5 Simple Mindfulness Strategies That Will Help you Beat Addiction
With Contributions From Ilse Thompson
Mindfulness is the antidote for addiction. Happily, living mindfully is simple with practice, and getting started doesn’t necessarily require meditation or intense practice. In this article, you will learn five tools for living more mindfully, using both meditation and non-meditation techniques, and how each of these mindfulness strategies offers protection from the mindlessness of addiction.
Before learning these techniques, let’s step back and define addiction and mindfulness, respectively.
An addiction is a harmful attachment to a habit or involvement that provides rewarding experiences that you continue to pursue despite its harmful effects, sometimes to the very depths of despair and self-destruction.
What distinguishes addictions from other habitual behavior cycles is their negative consequences for physical health, relationships, careers, or other core aspects of life. Put another way, addiction prioritizes escapism over living life in the here-and-now; it means doing what’s expedient and predictable rather than doing that which aligns with your values and overall wellness.
Mindfulness is the opposite process.
Definitions of mindfulness differ. In psychology, mindfulness means being continually aware of the settings, emotions, and thoughts that drive your behavior — for example, “I eat every time I enter the kitchen,” or “I reach for a cigarette or a drink when I become tense.”
Alternatively, Buddhism conceives of mindfulness as a fundamental awareness of one’s own experience in the here-and-now. The psychological definition is an awareness of yourself that enables you to control your life decisions; the second is an acceptance of yourself that allows you to be at peace with who you already are.
What’s important is that both versions of mindful living are ways of preventing, transcending, or beating addiction.
Addiction is mindless behavior that drives you to negative — sometimes extremely negative — consequences. In its extreme form, addiction can have a runaway destructive effect that challenges your continued well-being.
Mindfulness, on the other hand, is the key to maintaining and restoring the balance between instant behavior and your overall life situation..
The Life Process Program is inherently mindful. We ask participants questions about their lives and their relationships with the objects of their addictions (drugs, alcohol, sex, gambling, etc.). In answering these questions, people are thinking about and articulating aspects of their lives that they don’t usually consider. They often report that answering simple questions about themselves opens a new level of understanding about their addiction experience.
For example, one LPP client said:
“I didn’t really ever see a pattern to or reasons for my drug use. I felt like I just used without rhyme or reason. But careful examination made me aware of my patterns of thinking about drugs, In fact, I realized that I didn’t spend most of my time actually using. Really, I was most preoccupied with thinking about taking drugs and the effects they would supposedly have.”
Such realizations can be very helpful.
The same client reported that by answering questions about her relationships, routines, values, purpose, surroundings and conversation-styles (and beyond), she was able to identify several predictable patterns that she hadn’t previously recognized. By becoming mindful of these life patterns, she was able to avoid addiction pitfalls and instead give herself the time and space to make healthy life-choices.
Of course, signing up for the Life Process Program is a commitment, and not everybody needs or is ready for the regular cadence of LPP’s addiction-related exercises in their lives. In case you’re one of those people, we’ve listed seven useful mindfulness exercises from LPP that you can do on your own in your home, in your office, or on the go, without massive time commitments.
These exercises, which follow, provide simple but very effective ways to think more clearly and intelligently about the decisions you make.
1.) Micro Meditation (one minute)
How it’s done
You can do this exercise in multiple settings. Just find a spot where it’s not too difficult to concentrate, and where it feels comfortable to breathe deeply for up to one minute. All it takes is three full deep breaths!
You can follow along with this guided meditation track or follow the script below:
Begin by taking a deep breath and hold it for five seconds.
Exhale, and relax.
Take another deep breath, as deeply as you can. Hold it . . . again for five seconds. And as you exhale, just imagine blowing out all of your stress.
Take another deep breath and hold it. And as you exhale, blow out any stress that you’ve been holding onto. Saying to yourself, “Relax now!”
How it works to beat addiction
The way out of destructive behavior cycles (like addictions) is by honing your ability to make choices calmly and reasonably. Quick meditation exercises help bring your awareness to what’s happening in the present, so that you’re able to make decisions based on the most salient information that’s at your disposal. The fact that this exercise can be done quickly and in a range of settings, is a boon.
2.) The AWE Micro Mindfulness Exercise (One minute)
How it’s done
The term AWE means feeling reverential admiration, and wonderment, for a phenomenon or experience beyond your control.
An example of awe might be the feeling you get when you look at the stars and planets at night; when you look at the sunrise over the edge of a mountain; or when you make eye contact with someone you love (or someone you don’t know.)
A growing body of research indicates that actively and regularly pursuing and experiencing moments of awe lead to improved mental and physical health, connectedness, generosity, and happiness.
But you don’t have to make a heroic effort to search for “awe” moments.
Instead, you can find and experience awe in routine experiences. A team of researchers, including Dr. Jake Eagel and Dr. Michael Amster created the following exercise using the word “AWE” as a mnemonic device. The exercise goes as follows:
A = Attention — Pay full attention to something (an activity, a thing, a person, or an experience). This can be another person, a pet, a hike, a song, or your breath (anything at all). .
W = Wait — Hold your attention on this thing for the duration of at least one full, deep inhalation.
E = Exhale / Expand— Exhale slowly and fully. And as you do exhale, continue to hold your attention on this thing, at least until the end of the breath (and beyond).
You can follow this link to a whole list of minute-long AWE exercises.
How it works against addiction
Experiencing addiction is an over-concentration on oneself; experiencing awe means turning attention away from the self and towards the rest of the world at large. Experiencing awe with some regularity encourages creativity and curiosity; it immerses people in the present moment; and it expands focus— all of which counterbalance addiction.
3.) Basic Mindfulness Meditation (15 minutes)
How it’s done
This is a longer version of the one-minute mindfulness meditation that we mentioned previously.
It’s called a body-scan meditation, which means that you’re guided to pay attention to sensations throughout your whole body and gradually become more relaxed and focused solely on your breath.
How it works against addiction
As is true for a one-minute meditation, this 15 minute mindfulness creates space in your mind, so that you have the cognitive bandwidth to make decisions that align with your own best interests (as opposed to resorting to a habitual repertoire of behaviors— like addictions— that may or may not be helpful in your life and may even be harmful).
4.) S.P.O.T Exercise (resisting urges) (5 – 10 minutes)
How it’s done
S.P.O.T. is an exercise from my 2007 book (with Ilse Thompson) Recover! It arose from the premise that acting with free will is the ability to align choices and behaviors with what is truly important. That is: you can train your free will (your conscious decision-making process) to take over.
S.P.O.T. is an acronym that stands for See, Pause, Override, Track. The exercise goes as follows (per page 95 and 96 of Recover!):
See: When you have an addictive urge, see it for what it is. Mindfully appraise the feeling as addiction, distinct from the conscious presence that you are using to recognize it. There is the urge, and there is you acting as witness to the urge. Say, “This is an addictive urge.”
Pause: Allow yourself to sit with your addictive urge, to experience the uncomfortable feelings, or even the emotional pain that results from not immediately acting on your craving. Set a time frame for yourself and commit to not acting on this urge— say, thirty minutes to start. Or if that’s too difficult, start smaller and work your way up.
Override: While you are waiting it out, engage yourself in a life-affirming activity that you know will bring you some sense of accomplishment or satisfaction. Make a list of things you can do at a moment’s notice to override your addictive urge.
Track: Keep track of your S.P.O.T. progress: record how long you were able to Pause and what you did to Override your addictive urge. Focus only on your successes and on what worked for you. Do not berate yourself if you succumbed. Remember, you are strengthening your “weaker hand,” and that takes effort, time, and patience.
5.) “ABC Model” Three-Minute Exercise for challenging your thinking
How it’s done
The ABC model is a concept derived from Rational Emotive Behavioral Therapy (REBT). It’s used to explain the interaction between thoughts and emotions and how those are linked to behaviors.
The ABC model (later expanded to “ABCDE”) is a way of giving proper thought and temporal context to your decision making process. ABCDE is an abbreviation which represents the following five concepts:
A = Activating event – Something happens to you or in the environment around you.
B = Beliefs – You have a belief or interpretation regarding the activating event.
C = Consequences – Your belief has consequences that include feelings and behaviors
D = Disputations of beliefs – Challenge your beliefs to create new consequences
E = Effective New Beliefs – Adoption and implementation of new adaptive beliefs.
How it works against addiction
The decision to turn to addiction as a source of satisfaction is a decision often formed by an irrational belief-system. For example, you might believe that either a.) “a bad thing is going to happen, so I need to turn to my addiction for some sense of relief”, or b.) “I want to feel well and if I don’t turn to my addiction for pleasure in the short-term, then I won’t feel pleasure at all”.
Both of these statements are true if you tell yourself (and believe) that they’re true. But they certainly don’t have to be. Using the ABC approach as a framework can bring you to a more mindful way of thinking about and acting on these experiences and anticipations.
(Learn more about REBT and the ABC Model in this podcast discussion between LPP Coach Zach Rhoads and co-authors of the best-selling book, ‘Three Minute Therapy”, Dr. Michael Edelsetin and Dr. David Ramsay)
Mindfulness in Your Daily Routine
People often succumb to addictive involvements because they are predictable, and there’s comfort in that (even if the behavior is destructive overall). People may choose potentially destructive behavior either because they have no attractive alternatives. Or they may choose this behavior because they’re unaware of those better alternatives. And still sometimes it’s more simple than all of this— sometimes people act against their own best interests because their minds are too busy and they’re not thinking clearly.
You’ll need to become more mindful if you want to overcome the negative kickbacks of your addiction— no matter the dynamics or the severity of your addiction. And these five exercises provide you with a reasonable starting-point for doing so.
This is, by no means, an exhaustive list of mindfulness strategies, but they are all simple and powerful exercises that capture the essence of what it means to be mindful. Some of these exercises involve breathing and meditation; others are simply reflections on your own thought-processes. But they are two different means to the same mindful end. They can work independently or in tandem with respect to preventing and beating anxiety, depression and addiction..
Mindfulness via meditation is tantamount to freeing up space in your mind, so that you can think and behave more deliberately and responsibly. Therefore, meditation sets the foundation for the kind of mindfulness that involves cognitive therapies a la LPP. But the ultimate mindfulness practice is simply positive engagement with life on life’s terms, which we help all of our LPP participants to achieve at their own pace!
For more information about mindfulness, meditation, and the proper relationship between the two (including how to use them in order to kick addiction), listen to this episode of the LPP Podcast, which is an interview with CEO of the Brightmind Meditation App, Toby Sola.