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Building Resilience Through Mindful Awareness: How Meditation Can Promote Addiction Recovery

Have you found yourself drinking more since the pandemic started? Did you develop any other habits that you’re feeling upset with yourself about, but haven’t been able to stop?  If so, you are joined by many across the globe who have struggled to find healthy ways of coping with the profound and, for some, chronic […]

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Have you found yourself drinking more since the pandemic started? Did you develop any other habits that you’re feeling upset with yourself about, but haven’t been able to stop?  If so, you are joined by many across the globe who have struggled to find healthy ways of coping with the profound and, for some, chronic stress that Covid-19 life has brought on. In fact, studies have found that more than 1 in 10 Americans either initiated or increased their use of alcohol and other substances to cope with stress or difficult emotions related to Covid-19, and among drinkers, the more psychologically distressed they felt, the more frequently and heavily they used alcohol to manage these feelings. These studies have raised concerns about an impending uptick in alcoholism and other addictions that have either been brought on or worsened by the circumstances surrounding Covid-19.

This past year has been a true test of our ability to cope with adversity. The pandemic has touched every single one of us, prompting unwanted changes to the ways we were accustomed to living life. Many underwent a jarring shift from a carefree mindset to one fraught with worry and anxiety about our most basic, fundamental purpose: survival. Though some worry more than others about contracting and transmitting the virus, the shift in life’s predictability and stability spared no one. Whether by bringing about threats to one’s employment status and financial well-being, thrusting parents into a seemingly impossible combination of working and parenting simultaneously at home, or keeping us from the vitally important contact we once knew with loved ones, colleagues, and friends, the resulting stress has been palpable and impactful.

Resilience: What is it and where does it come from?

What protects us from crumbling and doing self-destructive things like drinking excessively when we are stressed? In recent years, psychologists and wellness experts from many different disciplines have emphasized the importance of resilience in maintaining mental stability when things get tough. Resilience is our ability to adapt well when we are confronted by challenging life events and transitions. Resilience helps us to cope effectively and bounce back from acutely stressful events, but it’s not all about recovering from tough situations. Being resilient can also enable us to grow personally from these experiences and even improve our lives as a result.

Although many people think that resilience is a trait that we are either born with or without, that is not actually the case. While genetics and personal history play a role in one’s tendency to be resilient, all of us can become resilient – or more resilient than we are today, if we practice strategies to build this quality within ourselves.  We can develop the ability to tolerate and develop wisdom from life changing and stressful experiences, and there are several ways to do it, including: (1) forming connections with others, (2) taking care of our mind and body, (3) finding meaning and purpose in our lives, and (4) maintaining perspective.

Resilience and Addiction

For those who are vulnerable to addiction or already struggle with it, the lifestyle changes brought on by Covid-19 created a perfect storm: while stress was increasing, activities that promote resilience, such as physical exercise and social interaction, became unsafe and difficult to access.  This naturally led some people to start using alcohol and drugs, or to use them more often and in larger amounts than before. Often referred to as self-medicating, finding ways to avoid or escape psychological pain and suffering – even if they lead to other problems, as heavy drinking and drug use can do – is an intuitive response to difficult emotions. What many people don’t realize is that these behaviors actually interfere with building resilience. They don’t teach us anything about how to learn and grow from challenging experiences; instead, they mask the unpleasant feelings. When we allow difficult feelings to be there, and work our way through them, resilience follows.

Mindfulness Promotes Resilience and Addiction Recovery

One powerful strategy for building resilience is the practice of mindfulness, which involves learning to pay attention to the present moment in an open, curious, and non-judgmental way. Over time, when practicing mindfulness through meditation, we learn to become observers of our experience. When we pay close attention to the present moment, we can connect with how we are feeling emotionally and physically, and the thoughts that are linked to these feelings. By skillfully observing and accepting these different aspects of our moment-to-moment experience, we equip ourselves with self-control, self-compassion, and tolerance for discomfort.  When we are confronted with stress, it is these very capabilities that create resilience within us.  

How can mindfulness help a person to recover from addiction? When a person is addicted to alcohol or drugs, the connection between stress or unpleasant emotions and substance use is so strong that drinking or using drugs in response to these experiences is almost an automatic response. People who struggle with addictions often find themselves drinking or using drugs with little recollection of the thought process that led them to act on the urge. The ability to practice mindfulness strategies can help a person to:

(1)   Recognize the different aspects of their experience of temptation or cravings,

(2)   Tolerate the discomfort of it,

(3)   Reserve self-criticism or judgment about it, and then, finally,

(4)   Decide with intention and self-compassion how to best respond to the craving.

The goal is to prevent an impulsive reaction to an urge, and to replace it with the ability to respond mindfully in the face of temptation.    

We often habitually miss the miracle and the beauty of the moment that is right in front of us. The urge and the discomfort it brings present an opportunity to grow stronger and deepen the learning and self-compassion that are so central to addiction recovery.  This is the essence of building resilience.

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