You hear a lot about mindfulness in any kind of recovery, whether it's from substance use, mental health conditions, co-dependency or any other behavior that isn't serving our whole health.
Some think of mindfulness as synonymous with meditation, yoga, or some other structured practice. While it's true that mindfulness can (and often does) include these practices, there are ways to incorporate mindfulness into every day life that can greatly benefit your peace of mind and recovery. It is particularly useful for people struggling with unhealthy cravings of any kind, whether for alcohol, drugs, food, sex, relationships, shopping or anything that is used to escape, distract, and numb.
What is Mindfulness?
At its essence, mindfulness is the art of being present and aware of any given moment. The dictionary tells us mindfulness is "a mental state achieved by focusing one's awareness on the present moment, while calmly acknowledging and accepting one's feelings, thoughts, and bodily sensations, used as a therapeutic technique."
One critical element of this definition that is easy to miss, and it's at the center of mindfulness, is this: "calmly ...accepting one's feelings". Mindfulness is more than simply acknowledging thoughts or feelings, it's experiencing them without judgement and with loving kindness.
Sounds simple, right? Simple perhaps, but not easy. It is astonishingly hard to stay in the moment in today's world, with all the information and distractions coming at us from every direction. It's even harder to accept the present moment - exactly as it is - without wrapping our own judgments and reactions around it. We tend to categorize experiences immediately - often imperceptibly - as "good', "bad", "scary", "uncomfortable", etc. Being mindful teaches us to distance ourselves from our own interpretations and cultivate gentle acceptance of everything exactly as it is.
But.... It's Not Fair!
Most unhealthy or maladaptive behaviors stem from our desire to escape and/or numb what we perceive to be undesirable thoughts, feelings and experiences. We seek to gain control - or the perception of control - over things we do not wish to experience. This is why so many of our unhealthy behaviors feel like solutions, at least in the beginning. We believe we are allowing ourselves to avoid unpleasantness of any kind by disappearing ourselves in to our substance of choice or other escaping behavior. In fact, all we are doing is removing ourselves from the moment, from reality. The problems and feelings aren't better - in fact they are usually getting worse - but we don't have to be emotionally present for them.
Mindfulness is the opposite of escaping or numbing. Instead of seeking to avoid, we accept.
Let's say you get into trouble at work, and your boss is yelling at you for something you don't believe to be your fault. While experiencing this undesirable situation, your brain will scramble to put up blocks to avoid feeling pain or discomfort. You may deny, or protest. You may make excuses or blame your boss for being unreasonable. These responses are all to avoid accepting the situation exactly as it is. It is especially challenging to be mindful when you feel unjustly or unfairly treated in some way.
If you are being mindful about the same situation, you don't judge or avoid. You don't wrap your own thoughts, interpretations or feelings around the experience. You stay in the moment and don't seek to shield, distract or numb. You allow moments to come, and go (and they always go) without altering their reality in any way.
Mindfulness and Cravings
We all know what a craving feels like; it's a seemingly uncontrollable urge to turn to a substance, person, place or thing for comfort and/or escape. People usually think of cravings in terms of substance use - an urge to use drugs or alcohol - but cravings come in all forms. We can lose ourselves in relationships, chaos, drama, shopping, food .. the list goes on and on.
When we're in the middle of a craving it feels like it will last forever, and that's when we're at the highest risk of relapse from the behavior we are recovering from. In reality, the average craving lasts 7 minutes from beginning to end, and its peak lasts from seconds to a minute. Instead of intensifying the urge to give in to a craving, mindfulness allows you to live with it - and through it - without the need to act on it.
How do you do this, though, when the craving feels like it's got complete control?
Tips for Using Mindfulness for Cravings:
Like all things, using mindfulness in the face of such odds takes practice and repetition. Here are some useful tools to use to cultivate mindfulness: