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In recent decades, mindfulness and meditation have become popular catch-words, described as the newest pathway to healing in everything from professional journals to pop psychology columns in fashion magazines. The concept of present-centered awareness, though a component of most ancient philosophies and religions, seems to be a experiencing a heroic comeback. Why now? Is it as helpful as everyone seems to think it is? And can it help people get and stay sober?

Mindfulness is often considered an umbrella term that encompasses everything from sitting meditation to mindful movement practices such as yoga. A very basic definition of mindfulness is the intentional focus of one’s attention on some aspect of present experience, with an attitude of non-judgment, willingness, and openness.

You can’t really do it “wrong” – as long as you’re bringing your attention back to some “anchor” in the present moment – such as your breathing – you’re doing it just fine.

With modern research methods, we’re finding that people who meditate or regularly practice mindfulness are happier, calmer, and healthier. Mindfulness seems to be so powerful that it is being considered a new “wave” in psychotherapy, similar to the development of behavioral and cognitive-behavioral therapies, and it is being used in treatment centers, therapists’ offices, and hospitals all over the world.

The recent rise in popularity of mindfulness is a necessary response to the advances in technology that give us everything we want, as quickly as we want it – from how fast we can cook a meal, to how fast we can do our work, to how fast we can connect with someone across the world. The more automated our world becomes, the more quickly we can have our impulses gratified, and the more we lose touch with basic human connection – to our inner selves and to those around us. As technology speeds everything up, we need mindfulness to help us slow it back down.

In many ways, mindfulness is essentially the opposite of addiction. People often start using alcohol and drugs as a way to avoid whatever they are experiencing in the present moment, to alter their reality, or to feel differently in their mind, body, or spirit. As an addiction develops, people often continue to use in order to avoid withdrawal symptoms and the feelings of guilt and shame that often result from drug and alcohol use.

So does practicing mindfulness help keep people sober?

So far, the research evidence is telling us that it does. Therapies with mindfulness components such as Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, Dialectical Behavior Therapy, and Mindfulness-Based Relapse Prevention, are all showing positive results with people with substance use disorders. Mindfulness seems to help people rediscover their values, tolerate emotional distress and painful experiences, recognize and respond to triggers, reduce use of addictive substances, build more fulfilling relationships, and reconnect with their spirituality.

What’s the best way to start practicing mindfulness?

Well, you can start right now, right here, while you’re reading this article. Take a moment to notice yourself as you read this – what’s going through your mind? What emotions are you feeling? What physical sensations are you experiencing in your body? Can you take three mindful breaths – without trying to change them – just noticing them – and return to reading? What is painful in your life right now? What is bringing you joy or peace? If you’re willing to recognize those things and want to try something to help you accept where you are and move toward where you want to be, you might want to explore a mindfulness practice. There are lots of ways to do this. I’m a therapist, so my top suggestion is to find a therapist who uses a mindfulness-based approach. If you want to read more about how mindfulness might be helpful to you, there are plenty of books to explore. Here are a few of my favorites:

  • Wherever You Go, There You Are by Jon Kabat-Zinn
  • The Miracle of Mindfulness by Thich Nhat Hanh
  • Get Out of Your Mind and Into Your Life by Steven Hayes

Mindfulness is a very old, but suddenly new again, approach to wellness that can help people improve their relationships with themselves – their minds and bodies – and with the people in their lives. It can help one realize a sense of purpose and an ability to manage difficult life experiences, and to feel joyful moments more intentionally and fully. Mindfulness is a life-enhancing, stress-reducing, and luckily non-addictive path to expanding your recovery, and it’s all around you if you look for it!

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  • Dr. Peters earned a joint BA/BS from the University of Pittsburgh, and a Master Degree and a Ph.D. in Clinical Psychology from the University of Colorado at Boulder. She joined the Hazelden staff in 2006 and served as a Psychologist in the addiction units and as a faculty member of the addiction studies graduate school. Dr. Peter’s academic and clinical interests include assessment, diagnosis, and treatment of addiction and co-occurring disorders, multicultural counseling, and mindfulness based cognitive-behavioral psychotherapies. She has a particular interest in assessment of treatment center capacity to treat various addiction related disorders though the application of the Dual Diagnosis Capability in Addiction Treatment (DDCAT) Assessment.

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