The Practice of Mindfulness in Addiction Therapy

by Jenifer Talley, PhD

In my practice, I work with many clients whose addiction may be construed as a maladaptive response to “discomfort of unknown origin.” A patient will tell me: “I’m not sure how to describe it. I was feeling something. And before I knew it I had picked up.” Using mindfulness can help such clients explore, define and overcome these painful feeling states so that alternative nonaddictive ways of responding can be employed.

The process of becoming non-judgmentally aware of the components of a compulsion weakens its power. That’s why increasing numbers of clinicians are eagerly incorporating mindfulness into the treatment of substance use disorders, eating disorders, sex addiction and other compulsive behaviours.

At the same time, however, you have a responsibility to be mindful of exactly how to present the practice to a client. What expectations and assumptions are we inadvertently expressing? What values and goals are we implicitly communicating? And how can we tailor this approach to meet the unique needs of each client? Such an inquiry differentiates the “mindfulness” of pop culture from the mindfulness that deeply improves the quality of a life. Through my clinical practice and my own meditation practice I have found that being very careful and painstaking is crucial to applying mindfulness to therapy.

Jon Kabat-Zinn, PhD, founding director of the Center for Mindfulness in Medicine at the University of Massachusetts Medical School, defines mindfulness in his book Full Catastrophe Living as “paying attention in a particular way: on purpose, in the present moment and non-judgmentally.” To me, the fundamental aspect of mindfulness is the capacity to witness your internal experience in the moment rather than instantly reacting to it. But how do you teach clients how to be “mindful”?

With substance users, I often introduce mindfulness before we have fully determined a treatment plan or goal (for example, abstinence or moderation). Mindfulness can provide both the client and me with valuable information about what is unfolding inside. This is another benefit of mindfulness: the cultivation of curiosity about how our thoughts, feelings and body convey important information. More “data” can help promote greater understanding and healthier decision-making.

One of the first things I do is teach a client to slow down and note the mental “chatter” or “noise” that typically occurs nearly continuously with little awareness. The content is often harsh, critical self-talk that triggers discomfort that, in turn, triggers the habitual, automatic response of substance use and other risky behaviours. Mindfulness can help clients become more aware of these patterns and develop the capacity to choose from a greater repertoire of responses.

I frequently work with clients who state that they consume more alcohol or other substances than intended. They are often unaware of the internal process leading up to this increased use. In addition, there may be feelings of shame, along with fears associated with being able to sustain long-term changes. Guiding attention back to the moment in order to catch these mental habits, including the tendency toward shame and doubt, as they occur is key.

Here is a case study (based on a composite of several clients) that exemplifies my application of mindfulness to individual therapy:

My client, Joan, tells me, “I don’t know what happened. I started feeling uncomfortable, and before I knew it, I had three glasses of wine and don’t remember what I said during the rest of the evening or how I got home. Now I’m even more embarrassed and worried that I said something stupid. This is hopeless.”

Initially I try to model mindfulness through guided retrospection. I tell her, “Let’s try to relive that night: what you were thinking, how you were speaking to yourself, how your body was feeling, what sensations you noticed, and what led to the decision to have another glass of wine.”

I use careful questioning to unravel the specific details. Joan recalls that entering the social situation, she automatically compared herself to others and assumed that she did not measure up in some way. This thought process was associated with subtle changes in her body, including chest tightening, shortness of breath, and tension in shoulders and neck, and finally a holistic mind/body reaction that “this is intolerable.” For this client, like many others, this wholesale aversive appraisal triggers the desire for relief along with powerful cravings for substance use. All too soon it is the morning after and my client finds herself hung over and ashamed.

In our mindfulness work together, we practice noting this entire habitual pattern, and we explore the assumption that the escape from the “intolerable” feeling is to have another drink. By now, Joan has become authentically curious about the ways in which wanting her thoughts and feelings to be other than they are in the moment can generate cravings for substances. While this practice is focused on remembering a specific moment in a risky situation, it helps prepares for future stressful moments.

Over time, we practice breathing exercises so that she can begin to notice her breathing during these moments. As she catches her breathing become harsh as her mind spin toward self-criticism, she can slow down her breathing in order to tap into a sense of stability and groundedness. From there, Joan can shift her focus to her senses and re-attend to the holistic experience of the stressful situation and take thoughtful action.

Ultimately, mindfulness drives at the root of compulsive behaviours by undermining the assumption that inner experience is intolerable and therefore requires immediate relief through substance use.

An often-overlooked aspect of utilizing mindfulness in mental health is the assumptions that clinicians bring to the practice. As long as a collaborative, fine-tuned approach evolves out of a moment-by-moment understanding of where the client is, I find that people at many different stages of ambivalence, substance use and recovery can benefit. Often, a therapist’s having prerequisites to practicing or specific goals is an obstacle. All you need is a curious, compassionate style of relating to experience.

Reprinted from The Fix with kind permission of the author. Dr. Jenifer Talley is a clinical psychologist who specializes in the treatment of trauma and co-occurring substance misuse. Working from an integrative harm reduction framework, Dr. Talley’s approach is interactive and focuses on the development of practical skills to manage intense emotions, reduce self-judgment, and promote self-compassion. Mindfulness skills are integrated into an active exploration of the interrelationship between thoughts, feelings, physical sensations, and behaviours, along with their contribution to substance misuse and relationship issues. She is the Assistant Director of New York City’s Center for Optimal Living, an addiction treatment centre based on principles of integrative harm reduction psychotherapy.

About the Authors

Contributors to Renascent’s Blog share their stories of addiction and recovery and/or their professional expertise.