By Todd Valentine, LCSW

At MARR, men enter our care because drugs and alcohol have damaged or completely destroyed their lives. They often embarked on the path of addiction as an unhealthy method of coping with painful thoughts and feelings. Perhaps they experienced early childhood trauma in the form of parental neglect or bullying in school. Or as an adult, they underwent a traumatic event as a member of the military. Regardless of the “whys,” they relied on substances to stop the pain. Feeling absolutely nothing was the intended goal.

Unfortunately, once the substance, and its mind-numbing properties, is negated, the feelings he has so successfully avoided return in full force. He is like a man standing in a severe snowstorm without clothing; he is defenseless and vulnerable.

Consider this example: a man enters treatment because of a severe opiate addiction. Once detoxed, His mind is flooded with ghastly scenes from the past and equally bad future scenarios. How could he have bankrupted his family to buy drugs. Will his wife leave him? What will he do for income when he is sober?

These thoughts and fears spiral out of control; they overwhelm him and threaten to pull him down. This man is a single step away from picking up a pill bottle.

MARR recently integrated a new component into the treatment plans of our male clients to provide an option in this situation. It is mindfulness. Frequently, men are reluctant to engage in the practice, erroneously believing it is somewhat mystical or alternative in nature. Yet, by the conclusion of treatment, it is often these same individuals who prove most grateful for learning this valuable skill.

Mindfulness is the skill of being fully present, living in the moment, neither projecting into the future, nor obsessing on the past. Although easily learned, it is a strategy that necessitates time and practice to refine.

In the case of the man described above, a mindfulness technique is indicated. He is directed to inhale deeply, then exhale. This is followed by inhaling to the spoken count of four, holding for the count of seven, then exhaling to the same count.

During this process, the brain waves actually alter as does the chemical makeup of the brain. As a result, his body begins to relax and release tension. But even more important, his mind refocuses on the act of counting and breathing. The human brain, for as remarkable as it is, simply cannot focus on several things at once. With each inhalation and exhalation, the regret of the past and fear of the future is mitigated.

The beauty of this practice is two-fold: first, it stops the spiral in the moment; and second, it demonstrates that he must not be the ubiquitous victim to his own negative thoughts and feelings. This skill can be utilized anytime to reduce stress and reassert calm.

Another exercise I use is the mindful walk. We start by stretching, perhaps doing a couple yoga poses. The focus is on breathing and physical sensations such as the heart beating in the chest, or the thigh muscles offering slight rebellion. Instead of perpetually hurting their bodies with chemicals, this allows men to reconnect with their physical beings in a positive way. In time, as health returns, they often grow to appreciate, and even, respect their bodies for how miraculous and resilient they are.

Mindfulness is highly engaged with the five senses. Therefore, during our walk, they are encouraged to intentionally exist in the present moment: Smell the air, feel the ground beneath their feet, watch the shifting shadows created by the clouds. The past and future are superfluous; all that matters is the now. The ancient art of mindful Meditation also has incredible value. When in a deeply calm and relaxed state, the mind’s well being is enhanced. In addition, receptivity to positive affirmations about oneself is improved.

Healing from addiction isn’t easy for anyone. But having the practice of mindfulness in the recovery toolbox is invaluable. Reestablishing empowerment helps men feel strong, capable and less victimized by their thoughts and emotions.