Mindfulness Training May Improve Relapse Rates

Many recovering addicts struggle to overcome a cycle of addiction, treatment and relapse. Despite a deep desire to end the addiction, they may not have an adequate support system, they may not be receiving the care that best matches their particular situation or they may find that the techniques learned in treatment are challenging to translate to the real world. A recent study documented the potential benefits of mindfulness meditation into substance abuse therapy, including relapse prevention. 

The study, led by researchers at the Center for the Study of Health and Risk Behaviors at the University of Washington, included 286 individuals undergoing treatment for substance abuse. They were divided into one of three groups following their initial treatment, with the first group participating only in group discussions, the second enrolled in a “relapse-prevention” therapy style that coached the patients in avoiding settings where drug use might be particularly tempting and the third included mindfulness-based training, in which meditation sessions were used to learn self-awareness.

At a six-month follow-up point the participants that were enrolled in the relapse prevention group and those in the mindfulness group were less likely to have relapsed into drug or alcohol use when compared with the patients that had received only group therapy.

At the one-year point the participants that received mindfulness training reported fewer days of drug use and had a reduced risk of engaging in heavy drinking when compared with participants in the relapse prevention group.

The researchers stress that mindfulness training is not intended to replace traditional therapies, but instead could be used as a way to augment treatments already proven to be effective in preventing relapse.

Study researcher Sarah Bowen, an assistant professor at the University of Washington, says that relapse prevention is a challenge that requires multiple approaches, and that more research is necessary to determine which patients may most benefit from mindfulness meditation.

The research was based on previous findings that between 40 and 60 percent of those that receive addiction treatment experience a relapse within one year of treatment completion. Many who receive treatment are successful through the use of traditional therapies or participation in a 12-step program, but for some additional strategies are needed.

Bowen describes mindfulness-based relapse prevention as “training in awareness.” The program she helped design focuses on two-hour sessions, each with 30 minutes of guided meditation followed by a discussion of the meditation session. The patients describe what they experienced during meditation and how it relates to their addiction.

The meditation sessions are designed to teach the patients to pay attention to experiences or sensations that they might ordinarily ignore, such as how it feels to eat a bite of food. The sessions are also intended to draw attention to thoughts and feelings. Mindfulness training may be effective in preventing relapse because of its ability to make individuals more aware of their thoughts, and teaches people how to recognize and “be with” uncomfortable feelings like cravings.

Through mindfulness training, the participants were able to learn ways to deal with thoughts and feelings that occur in everyday life. Other prevention programs may only deal with the situations in which temptations are most likely to occur. Individuals with addictions are also often struggling with symptoms of mood disorders like depression. The emotional challenges can result in using drugs to self-medicate. Mindfulness can help patients learn to tolerate negative emotions and increased levels of stress, giving them another option besides turning back to their substance addiction.

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