5 Mindfulness Practices to Step Up Your Recovery

Man meditating
Table of Contents
Mindfulness exercises empower us to intentionally reshape our brain.

How Can Meditation and Mindfulness Help You?

Ready to take your recovery from alcohol and drug addiction to a whole new level? Practice being mindful with these tried-and-true activities recommended by recovery expert and author Beverly Conyers—they might be just what you're looking for.

Heard in a Twelve Step meeting: "Sometimes I feel like I'm just going through the motions. I mean, I'm working the program but I'm not getting as much out of it as I used to.

It's a common experience—no matter what the context. We start a new diet or join a fitness club or enroll in a class, and before we know it our enthusiasm fades and the stress ramps up. We're hit with the reality that there are no quick fixes. That self-improvement is a life-long journey.

That's precisely the moment when adding mindfulness and meditation to your addiction recovery program could reboot your enthusiasm and re-energize your journey.

What is Meditation?

Meditation has been around for thousands of years, and you may have practiced it without even realizing—many religions use some form of meditation to become closer to or communicate with their Higher Power.

Although it has many forms, meditation is usually practiced by sitting and quietly observing your body or thoughts. Some people focus on their breath, and feel it swell inside their chest before they slowly exhale. Some people pay attention to their physical experience, listening to their entire body and allowing each sensation to exist without judgment. And some simply sit and watch as new thoughts enter and exit their mind.

Meditation is ultimately intended to ground you in the moment, and most people report feeling extremely calm afterward (and some even fall asleep during their meditative practices). It brings you back to your body and the present moment, and allows you to live right here, right now.

What is Mindfulness?

Introduced by the Buddha as a path to spiritual enlightenment more than 2,500 years ago, mindfulness is the art of being present in your own life. It's a gentle way of opening your mind to greater awareness; to a truer, deeper understanding of yourself and your world.

Studies have shown that mindfulness activities can actually reshape your brain in positive ways, improving physical and mental health and promoting overall well-being. It can help tame your anxiety, provide a greater self-awareness, and help you acknowledge and cope with emotions that may not be rooted in reality.

What's more, incorporating mindfulness exercises into treatment is especially helpful for those of us who have struggled with addiction to alcohol, drugs, porn, unhealthy relationships or other destructive behaviors. Here's why.

The Connection between Mindfulness Exercises and Recovery

The brain is the only organ that’s shaped by experience and practice, much like a muscle gets bigger and stronger with exercise. In the past, when you repeatedly engaged in specific thoughts and behaviors that propelled your addiction, you unknowingly shaped your brain in ways that worked against you and prevented you from being mindful.

Meditation and other mindfulness exercises work much the same way, and empower you to intentionally reshape your brain in ways that bring greater control, awareness, and happiness to your life.

5 Ways to Start Practicing Mindfulness Techniques

One strength of mindfulness is that you can practice it anywhere and at any time. You don't have to adopt a particular belief system or invest a great deal of time and energy to take advantage of this expanded awareness. You only need to be willing to try new ways of experiencing the world.

These five core practices are a good way of getting started:

1. Be Present in This Moment

"Be where you are; otherwise you will miss your life." The Buddha

Is it possible to be somewhere without actually being there? Of course it is. It's the way most of us live every day. We're talking to our kids or watching TV or sitting in a meeting, but our mind's a million miles away. Usually, we're feeling stressed about something that happened in the past or feeling anxiety about what might happen in the future. Or we're distracted by our phones, our attention splintered by the relentless urge to type, tap or swipe.

Only rarely do we focus on the present moment. Yet when our attention is continually somewhere else, we go through life on auto-pilot, never really seeing the richness of life or fully realizing our own potential. It's like living with blinders on.

Being mindful is about being present, increasing our awareness, and opening our eyes to the reality of now. This moment.

How it Supports Recovery:

Most of us in addiction recovery are former escape artists looking to avoid the stress and anxiety that comes with daily life. We're good at not being there. Being present and mindful helps us learn to cope with reality as it actually is—not how we perceive it.

How to Get Started:

Being mindful starts with paying attention to ordinary things—the sensation of your feet rising and falling as you walk to the car, the feel of soapy water sliding over your hands as you wash the dishes, the taste and texture of food in your mouth as you eat a meal.

Doing this regularly may take practice, but it’s one of the easiest mindfulness exercises we practice. Noticing the little things will ground you in the present moment—the place where you live your life.

2. Focus On Your Breath

"Feelings come and go like clouds in a windy sky. Conscious breathing is my anchor." Thích Nhat Hanh

Life is full of stress. Whether it's the daily grind, a difficult relationship, a sudden calamity or the relentless onslaught of the 24/7 news cycle, life gets to all of us sometimes. We constantly feel overwhelmed, and before we know it we're exploding from stress or retreating to sulk—or worse, turning to alcohol or other drugs to cope.

There's a simple exercise that helps with this: focusing on our breath. Instead of getting upset by external things over which we have little control, we can center our attention on an internal thing that we can control: our breathing. Mindfulness teaches us to use our body's natural healing powers to manage stress.

How it Supports Recovery:

When we're stressed, it's easy to get sucked into a damaging spiral of self-defeating thoughts. We need to actively take care of our emotional health in these moments. Focusing on the breath can restore a sense of calm and control that keeps our recovery on track.

How to Get Started:

Try taking small, mindful "breathing breaks" throughout the day—while you're at a stoplight or waiting in line, for example, or before you open your email or go to a meeting. Inhale through your nostrils and exhale through your mouth, making your exhalation a little longer than your inhalation. Notice the sensation of air entering and exiting your body again and again, always there to calm and sustain you.

3. Recognize Your Thoughts Are Just Thoughts

"Don't believe everything you think. Thoughts are just that—thoughts." Allan Lokos

Most of us give little attention to the thoughts that fill our head. They're just sort of there, like background noise we've learned to tune out.

Whether we notice them or not, our thoughts are the driving force behind our feelings and actions. What we think about ourselves and others determines how we carry ourselves in the world, how we interact with people around us and how effectively we manage life.

It's easy to confuse our thoughts with reality—to believe that what we think is always true. In fact, we're all prone to false assumptions, misconceptions, and unfounded beliefs.

Mindfulness teaches us to become aware of our thoughts, allowing us to let go of harmful ideas that work against us.

How it Supports Recovery:

Negative self-talk is a common activity—and it's destructive. Thoughts like "I'm no good" or "Everyone's against me" drain the hope and energy we need to sustain positive change in addiction recovery. Recognizing and then challenging these damaging thoughts allow us to see ourselves in a more hopeful, more accurate light.

How to Get Started:

Check in with your thoughts throughout the day, especially when you find yourself becoming anxious or depressed, and ask yourself which thoughts triggered your feelings. Remind yourself that thoughts are just thoughts: you don’t have to pay too much attention to them. Then practice letting them go.

4. Expand Your Circle of Compassion

"Only the development of compassion and understanding for others can bring us the tranquility and happiness we all seek." Dalai Lama XIV

We humans are born to connect. Studies have shown that when we feel emotionally connected, we thrive mentally and physically. When we feel disconnected, we suffer.

Mindfulness helps us build connections by teaching us to view ourselves and others through the lens of compassion. We let go of the judgments, stereotypes, and prejudices that build walls and practice the tolerance, kindness, and empathy that build bridges.

This doesn't mean that we have to like or approve of everything others do. It simply means that we think in terms of "us," not "them."

Mindfulness teaches us that all beings deserve loving-kindness because we are all part of the greater whole.

How it Supports Recovery:

Addiction limited our ability to connect with others in any meaningful way. Compassion strengthens our ability to build healthy, healing relationships that positively affect our inner emotions.

How to Get Started:

The phrase "just like me" is sometimes used in mindfulness meditations to promote compassion. For this exercise, simply repeat this phrase in your mind during your interactions with others, and remind yourself that everyone has hopes and fears, dreams and sorrows "just like me."

5. Practice Being Still

"Now we will count to twelve/and we will all keep still." Pablo Neruda

As a society, we tend to equate busyness with goodness. The more activity we engage in, the better. We see multi-tasking as a virtue and admire people who somehow manage to "do it all." After all, the more we do, the more worthwhile we are. Right?

Not exactly. In fact, philosophers have always known—and science has more recently confirmed—that there is tremendous value in allowing ourselves to step away from the busyness of daily life and simply be. It is in stillness, not in continual activity, that we are free to discover our own personal truths that give meaning and purpose to our life.

Mindfulness reminds us that in stillness we find the wisdom to become a human being instead of a human doing.

How it Supports Recovery:

Recovery is a journey, not a destination. Stillness opens our hearts and minds to the vast potential within us as we move through addiction treatment and into recovery.

How to Get Started:

Mindfulness meditation sessions, yoga practice and religious services can all promote a sense of inner stillness. So can gazing at the night sky, watching the ocean's waves, or immersing yourself in activities like exercise, gardening, woodworking, painting or playing music—any moment you can spend with yourself.

The important thing is to find whatever works for you—your special connection to that quiet place where you can become mindful, listen to your heart and renew your spirit again and again.

With a Little Practice, You Will Become Mindful

"Mindfulness isn't difficult, we just need to remember to do it," wrote the meditation teacher Sharon Salzberg. By remembering to take part in these mindfulness practices every day, our journey of recovery can become ever deeper, more meaningful, and more rewarding.

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