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Mindfulness and Recovery

Theresa Jacobs-StewartGregg had been coming to our Monday night Mindfulness and the Twelve Steps meeting for several months, but he'd never really opened up beyond a few words of introduction. Something about the way he looked told me tonight might be different. And it was.

"When I first came out of treatment," Gregg said, pushing blond bangs out of his eyes, "I was on a real high. I moved into a sober house full of hope for the future. I thought my problems were behind me. But in the months since then, sobriety has been really difficult."

Gregg paused and shifted on the meditation cushion, searching for the right words. "Anxious thoughts keep me awake at night. I'm afraid the darkness of insanity is going to sweep in and swallow me. Even though I'm sober, my depression and anxiety are still near. Before, drugs and alcohol numbed out the negativity."

Around the room, there were murmurs of support. Nodding heads. Stories like Gregg's are familiar.

"But, mindfulness meditation has really been helping me," he continued with a shy smile. "I still have anxious thoughts, but sometimes I can realize they're just that--thoughts. I don't have to believe in worst-case scenarios. When I sit on the cushion, I can be ‘like a mountain' and watch my anxiety go by like clouds in the sky."

The good news: A growing body of research indicates that mindfulness meditation can not only help relieve the kind of stress that triggers an urge to use, but can also relieve underlying depression and anxiety as well.

The Mayo Clinic is one of more than 200 leading medical institutions now employing mindfulness-based stress reduction, in which patients sit quietly, breathe deeply, observe whatever thoughts come up, and let them pass by without judgment. Doctors there agree that mindfulness-based stress reduction is proving effective in helping treat all sorts of mental and physical ailments. And researchers around the country are reporting positive results when using mindfulness meditation, especially in combination with psychotherapy, to treat such wide-ranging problems as depression, anxiety, high blood pressure, insomnia, relationship conflicts and relapses in chemical dependency recovery.

My own story is not unlike Gregg's. When I first got into recovery, I thought my troubles would be over. But once I stopped medicating, all the grief, fear and shame that had driven me to abuse drugs in the first place was right there again. And the biggest challenge of my recovery was learning to face those fears head on, to live in the world the way it is--not how I wanted it to be--without running away.

Meditation proved to be a lifesaver, as it has for so many people. I started meditating early in recovery, and it has been my companion--along with the Twelve Step program--for the past 36 years. I've found it a form of liberation from the addictive mind, and a gateway to freedom from my habitual responses. Over time, I have become less reactive, to other people as well as to my own inner thoughts.

Scientists are still learning exactly why meditation works so well in helping people in recovery. There's strong evidence that meditation changes the very chemistry of the brain by building new neural pathways and activating our left prefrontal lobe, the brain's "happiness center."

According to Pema Chödrön, a Buddhist priest and one of the world's foremost teachers of mindfulness, a regular practice of meditation cultivates:

Study after study confirms that relief is available to anyone who will commit the time and effort to the practice of mindfulness meditation. It may not come easy at first. The mind may race, the body may ache, and you may have to experiment with various methods before finding one that feels just right. But ever-growing numbers of practitioners will testify that myriad mental and physical health benefits make the effort worthwhile. Gregg is one of them.

Recovery Matters, May 2014


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