Meditation for Alcoholism and Drug Addiction Recovery

Alcoholism and drug addiction are complex conditions that plague millions of people.  Recovering from them requires a comprehensive treatment plan. For many recovering addicts and alcoholics, that plan typically includes talk therapy, support groups, and, if warranted, medication. However, complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) practices, particularly meditation, can provide a vital source of additional support during recovery. Keep reading to better understand how meditation can be very beneficial for anyone working to overcome their addiction.

What is Meditation?

Meditation is a practice that goes back thousands of years.  Often used to enhance spiritual connection and enlightenment, the practice essentially involves quieting the mind and concentrating on a specific thought or idea. Meditation is usually done in a quiet place.  While many who practice it do it alone, it can also be done in a group setting.

There’s no set time frame for a meditation session; it can be done for just a minutes or an hour or two.  Meditation can be done any time of the day.  However, many – if not most – individuals who meditate regularly strive to do so at the same time each day.  It can be practiced by anyone, regardless of spiritual or religious beliefs.  In fact, many people who meditate do it to relieve stress and feel more centered – with religion having no connection to their practice.

Relation to Rehab

Many alcohol and drug addiction treatment programs have included meditation in their overall treatment plan. It’s not used in place of other therapies.  Instead, it provides powerful additional support for addicts in recovery. Part of the value of meditation is that those in treatment can practice it even after the initial recovery period is complete.  This makes meditation a valuable tool they can use to stay sober for the rest of their lives.

Research supporting Meditation for Addiction

A growing body of research supports meditation as an effective addiction recovery technique. For example, one study found that recovering intravenous drug users felt meditation was one of the best therapy tools to help them overcome their addiction [1]. Researchers who examined incarcerated substance abusers found that those who were taught how to meditate had lower levels of relapse and more positive outcomes after release than those who received only conventional recovery treatments [2].

Research suggests that meditation also helps people with alcoholism and drug addiction when it’s incorporated into a practice that includes physical exercise. For instance, yoga sessions that include meditation have been shown to be an effective part of addiction recovery [3]. In another study, recently-abstinent cocaine addicts who learned qigong, a Chinese practice that incorporates meditative techniques, reported fewer cravings and other addiction-related symptoms than those who received a placebo treatment [4].

How Meditation Works

Meditation is effective because it rewires critical pathways in the brain. In one study, people who meditated for approximately 30 minutes daily for 8 weeks showed an increase in gray matter in the parts of the brain associated with learning, memory, self-awareness, and introspection. In addition, brain imaging revealed that participants also showed a decrease in gray matter in areas linked to anxiety and stress [5].

By changing how their brain processes self-awareness, introspection, anxiety, and stress, addicts can reasonably evaluate everyday situations, and react to them more appropriately – without the help of drugs or alcohol. Meditation’s positive effect on stress and anxiety is especially important because both are frequent triggers for relapse.

In general, meditation is a practice that allows a person to focus on any number of things. For example, addicts may use it to slow down their breathing and calm their nerves then they’re feeling anxious or stressed. This helps reduce the negative feelings that compel alcoholics and drug addicts to reach for substances.  It may also be used to connect in spiritual ways during recovery. Many individuals use meditation to connect with a higher power through prayers or mantras. Feeling connected to a higher power has helped many addicts stay on the path of recovery.

Variations of Meditation

Meditation can take a variety of forms beyond the standard, in which a person sits quietly and focuses on his or her breathing, a spiritual connection, or a specific thing or thought.  Two frequently used variations include mindfulness meditation and the meditative exercise.

Mindfulness Meditation: This is a specific type of meditation in which individuals examine their feelings, thoughts, and experiences in a nonjudgmental way. Unlike addiction, which involves acting on impulses, mindfulness meditation is a purposeful action that allows them to examine their thoughts and urges, and then carefully consider how to react to them.

Meditative exercise: Some practices combine meditation with physical motion. For example, yoga is based on an ancient Hindu philosophy that promotes unity between the mind, body, and spirit. In a meditative exercise, a person moves through a series of poses designed to increase flexibility and strength, and also improve breathing. The postures improve an addict’s self-confidence and physical well-being.  The breathing techniques promote relaxation, which relieves stress, frustration, and other negative emotions. Tai chi and qigong aren’t quite as well-known as yoga, but they are also forms of meditative exercise.

Advantages of Meditation for Recovery

Two of the primary advantages of including meditation as part of recovery for alcoholism and drug addiction are that 1) it’s easy to learn and 2) can be done anywhere.

It’s easy to learn. Any recovering alcoholic or addict can learn to calm his or her mind with meditation. Some learn the techniques in rehab or during counseling sessions. However, the art of meditation can also be learned at wellness centers or from religious groups. There are also meditation how-to guides available through books and websites. For those interested in learning the techniques through yoga, it’s crucial to find a place that incorporates meditative practices; some yoga classes, like those in fitness centers, may focus only on the physical movements.

It can be done anywhere. This is one of the most valuable aspects of using meditation for addiction recovery. Since stress is one of the primary triggers for relapse, meditative techniques are particularly beneficial because they can be done whenever and wherever stress is felt. Meditation can be used to lower the body’s acute response to stress at home or in the workplace, so recovering addicts are less likely to feel the tension and strain tempt them to drink or use.

Meditation may also reduce the cravings that can trigger a relapse. For instance, a recovering alcoholic can meditate when she finds herself in the parking lot outside a bar. Calming the mind for a few minutes may provide the distance needed to make a reasonable and healthy decision about whether to step into that bar or find the nearest AA meeting.

If you’re recovering from alcoholism or drug addiction, meditation may be an excellent supplement to your treatment program. Talk to your addiction counselor about incorporating it into your treatment, or contact a rehab center that offers it as part of the program. You could also look into meditation learning sessions offered by a local wellness center or learn it on your own through books and videos. Meditation is a simple but powerful tool for that can help you maintain long-term sobriety.


[1] //www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/12765213

[2] //www.prison.dhamma.org/en/na/NRF%20Substance%20Abuse%20Study%202006.pdf

[3] //www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/23642957

[4] //online.liebertpub.com/doi/full/10.1089/acm.2012.0052

[5] //www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2011/01/110121144007.htm

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