Meditation as a Tool in Substance Abuse Treatment

Meditation as a Tool in Substance Abuse Treatment

People in court-ordered drug treatment programs tell a joke that goes like this:

"What did the judge give you?"

"I was sentenced to 20 years of hard yoga."

Indeed, it can seem like a joke to think that counting your breaths or repeating a nonsense phrase (mantra) can help a person stop using drugs. Nevertheless, a recent study of 139 drug treatment centers that enroll anywhere from 20 to 1000 people found that over 90% used some form of meditation or yoga to help their clients overcome addictions.

Although the practice of meditation has been around for over 5,000 years, it has only been used in Western medicine since the late 1960s. It was introduced here by Chinese therapists who were at first unsure if Westerners could learn and benefit from the ancient practice. Meditation seemed to have a calming effect on people with substance abuse issues, and began to be widely used in treatment.

"As addiction professionals, we face people every day who are suffering," one therapist explained. "When we consider a concept or method, we need to ask the essential question: does it work? And yes, meditation works."

Up until very recently, scientists knew that meditation could produce measurable beneficial effects on the body but they did not know how or why. One examination of over 400 studies of meditation found that it is not only useful for treating substance abuse, it also helps conditions such as hypertension, anxiety disorders, and post-traumatic stress syndrome. Meditation produced improvements in measurements of blood pressure, heart rate, cholesterol, glucose, potassium, and heart and immune function. People who meditated regularly showed higher levels of empathy, joy, sensory perception, concentration, anger management, and even intelligence.

Many of these controlled studies involve people in substance abuse treatment programs for methamphetamine, cocaine, alcohol, heroin, and prescription drugs. These studies divide participants into people who are taught meditation and those who receive treatment without it. The meditators nearly always have fewer cravings, fewer relapses, and improvements to mood and in anger management. One study found that meditation produced better results than using simple relaxation techniques. Females tend to be more adept at learning how to meditate than males.

What is even more exciting is that the most recent studies have found that meditation actually produces physical changes in brain structures associated with empathy, learning, memory, self-awareness, compassion, and introspection. In early 2011, researchers at Massachusetts General Hospital found changes in the brains of those who participated in an eight-week meditation program but not among the control group who did not meditate. As study leader Susan Lazzar said, "Our study demonstrates that changes in brain structure may underlie some of the reported improvements, and that people are not just feeling better because they are spending time relaxing."

People who are in substance abuse treatment are most often taught a non-religious technique called mindfulness meditation. They learn to concentrate on the present moment to develop patience, trust, letting go, acceptance, and a non-judgmental attitude. The technique is usually about forcing yourself to be still and to concentrate on involuntary body functions such as your breath or your heart beating. You allow your thoughts to "bubble up" and burst like bubbles in a glass of ginger ale, just letting them come and go without judging them.

How this technique translates into relapse prevention may be something like this. The person experiences an event or emotion that could trigger drug use again, for example, he receives an invitation to go out with a drug-using friend. By learning to let go of his emotions and judgmental thoughts about the incident, he lets go of the emotional content too, and is better able to make an objective decision about what to do. Emotionally-charged thoughts such as "I really want to use again," or "I’ll hate myself if I do," can just "bubble up and pop." He becomes less stressed about the triggering event, and is more likely to decide to take a walk, call a friend in his support group, or use some other technique to avoid a relapse.

Therapists believe that meditation also opens up their clients’ receptivity to emotion, which in turn makes them more open to the therapeutic process. As one counselor said, "Drugs mask underlying emotional issues. Repressed material comes up after meditation which increases awareness and emotional receptivity." An even simpler theory is that meditation reduces stress levels and depression, and that in turn reduces substance abuse.

Currently, there is no "magic bullet" or simple cure for substance abuse. You cannot go to a doctor, who tells you to take two pills, go to sleep, and be cured the next day. Until science finds that magic cure, meditation will remain one of the most powerful tools we have to help the millions who suffer from chemical additions.


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