Mindfulness & Addiction

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By Matt Wagner, NCC, LPC

Matt Wagner is a Licensed Professional Counselor who has a private practice in Decatur, Georgia. He specializes in guiding his clients through mindfulness, meditation, and tapping. As one of our trusted partners in the community, we asked him to contribute this article. 

Addiction is a disease that affects brain chemistry and the ability to recognize where one’s choices to use substances are no longer their own. In fact, when a person experiences the cycle and symptoms of addiction, their brain misinterprets thoughts, emotions, and physical sensations that are usually associated with ”using” (a phrase that in this article will be used to refer to either drinking alcohol or taking in illicit substances) as survival instincts. Such a dynamic will reinforce the user’s behaviors and further strengthen the importance and desire to continue use. By raising awareness to these thoughts, emotions and physical sensations, one can learn to apply Mindfulness, a practice that helps to increase observation and recognition of addictive behavior.

External interventions for treating a person with addiction are currently well known and often a first step towards initiating change for the user. The phrase “external interventions” refers to what other people will do to try to make the person stop using. Some examples of what others might do include confronting the addicted person, removing substances from the house, cutting off access to the person’s substance of choice, and many more. For a period of time, these approaches may work, but often, in the case of addiction, the addicted person will find a way to get around these obstacles set out by others.

Internal interventions, however, have the potential to help the addicted person navigate through Stages of Change (in order: pre-contemplation/denial, contemplation, preparation, action, and maintenance; relapse can occur at any point and lead a person to a previous stage), and arrive at a place of action from a deeper level. “Internal interventions” refer to the experiences one has when they are able to notice for themselves that their drug or alcohol use is no longer serving them and is in fact endangering their lives and potentially the lives of others. These moments can occur at any time during addiction or in recovery and can often be a sign that a person is entering a new Stage of Change.  

Default Mind Behaviors

When a person experiences addiction, their mind engages in common, automatic thinking processes. Some of the most common thought processes include:

  • Denying that a problem exists
  • Justifying their behavior
  • Blaming their problem on situations or people in their lives
  • Minimizing the extent of their use or comparing themselves to others who are worse off
  • Ruminating on how to get the substance again
  • Romanticizing who they are when they are under the influence, which can lead to a false identity
  • Experiencing high levels of dissatisfaction with situations not including their substance of choice.

These symptoms are most often not intentional by the addicted person themselves; rather, they are experiencing Default Mind behaviors that are symptomatic of the disease of addiction.

Default Mind behaviors occur within every person, regardless of whether or not the person is addicted to a substance. The term “Default Mind,” also referred to as “Default Mode Network,” is used to describe unintentional thinking processes, which often arise when a person’s mind is drifting, wandering, or is uninterested. Consider different times when you might experience Default Mind behaviors by reviewing the following questions:

What do you think about when…

  • You try to go to sleep?
  • You’re bored and unstimulated, or zoned out?
  • You are doing a very simple task, such as washing dishes or folding laundry?
  • You have so much going on in your life that you are unable to focus on what is in front of and around you?
  • You’re on a familiar commute where you don’t have to pay too much attention to turns, directions, etc.?

During these moments, is your mind paying full attention to what is happening in front of and around you? If not, you are likely experiencing Default Mind behaviors when your mind is thinking of anything other than the present moment. Default Mind behaviors have been found by neurologists to identify specific areas of thinking, which include: dissatisfaction with the present moment (what this author is calling “Resistance”); worry about the future and wanting to change experiences from the past (“Time Travel”); viewing situations and experiences from a first-person perspective (“Self-Referential Processing”); and comparing oneself to other people, for better or worse (“Social Comparison”).    

The behavior referred to here as Resistance is describing our disapproval for what the current situation or moment includes. This is not necessarily an intentional thinking process (none of the areas of the Default Mind network are), but an internal cognitive response that automatically comes up when something we view as unpleasant happens.

Time Travel consists of our mind thinking about desired experiences for the future, which can include planning, coordinating, intending, creating a mental to-do list, etc. This also includes reflecting on experiences in our past and wishing they were more enriching or pleasant. 

Self-Referential Processing is experienced when our mind relates any situation back to “me” and how “I” am affected, as opposed to considering how events affect other people.

Social Comparison happens when we notice something about ourselves personally, and think whether or not this is normal, if we’re as good as others who do this thing or if we’re better than everybody else, etc. The phrase “keeping up with the Joneses” can fall into this category. 

Consider the Default Mind behaviors mentioned earlier for a person addicted to drugs/alcohol (denial, justification, blaming, minimizing, ruminating, romanticizing/glorifying, resistance). Each of the examples mentioned, as well as additional addictive behaviors, fall into these four categories of Default Mind network.

The emphasis of Default Mind behaviors is not done to shame or point out that these processes are wrong or that they should be avoided. Instead, it is to normalize and accept that these are naturally occurring experiences of the human mind, and to recognize that it is our relationships to these events that determine our resistance or willingness to engage in them. 

Mindfulness as a Tool

This is where Mindfulness can impact our experience with Default Mind behaviors as well as addictive processes. Jon Kabat-Zinn, a well-known advocate of Mindfulness and author of several books on the subject, describes Mindfulness as a practice of increasing our awareness to the present moment, and to do so intentionally and without judgment. By practicing Mindfulness, we can become more aware of the thoughts that emerge in our minds and notice our initial reaction to those thoughts. Rather than reinforcing the resistance and struggle that can come up in reaction to certain thoughts, we can instead learn to accept that our minds, to a certain extent, behave on their own. Bearing witness to this process – of noticing what happens in our minds without any judgment or admonishment – leads to higher levels of self-acceptance and can greatly diminish the dependence our minds and bodies have on external sources of validation and satisfaction, especially when those sources consist of illicit substances. Note: Mindfulness is not enough to overcome situations in which a person needs a medical detox to come off a substance (alcohol and benzodiazepines).

The process of acceptance that is such a vital and important part of Mindfulness does not always coincide with approval or agreement. When moments like this come up, Mindfulness encourages you to notice and observe both what is going on outside of you, as well as within. Observing a resistant voice that shows up in your Mind can help to create space between thinking the initial thought and acting on it. In the case of a craving, a person can identify that their Mind is thinking about drinking, and with curiosity, notice what physical sensations are felt throughout the body. By observing these physical sensations, or perhaps noticing other thought processes that occur after the initial thought of drinking (i.e., glorifying, ruminating, excited anticipation), a person can make space for them to exist, instead of resisting them and being so uncomfortable with them that they have to act on the thoughts.

Putting it to Practice

The how of Mindfulness consists of where to begin. You might be thinking “how do I observe these thoughts?” or “how do I notice physical sensations and sit with them?” The most accessible point to beginning a practice is to purposely focus and concentrate on present-moment sensations and experiences. Your breath and body are two grounding points, or anchors, you can always pay attention to at any given moment. The points of focus are often used in meditation, in which non-judgment and willingness to observe the present moment is practiced intentionally.

If you’ve tried meditation before and struggle with it, consider anticipating the struggle, to expect that your mind will definitely wander and drift. This is essential for meditation, much in the same way that resistance is needed in physical exercise. Each time you realize that your mind has wandered off, returning your focus to the present moment will strengthen your awareness. By doing this, you will also increase the likelihood of enriching active moments throughout your day, thereby making life more fulfilling and meaningful.

An example of a Mindfulness thinking process might go something like this: notice how your body expands when you breathe in, and then how it changes when you breathe out. What changes in that process? How is your next in-breath different than the one before? The realizations of this practice may not be mind-blowing or seem particularly interesting at first, but the practice of strengthening your awareness and sitting with resistance, unpleasantness, uncertainty, and dissatisfactory experiences will eventually lead to a greater tolerance for such moments.

The practice of Mindfulness also applies to your immediate environment, which can often be ignored or unnoticed if the scenery is not spectacular. Grounding Techniques are routines to intentionally notice your surroundings and increase your appreciation for them. One such example is called “5-4-3-2-1,” and it involves observing items by activating your five senses. To do this, name five things you can see, four things you can feel, three things you can hear, two things you can smell, and one thing you can taste. If you can’t name enough items for a particular sense, notice that your thinking Mind (prefrontal cortex, where rational thinking occurs) is looking for information, a process which decreases the activity in the emotional Mind (midbrain, where addictive thinking occurs). 

Mindfulness practices can also be useful for family members who are affected by a loved one’s addiction. Just as an addicted person experiences dependence to their substance, a family member will experience similar default behaviors towards their loved one. (For example, a family member might deny their loved one’s alcohol problem, much in the same way that the alcoholic will deny a problem with alcohol.) By practicing Mindfulness techniques, a family member can experience appropriate detachment, and thereby help themselves before helping others. 

In closing, the steps of Mindfulness are simple, but not easy, so let it be a gradual process in getting started. Receiving help in Mindfulness training can be available through therapists, treatment centers, or local Mindfulness groups, some of which meet virtually. Building a practice can be done in just a few minutes a day, adding on time as you see fit. Meditation and Grounding Techniques can help with this as you get started. Regardless of where you are in your recovery, if you are a day in or have years at this point, Mindfulness is an invaluable tool to help bring awareness to automatic thinking, and thus create an opportunity to do something different. 


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