COVID-19 is a massive curveball thrown at anyone currently struggling with substance abuse either on the path to recovery or considering sobriety. Due to the significant health crises, we are experiencing here in the United States (and worldwide) due to the COVID-19 pandemic, and many states have mandated stay at home orders and social distancing protocols. In short, this means most businesses and facilities where people commonly gather are closed. Churches, coffee shops, and local YMCA buildings are also closed or have moved their offerings to online or even curbside service.
For addicts who are in recovery from substance use or substance abuse, this is a special kind of challenge. For most people, recovery from substance abuse consists of weekly or monthly meetings, which are the glue that holds their sobriety together. These meetings generally take place in churches or similar facilities where a group of people will get together and share their experiences and offer support to one another. COVID-19 has made these in-person group gatherings impossible. Unfortunately, for the foreseeable future, they may remain as such.
For this reason, many support groups and therapy groups have moved their services online. This service is great for those who can attend in this way, and virtual communication options have provided people a stable means of communicating with people outside of their immediate living environment. But what happens if you are living alone or in a small group environment with other people who are struggling with the same addictions you previously faced? How will you face triggering events when you cut off from your social support circles?
Outside of virtual communication and virtual substance abuse support groups, other options can help. These alternate options can also be of assistance when you feel as though your enthusiasm for your current program (or your ability to participate) is fading and your stress is increasing as you practice social distancing and remain at home.
Now is the time to add mindfulness practices to your recovery program. The journey to recovery from substance abuse is a long and winding road. It is unrealistic to assume you will walk the same, straight path for the entire trip. Introducing mindfulness to your recovery program could give you an entirely new insight into your recovery process.
What is Mindfulness?
We hear people talk about mindfulness and mindfulness practices all the time, but what exactly is mindfulness? The Buddha introduced mindfulness as a path to spiritual enlightenment over 2,500 years ago. In short, mindfulness is essentially the art of being present in our own lives. It is a means of opening our minds to greater awareness, and to a deeper understanding of ourselves and the world around us.
Studies have shown that mindfulness activities can work to reshape our brains in positive ways. These practices work to improve physical and mental health while promoting overall well-being. They can also help to re-center your mind while controlling anxiety, providing a higher self-awareness, and helping you to acknowledge and cope with emotions that you may be experiencing.
Additionally, incorporating mindfulness exercises into your current treatment for substance abuse can be especially helpful if you are or have struggled with addiction to alcohol, drugs, or other destructive and unhealthy behaviors. Here are some of the reasons why.
Mindfulness and Recovery-How They Are Connected
The brain is an organ that is designed to be shaped by experience and practice. Much like the muscles in our bodies, the brain gets stronger with use and with exercise. If, in the past, one repeatedly engages in thoughts and behaviors which were responsible for propagating their addiction, we were unknowingly shaping our brains in ways that worked against us and prevented mindfulness. Mindfulness exercises allow us to intentionally reshape our thoughts and, consequently, reshape our brains in ways that allow for greater control, awareness, and happiness in all aspects of our lives.
Getting Started with Mindfulness Practice
One of the best things about mindfulness is that we can practice it any time, in any place. This is especially beneficial today as we grapple with stay at home orders and being isolated from some of our other essential practices such as substance therapy groups and substance abuse support groups such as Alcoholics Anonymous and others. In addition to other business closures, places like gyms, yoga studios, and other fitness centers are closed as well. Therefore, the flexibility and “portable” nature of mindfulness exercises are so beneficial right now. Even while staying home and social distancing, you can adopt a new and healthy mindfulness practice.
Below are five core practices you can integrate into your current recovery routine to help you get started.
It is not uncommon for us to be somewhere without actually being there. Think about it. When you are watching a movie with family, having a conversation with someone or sitting in a meeting, how often is your mind a million miles away from your physical location. Usually, when we experience stress or anxiety, we try to distract ourselves in some way by thinking about anything but the present or the event we are trying to forget about. Our phones present another challenge. You may be sitting at dinner with someone physically, but how often is everyone mentally there as well? Usually, an entire table of people can be sitting together, but each are lost in their screens as opposed to participating in a mindful conversation.
It is becoming rarer and rarer for people to be able to focus on the moment at hand. However, when our attention is consistently split, we tend to go through life more on autopilot as opposed to manually controlling how and what happens.
Being mindful is about being present, increasing awareness of the events and occurrences around us and opening our eyes to what is happening right now. Most people in addiction recovery or who still struggle with substance abuse issues are very good at escaping the now. It is not uncommon to have spent many years searching for escapes from stress and anxiety, which are present in everyday life. Being present helps one to learn to cope with reality as it is, not how we choose to perceive it.
Being present starts with paying attention to the ordinary things around you, such as the taste of the food you eat or the feel of soapy water when you wash your hands. Doing this regularly may take practice, but it is ultimately one of the most straightforward mindfulness exercises. Taking a moment to notice the little things helps ground you in the present moment. It also makes you more present for your family and loved ones.
Focus on your breath
Life is full of stress. It is an inescapable part of every day. Whether it is your day to day grind, a complicated relationship, a sudden trigger, or the ongoing and constant negative news coverage (currently surrounding COVID-19), these stressors can get to anyone. When stress feels consistent and overwhelming, anger or anxiety and depression are often the result. Worse still, sometimes people will turn to alcohol or another drug to cope as that is what worked in the past.
There is a simple remedy for stress and anxiety that is rooted in mindfulness; focus on breath. Instead of getting upset by external triggers over which you have little control, center your attention on something internal that you can control. Mindfulness teaches us to use our body’s natural healing powers to manage stress and anxiety. When we are stressed, it is very easy to get pulled into a repetitive cycle of self-defeating thoughts. During these moments, it is essential to take care of our emotional health. Focusing on our breath can help to restore a sense of calm and control, which are critical to keeping recovery on track.
Recognize your thoughts as thoughts
Most people give little attention to the random thoughts that fill our heads. They just kind of live in our minds like white noise that, over time, we have learned to ignore and tune out. Unfortunately, whether we notice them or not, our thoughts are the driving forces behind our feelings and actions. Often, what we think about ourselves and others, determines how we carry ourselves in the world and how we interact with the people around us. Our thoughts also affect our emotional states and have a significant impact on how we manage our day to day lives.
It can be very easy to confuse thoughts with reality or to believe what we think is indeed true. Mindfulness teaches us how to become aware of our thoughts and to learn how to let go of harmful ideas that work against us. Negative self-talk is a common and destructive activity for those who are struggling with addiction or in recovery. Thoughts such as “everyone hates me” or “I’m worthless” drain the energy needed to sustain positive change and forward momentum in addiction recovery. Recognizing and then changing these damaging thoughts allow us to see ourselves in a more accurate (and inspiring) light.
Expand your circle of compassion
Humans are born to connect with other humans. Studies show that when humans are emotionally connected, we thrive both mentally and physically. When we feel disconnected or isolated, we tend to suffer. These feelings of isolation and disconnection are more common today than ever, as many people have found themselves isolating alone due to COVID-19.
Mindfulness practices help us to build a connection by teaching us how to view ourselves and others with compassion. When practicing mindfulness, we learn to let go of judgments, stereotypes, and prejudices that build walls around us and cause isolation. This does not mean we have to support, like, or approve of everything others do. It merely means we are learning to think in terms of compassion and understanding.
Addiction often limits our ability to connect with others in meaningful ways. Social isolation and limited access to our support circles has only made this worse. Through mindfulness practices, the ability to build healthy and positive relationships is strengthened, and ultimately our inner emotions are positively affected.
As a society, we tend to relate being busy to being good. The more activity we engage in, and the more active we are, the better everything will be. Multi-tasking is seen as a virtue, and the more we can accomplish, the more worthwhile we are as a person.
This is not exactly true. Science has shown there is a tremendous value in giving ourselves permission to step away from the hustle of day to day life and simply be still. Mindfulness reminds us that in stillness (in taking a moment to just be with our thoughts) that we can find the wisdom we need to follow our recovery goals. Remember, recovery is a journey, not a destination, and mindfulness can open up our minds to the potential we have to move through treatment.
Mindfulness practices such as meditation, yoga, and other relaxation practices can all promote a sense of inner calm and stillness. This can also be attained through simple actions such as gazing at the night or watching the waves on the ocean. You could also immerse yourself in an activity such as gardening, painting, or playing music. The important thing is to find what works for you and use this when you need to go to a quiet place to still your mind.
COVID-19 has brought with it a lot of changes and forced many people to learn to live with a new normal. Those who struggle with alcohol or substance abuse disorders may experience even more significant challenges as they struggle to adapt their current treatment and recovery programs to fit into social distancing guidelines and stay at home orders. Virtual treatment options aside, there are other practices you can adopt to help limit the power of the triggering experiences you may feel during these times. COVID-19 has brought about heightened levels of anxiety and stress for everyone. These two emotions are highly triggering for people who suffer from substance abuse disorders and can result in relapse or the urge to self-medicate. Now is a good time to consider adding mindfulness practices to your treatment program. This is especially true as these practices can be used anywhere at any time. You don’t need a studio, building, or internet program to achieve the goals of mindfulness practice.
Also, if you are still struggling with substance use or substance abuse challenges and have decided now is the time to seek sobriety, contact us at The Hills. These are indeed challenging times and for those who struggle with addiction, even more so. Despite the challenges we are facing outside, at The Hills, our goal is to help you achieve a healthier you on the inside.