound internal thoughts, which frequently have a dramatic and negative effect on how we feel.

Being mindful enables us to break out from our normal level of consciousness, which contains a lot of unconscious, automatic behaviour which can be very detrimental to our wellbeing.

An important aspect of being mindful is changing your relationship with your thoughts, which will primarily always arise in our minds. We have no control over what enters our minds, but we can control what we do with it. Being mindful will enable us to accept our thoughts for what they are without judging them.

Thoughts are just thoughts, and they have no relevance or power unless we put conscious effort or action into them.

Being aware of our thoughts and accepting them for what they are is a key part of mindfulness.

How can I be more mindful?

Initially, you can try being mindful by just paying attention to your immediate surroundings, only to switch your focus away from your mind and thoughts. You can achieve this by walking and listening out for various sounds, smells and sights. There are many noises out in the environment that we never seem to notice. Just paying attention and having conscious awareness of these possible and straightforward things is sufficient to give your mind a break. For example, listening out for birds singing or leaves blowing in the wind. Even just concentrating and becoming aware of your own breathing is a positive step towards becoming more mindful.

Engaging in meditation is probably the most obvious way to become more mindful of what people are familiar with. This takes time and practice, although there are a growing number of meditation and mindfulness courses currently springing up as people have become more aware of its benefits.

Mindfulness classes are led by experienced teachers who help guide you in your quest to become more mindful. Attending such courses also gives people the bonus of meeting new people, building connections with like-minded others, and speaking to them about their experiences; this can also improve your understanding of mindfulness and achieving positive mental health.

There is now also a vast amount of literature in books, mindfulness music and online sources that offer suggestions on how to be mindful and provide mindfulness-based programmes, and mindfulness exercises, covering a series of weeks if not months. The exercises these books recommend include mindful eating, the experience of having a shower, and more basic body scanning and mindfulness breathing exercises. All of which will enable you to increase your awareness of yourself and your surroundings.

These activities help us gain the potential to manage our relationships with negative thoughts by enabling us to develop conscious awareness of many aspects of our environment and our own internal state. When we are engaging in these activities, the impact our NATs (negative automatic thoughts) have on us is significantly reduced, and we can achieve a more peaceful mindset.

There are many ways of being more mindful, and we would encourage anyone to take time and do plenty of research to find a way of being mindful that is preferable to you.

The science on how mindfulness benefits brain recovery

Due to sophisticated modern technology, such as MRI scans, researchers can utilise techniques to analyse brain images which can provide evidence into the effectiveness of mindfulness and its benefits to the brain.

It has been found that participating in mindfulness can lead to an increase inactivation of the anterior cortex area of the brain. This area is known to be associated with positive emotions and tends to be underactive in people who are depressed. This is particularly relevant to those that suffer from addiction, as addiction is characterised by a negative mindset and obsessive, overwhelming thoughts.

Research has also revealed that being mindful leads to the grey matter in the amygdala area of the brain becoming smaller after being mindful for a significant period of time. This is significant as the amygdala plays an integral part in influencing our emotional behaviour.

Mindfulness has been proven to be beneficial in many areas of our well-being.

Being consistently mindful and meditating regularly leads to positive physical changes in areas of the brain (the Hippocampus) responsible for concentration, memory, creativity and learning. This means you will be better equipped to get involved in other activities as part of your recovery, such as enrolling in a new course or taking up a new hobby (cooking or learning to play a musical instrument). Many studies have also found that mindfulness decreases various negative emotions such as stress, anger, anxiety and depression.

The benefits of mindfulness in recovery from addiction


Mindfulness can hugely benefit those in recovery from alcoholism and drug addiction, not only on a psychological level but also on a physical, social, educational and spiritual level. Mindfulness enables us to deal with and accept the nature of negative and intrusive thoughts, so they have less of an impact on how we feel.

Being mindful enables us to stand back from thought, assess if it is helpful to our wellbeing and recovery, and then decide whether or not to act on it or disregard it. This is particularly beneficial in overcoming the compulsive aspect of addiction.

Mindfulness has also been proven to show the following additional benefits to those in recovery:

  • Mindfulness can help to repair the damage caused by active addiction to our brain on a cellular level. Alcoholism and drug addiction are known to destroy grey matter, cells and tissue in the brain.
  • Mindfulness teaches us discipline and healthy behaviours. Addiction, in contrast, lends to chaos and unhealthy destructive behaviours.
  • Mindfulness places our thinking on a calmer, healthier and more rational plane. This puts us in a stronger place to engage in recovery daily and take up new activities and learning that enhance our overall wellbeing.
  • Mindfulness enables us to rationalise and disregard anxious thoughts so that we are better able to engage socially.
  • Mindfulness provides us with an awareness of how we genuinely feel and enables us to learn healthy coping strategies and therefore grow from our mistakes by seeing them as our teachers
  • Mindfulness provides us with a different perspective on ourselves, our relationships, our recovery, and life in general.

Who benefits?

Anyone can benefit from mindfulness, and you do not necessarily need to be in recovery from addiction to reap its benefits. Mindfulness can be a simple, useful tool to have at your disposal, one that you can use whenever the need arises. You can also use mindfulness as part of a daily recovery schedule.

Let’s face it; daily life can be stressful for anyone these days; our minds can be cluttered with negative and fearful thoughts that gravely affect our mood and productivity. This simple, free, none medicinal, yet evidence-based treatment therapy is available for everyone and anyone to access.

The more you practice being mindful, the more beneficial it will be for your mental health, and it does take time to see the full benefits. Science has proven that our brains can habitually implement any behaviour we practice frequently for eight consecutive weeks. So what may well take a concerted effort to start with can soon become a natural part of your daily routine.

If you are struggling with obsessive and intrusive thoughts, mindfulness is certainly worth a try. The beauty of this self-implemented therapy is that it does not conflict with medication or other treatments; it only enhances your wellbeing. Practised regularly, this particular tool can really help solidify your ongoing recovery.


  1. Joshi, M. (2017) How Mindfulness Affects the Brain.
  2. https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/14096.Wherever_You_Go_There_You_Are
  3. Marlatt, G.A., Witkiewitz, K., Dillworth, T.M., Bowen, S.W., Parks, G.A., Macpherson, L.M., Lonczak, H.S., Larimer, M.E., Simpson, T., Blume, A.W. & Crutcher, R. (2004) Vipassana Meditation as a Treatment for Alcohol and Drug Use Disorders in Hayes, S.C., Follette, V.M. & Linehan, M.M. (ed) Mindfulness and Acceptance: Expanding the Cognitive-Behavioural Tradition. London. The Guildford Press. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3045038/
  4. Melbourne Academic Mindfulness Interest Group (2006) Mindfulness-Based Psychotherapies; A Review of Conceptual Foundations, Empirical Evidence and Practical Considerations. Australian and New Zealand Journal of Psychiatry 40. pp285-294
  5. Sinclair, M. & Seydel, J. (2013) Mindfulness for Busy People: Turning Frantic and Frazzled into Calm and Composed
  6. Williams, M., Penman, D. (2011) Mindfulness: A Practical Guide to Finding Peace in a Frantic World. Piatkus. GB
  7. Yang, Y., Holzel, B. & Posner, M. (2015) The Neuroscience of Mindfulness Meditation. Nature Reviews Neuroscience, Available at https://www.nature.com/articles/nrn3916
  8. https://www.bupa.co.uk/newsroom/ourviews/mindfulness-my-brain
Author 'Fiona Kennedy

Fiona Kennedy

Fiona Kennedy is an editor and content manager who earned her Master of Arts degree from the University of Edinburgh, followed by completing the CELTA Cambridge teaching course in English. She has worked as an editor, writer and personal coach. Coming from a family deeply involved in the rehabilitation and support of those suffering from addiction, she is passionate about helping people to understand and take control of their dependences. Fiona’s other passions include travelling and taking part in community projects.


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