Meditation, focusing and calming the mind, has an important role in recovery from addiction. During treatment, you may experience a rollercoaster of emotions that can take you to high highs and low lows, thinking about the future you hope to achieve and falling into dark memories from the past. As your mind and body adjust to sobriety, you may feel stressed, anxious, depressed, angry, confused, and many other emotions you can’t even name.
The practice of meditation can be a potent antidote and effective tool to manage these emotions during treatment and long after you leave. It can be done in many forms from concentration meditation, to guided meditations, to mindfulness meditation, to moving meditations and more. Best of all, meditation is free, accessible to anyone, and can improve emotion regulation over the long-term.
How Meditation Can Help with Recovery
Meditation is a practice in which you work on focusing your mind and thoughts to gain greater awareness and inner calm. There are endless varieties and schools of meditation to choose from as you begin practicing and looking for a technique that suits you.
One of the most common techniques used during recovery is mindfulness meditation, in which you work on being in the present moment, observing thoughts without reacting to them, regardless if they are positive or negative. The idea is to accept the thoughts and let them go rather than getting stuck craving something you want or reacting with aversion to something you don’t. For those in recovery, getting stuck on a particular thought or a pattern of thought can be a threat to sobriety, especially when something triggers a painful memory or an urge to use.
Research has shown that being present and mindful, even while performing an unpleasant task, makes people feel happier than when the mind wanders through thoughts of the past and the future, according to Emma Seppala, the Science Director at the Stanford University Center for Compassion. For people in recovery, a wandering mind can be dangerous, particularly when it begins to romanticize memories involving the substance of abuse.
Additional studies have also found that the practice of meditation can reduce stress and symptoms of stress-related disorders like anxiety, depression, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) by promoting relaxation, increasing positive thinking, and decreasing the amount of the stress hormone cortisol released in the body. For people in recovery, underlying mental health conditions that have contributed to the development of their addiction can become another obstacle to overcome in their path to recovery. Meditation can be a critical and lifesaving tool to help deal with stress and establish healthier coping mechanisms for mental health conditions or past traumas when those negative feelings arise that were previously numbed by getting drunk or high.
What are Some Recovery Meditation Techniques?
There are myriad meditation recovery techniques to choose from. Your rehab facility may offer meditation sessions and training as part of your treatment program, but if it does not, meditation is readily accessible to anyone willing to learn. There are meditation courses you can attend, online guided meditations, and books about meditation to get a foundation in a meditation practice. It can be as simple as sitting quietly in a room and concentrating on your breathing for ten minutes in the morning before starting your day.
Mindfulness meditation can be particularly useful in addiction recovery because it helps you to regulate emotions, focus attention, and increase self-awareness. These skills are all critical to recovery because they give you the ability to deal with stress and triggers, manage cravings, and handle symptoms of underlying mental health conditions like anxiety and depression.
During mindfulness meditation, you accept yourself and all things in your present situation as they are. You do not try to change anything. You assume the role of observer and simply watch—thoughts, breath, physical sensation in the body. Through mindfulness meditation, you can begin to be more compassionate and aware of yourself as you are—not as you were in the past or as you want to be in the future.
To practice mindfulness recovery meditation you simply:
- Find a quiet place where you can sit in peace
- Sit in a chair or on the floor, close your eyes, and breathe without speaking
- Try not to judge any thoughts that arise and focus attention on the present moment
- If thoughts are wandering to the past or future, bring awareness back to your breath
- Each time your thoughts start to wander, you can always bring your attention back to your breath to calm yourself
There are no items needed for mindfulness meditation, and to start, a person simply needs to find a place to practice and a few minutes of time, which makes it an ideal technique in recovery because it is accessible to everyone.
Other types of meditation to try include:
- Moving meditation practices like walking meditation, yoga, qigong, or tai chi involve moving through a set of postures and gentle movements that are linked to the breath. Some may prefer moving meditations to calm excess energy rather than sitting still.
- Guided meditations can be helpful because a teacher offers prompts that help you learn how to meditate and focus attention on your inner self. If you don’t have a meditation teacher to guide you, there are guided meditation apps, online recordings, YouTube channels, etc that anyone can use to start meditating.
- Concentration meditation can also be a great technique for people trying to focus a scattered, distracted mind. You choose an object of focus—a candle, a mantra to repeat, or an image—and you channel all your attention on that object. This can help the mind concentrate on that object and reduce the “noise” of wandering thoughts.
These are just a few of the meditation techniques you can try during recovery. The key is to explore what works for you and keep at it!
Additional Meditation Benefits After Recovery
When your treatment program ends and you must go into the world on your own again, it can be intimidating. The first weeks and months of recovery can be the most challenging as you navigate your daily life and stressors without the crutch of your substance of abuse. A treatment program is a short span of time in the larger timeline of an addiction that may have lasted for years. You need many tools to cope with the stressors and frustrations that may have fueled your substance use.
Meditation can be key to success in recovery because it can train your mind to better regulate emotions, stay focused, and overcome cravings. According to the Laboratory of Neuro Imaging at the University of Southern California, average person has nearly 50 thoughts per minute—that’s almost a new thought each second! Through meditation, you can learn to be aware and observe thoughts as they pass through your head—even cravings. If you can sit with the discomfort that arises from the urge to use and get through it, you can learn to control impulses and reduce the risk of relapse. Meditation can also help you regulate emotions triggered by stress, reduce cortisol levels, lower blood pressure, and improve quality of sleep.
Studies have found that meditation can help people increase willpower and recognize the causes of their addiction. This is a powerful skill to have in recovery as you navigate each day anew and work to avoid falling into old patterns of thought and self-sabotaging behaviors. Meditation can give you the space and calm necessary to make decisions that will benefit you in the long-run rather than defaulting to old habits that will put you back in the cycle of addiction. For something that is free and accessible to anyone anytime, meditation is an invaluable tool for those in recovery!
- “What is Mindfulness Meditation” – Wong, Cathy; Rev. by Sara Clark. VeryWell Mind, 8 April, 2021
- Tang YY, Leve LD. A translational neuroscience perspective on mindfulness meditation as a prevention strategy. Transl Behav Med. 2016 Mar;6(1):63-72. doi: 10.1007/s13142-015-0360-x. PMID: 27012254; PMCID: PMC4807201
- Sood A, Jones DT. On mind wandering, attention, brain networks, and meditation. Explore (NY). 2013 May-Jun;9(3):136-41. doi: 10.1016/j.explore.2013.02.005. PMID: 23643368
- “Six Mindfulness Techniques to Combat Holiday Stress” – Seppälä, Emma; Scope, Stanford Medicine; 23 December, 2013
- “What meditation can do for your mind, mood, and health” – Harvard Health Publishing, Harvard Medical School; 16 July, 2014
- “How rich would you be if you actually got a penny for every thought?” – Crockett, Zachary; Vox, 16 December, 2016