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Natural Awakenings Central New Jersey

Mindfulness: The Missing Ingredient for Recovery

Addiction treatment hasn’t changed much in the past 50 years; however, the face of the addict has changed. While once we saw middle-aged businessmen and housewives in treatment centers and the rooms of Alcoholics Anonymous, the faces we see today often look a lot like our sons and daughters, our brothers and sisters.

As a heroin epidemic rages up and down the East Coast, those faces are becoming younger each year. Most institutions treating addicts today still rely heavily on the tried-and-true 12-step programs, which are a wonderful resource for many addicts. But for some, these solutions haven’t worked. A one-size-fits-all treatment philosophy may not be the best answer for addicts anymore. Finding additional strategies could be the difference between addiction and freedom.

After working in multiple treatment settings, we have seen that change to treatment philosophies comes much too slowly to help the overwhelming tide of addicts pouring through the doors each day. Therefore, additional, alternative strategies for treating suffering addicts and families are essential. One strategy that has been proven to be effective is Mindfulness-Based Relapse Prevention (MBRP), developed by G. Alan Marlatt, Sarah Bowen and Neha Chawla of The University of Washington. MBRP is offered in group settings, usually lasting eight weeks. These informal and formal mindfulness practices can also be taught individually. One addict who had been unsuccessful at recovery after 10 inpatient treatments centers before finding an MBRP group recently said, “It was the missing ingredient to my ongoing recovery.”

In contrast to what has become known as “addiction treatment as usual,” which typically involves a combination of 12-step philosophy and variations on behavioral therapy, MBRP gives addicts the tools they need to relate differently to their thoughts and feelings, including unmanageable urges and cravings, which frequently lead to relapse. People can’t stop urges and cravings, but they can change their relationship to them. MBRP gives individuals that opportunity.

Substance use is a harmful and eventually ineffective strategy to cope with psychological and emotional pain. Often, addicts—even those actively pursuing recovery—will revert back to a sort of “automatic pilot” response in the face of even mild stressors, leading to relapse.

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Often, addiction treatment providers teach addicts to call a sponsor, go to a 12-step meeting or pray to help cope with “high-risk” experiences—and these strategies may result in success. The problem is that for many addicts, urges and cravings are such powerful experiences that rational decision-making is put on hold. MBRP encourages present-focused awareness. Group members gain the ability to develop a “watcher” self—an awareness of thoughts, feelings and physical sensations that might lead to trouble. When practiced correctly, these skills change the way we relate to overwhelming experiences, resulting in a greater capacity to manage emotional and psychological discomfort. The result is a greater degree of choice: We have the ability to respond rather than react to urges and cravings. MBRP can diminish the frequency and intensity of symptoms of depression and anxiety that cause many addicts to begin using substances. Mindfulness practice also addresses another essential element of ongoing recovery: the ability to form and sustain connections.

Studies on 12-step programs reveal the powerful ingredient that works for ongoing recovery is the connection of one addict to another. Addicts feel understood—there are others who have gone through the same thoughts, feelings and experiences. People who actively abuse substances are isolated individuals. They lack connection to others, to the world, and perhaps, most important, to themselves. Mindfulness practice actually increases the empathy centers in the brain, enhancing the capacity to connect. People who practice regularly feel connected to the world and the people in it, and discover a new connection to themselves.

MBRP is a transformative and liberating practice, but it’s important to remember that mindfulness skills should be learned from experienced and educated instructors who are skilled in terms of inquiry (processing and evaluating the experiences of newer students) and able to recognize barriers to successful practice. Instructors should have their own mindfulness practice with personal experience of the challenges, barriers and joys of these transformative skills. Jacky Fernandez, LPC, LCADC and Dan Massey CADC offer warm, compassionate and genuine counseling and mindfulness instruction for groups and individuals in a safe, compassionate, acceptance-based environment at 121 Shelley Drive, Suite 2E in Hackettstown, NJ. Call 646-872-7488 or visit for more information. See ad on this page.