Learn / Mindfulness as a Tool for Recovery From Substance Use Disorders

Mindfulness as a Tool for Recovery From Substance Use Disorders

Hannah Friedman
 December 16th, 2021|   Clinically Reviewed by 
Rajnandini Rathod

Key Points

  • Mindfulness techniques are used to support recovery.
  • At rehab, this can include mindful breathing, body awareness, yoga, and more.
  • Mindfulness is proven effective for psychological and physical symptoms.

Mindfulness is more than a buzzword. It’s also a powerful way to approach both physical and mental health. This collection of techniques can help ground you in the present moment, gently navigating even the most difficult thoughts and feelings. Because of its holistic nature, many clients choose to approach recovery using mindfulness practices.

Although it’s become quite popular in the past few years, mindfulness is an ancient practice. With roots in both spirituality and medicine, it may be helpful for those with a wide variety of interests. It is both versatile and deeply personal to each client. Perhaps because of this flexibility, more and more healthcare providers are finding ways to integrate mindfulness into rehab programs around the world.

What Is Mindfulness?

According to experts, “mindfulness1 means maintaining a moment-by-moment awareness of our thoughts, feelings, bodily sensations, and surrounding environment, through a gentle, nurturing lens.” Clients learn to accept their internal emotional experiences, as well as their external circumstances, without judgment. By focusing on the present moment, you can avoid getting overwhelmed by painful memories or anxiety about the future.

This philosophy has a long and storied history, originating in Buddhism2 and Hinduism. Some experts believe that mindfulness also has roots in Islam, Judaism, and Christianity.3 Wherever these practices began, we can be sure that it was popularized in part “through the work of Jon Kabat-Zinn and his Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) program, which he launched at the University of Massachusetts Medical School in 1979.”

Since that time, western medicine has used the principles of mindfulness to treat a wide variety of conditions, from chronic pain to PTSD. While these techniques depend on focus and awareness, that’s only the beginning. Igor Grossman, professor of social psychology at the University of Waterloo, explains that “scientific understanding of mindfulness4 goes beyond mere stress-relief and requires a willingness to engage with stressors…It is, in fact, the engagement with stressors that ultimately results in stress relief. More specifically, mindfulness includes two main dimensions: awareness and acceptance.”

Mindfulness means different things for different people. And it can be applied in various ways to achieve certain goals. For example, the techniques that help reduce acute cravings might not be effective in managing generalized anxiety. It’s also important to note that some of these practices are inappropriate for certain clients, and may even be detrimental. Make sure you speak with your providers before delving too deeply into any one of these strategies.

Mindfulness Techniques

Many people—whether or not they are in recovery—strive to become more mindful during daily life. This is a laudable goal, but it’s not as easy as it sounds. You may get better results from focusing on a regular practice that helps you hone your skills. Over time, you can start learning to apply those skills in other situations. When you’re just starting to practice mindfulness, there are many different techniques to choose from.


There are countless ways to meditate. You might use an app, listen to guided meditations, watch videos, or simply learn to sit in silence. With some experimentation, you may find that some of these strategies are a better fit for you than others. Remember that meditation is itself a tool. There is no wrong way to go about it, as long as you stay focused on the process.

Residents at Siam Rehab in Chiang Rai, Thailand, are taught mindfulness techniques daily.

According to a therapist at Siam Rehab, everyone in recovery from substance use disorders “strives for inner peace. There are many ways to inner peace, but one thing that helps is meditation. We teach it every day.” This practice has the greatest benefits when performed daily. One study found that after 8 weeks of daily meditation,5 subjects exhibited “decreased negative mood states including decreases in mood disturbance, anxiety, and fatigue scores,” as well as enhanced attention and memory. These findings were not apparent in subjects who meditated daily for only 4 weeks.

This practice may also have powerful long-term health benefits. Preliminary research suggests that meditation may slow the brain’s aging process,6 simultaneously improving attention, memory, executive function, and even creativity. Some studies have also found that meditation can significantly reduce chronic pain.7 This may be especially helpful for clients in recovery from opioid misuse. Learning how to simply be present in each moment may help you make peace with even the most overwhelming emotions.

Mindful Breathing

Meditation isn’t appropriate for everyone. Some clients may have physical or mental health concerns that make it difficult for them to sit in silence. But everyone breathes. By simply focusing on your breath, even without changing its rhythm, you can ground yourself in your present physical experience.

If you’d like to deepen your relationship with your breath, there are countless styles of mindful breathing. Make sure to talk to your therapist before choosing a particular technique, as some of these may have unforeseen effects. When performed appropriately, these breathing practices can hugely benefit emotion regulation.8

Body Awareness

Centering yourself in your body can be extremely grounding. There are many ways to accomplish this. When you’re new to meditation, you might learn how to do a simple body scan,9 in which you bring your awareness to each part of your body, accepting how you feel in the moment. Some versions of this practice then ask you to release any unnecessary tension. As you relax, you may find that you also gain a greater awareness of your emotional state.

Some clients may prefer to engage in mindful movement, rather than sitting still. This could be as simple as doing a single stretch, or going for a mindful walk. During that practice, you might focus on the five senses: the sensation of your feet on the ground, the color of the leaves, the sounds coming from nearby or far away, and so on.


Yoga is an ancient practice, designed to promote both physical and mental health. Preliminary research suggests that this type of movement may have specific benefits for people in recovery from substance misuse. This is especially true for clients who are healing from the use of alcohol or opiates, and those at risk of relapse.

According to experts, “The practice of yoga may be especially effective in the management of chronic pain for individuals who abuse alcohol or opiates10 because it focuses on psychological and physical characteristics.” This holistic approach can be helpful during any stage of recovery. If you’re able to begin doing yoga during rehab, you may be better equipped to withstand cravings after you complete inpatient treatment.

Yoga and other mindfulness therapies are integral parts of the addiction treatment program at Oro House Recovery in Malibu, California.

Because yoga approaches the mind and body holistically, it may help you begin to make peace with your own emotional experience. One study on the effectiveness of yoga in addiction treatment11 found that “the skills, insights, and self-awareness learned through yoga and mindfulness practice can target multiple psychological, neural, physiological, and behavioral processes.” By making these broad behavioral changes, you can develop the skills you’ll need to navigate life after rehab.

Benefits and Limitations of Mindfulness

Data shows that “mindfulness-based interventions12 are effective for treatment of both psychological and physical symptoms.” Specifically, mindfulness techniques have been shown to reduce stress.12 And since stress is linked to addiction,13 this “may prove beneficial in reducing cravings and promoting abstinence” during recovery from substance use disorders.

In addition to their holistic effects, these practices can significantly improve the symptoms of several different mental health concerns. “Structural and functional brain changes have been demonstrated in the brains of people with a long-term traditional meditation practice.”14 Due to these changes, clients experienced relief from anxiety, depression, and physical pain.

However, it’s important to note that general mindfulness may not be appropriate for all clients. Specifically, some meditation techniques may be triggering,15 to clients with PTSD. According to Dr. Willoughby Britton, associate professor at Brown University, “meditation can lead people to some dark places, triggering trauma or leaving people feeling disoriented.” Because of this, it’s very important to work closely with your therapist when you first begin these practices.

The Effect of Mindfulness on Recovery

Research suggests that these practices can be especially helpful for people in recovery from substance use disorders. In fact, meditation may be even more effective than other interventions at preventing relapse.16 They have noticeable neurological effects, and “may increase functional connectivity” between the areas of the brain that are involved in cravings and substance use. Ultimately, mindfulness17 has been shown to make substance misuse less reflexive, giving clients more control over their own behavior.

While the effects are more pronounced after long-term use, mindful meditation can be beneficial even after “a brief single training session,” finds a study on mindfulness for recovery from opioid addiction.18 People in recovery find that mindfulness benefits their psychological health:19 they experience a greater sense of well-being, decreased emotional reactivity, and greater equanimity when they engage in these techniques. With this sense of calm, it becomes far easier to make long-lasting changes.

Some rehab facilities have a specific focus on mindfulness as a tool for behavioral health. At Flatirons Recovery, for example, practitioners believe that the greater awareness of oneself and habitual patterns gained from mindfulness can empower clients in recovery to make sustainable changes.

Flatirons Recovery offers mindfulness-based addiction treatment among a serene setting in Lafayette, Colorado.

Making Meaning With Mindfulness

During recovery, part of the work is to imagine and then create a life you find meaningful. By incorporating mindfulness into your daily practice, you may become increasingly aware of your own emotional reactions to the world around you. Gently accepting these feelings can help you get in touch with your deepest needs, empowering you to make important changes.

These strategies can not only help during recovery; they may also improve your life in the long term. Even after you complete rehab, you continue implementing healthy habits to manage ongoing stress and avoid relapse.

Although mindfulness can be extremely beneficial, it’s important to proceed with caution. These techniques aren’t right for every client, and they won’t be appropriate for every situation you encounter. Make sure to engage in meditation, yoga, and similar work under the guidance of a therapist.

You can learn more about programs that incorporate this practice into recovery by browsing our list of luxury rehabs offering mindfulness here.

Frequently Asked Questions About Mindfulness for Addiction Recovery

How does mindfulness help in addiction recovery?

Mindfulness promotes self-awareness, reduces cravings, promotes calm, and cultivates coping skills, enhancing the recovery process.

What are the techniques and practices of mindfulness in addiction recovery?

Mindfulness techniques include meditation, breathing exercises, body scans, yoga, and mindful awareness of thoughts and emotions.

Can mindfulness be combined with other addiction treatment approaches?

Yes, mindfulness can complement other treatment modalities, such as therapy, support groups, and holistic therapies, for a comprehensive recovery approach.

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