In Mindfulness and Addiction Part I I wrote about the potential to use nonjudgmental present moment awareness (aka mindfulness) to become more attuned to triggers, cravings, and urges and help break the cycle of addictive behavior. I also used the caveat “this is easier said than done.”
When struggling with addiction, it becomes all too common to switch onto auto-pilot with little to no awareness of the thoughts, feelings, and sensations that can tip you off balance and bring you to that next moment of grasping. In his research, the late Dr. Alan Marlatt, past Director of the Addictive Behavior Research Center at the University of Washington, gave us insight into what is helpful to be aware of.
Here are 3 things to bring more awareness to:
- Body-Feeling State – It helps to be aware of emotions and how they manifest in the body. Are you feeling a constriction in the chest due to anxiousness, salivation in the mouth due to excitement, or maybe tension in the body due to anger? It’s important to become aware of these emotions and instead of avoiding them through the next fix, we can learn to bring a non-judgmental awareness and curiosity to the actual feelings of them. In this approaching instead of avoiding, we cultivate compassion for ourselves.
- Addictive Thought Styles – Common mind traps arise in connection with the body-feeling state. Do you notice any denial? “I don’t have a problem with my drinking” or “I just like to shop, I’ll pay off my credit cards later.” How about blaming – “It’s my wife’s fault that I smoke so much, she’s always on my back.” Rationalizing anyone? “I’ve worked really hard today and deserve this.” As soon as we bring awareness to these mind traps, we’ve stepped outside of them, are present, and are closer to being able to change our behavior.
- Negative Interpretations – When caught in an addictive cycle, we also usually engage in interpreting events for the worse which helps tip us off balance and become more susceptible to auto-pilot. For example, if the addiction is with alcohol, does a sip of wine mean you had a “slip” or is it a “full blown relapse”? If it’s a full blown relapse and then you consider yourself a “failure,” you’re likely going to spin in a downward cycle leading to more uncomfortable emotions and being tipped further off balance. It can happen very fast. When a recent date doesn’t call back, does that mean the romance is cooling or that the person has been busy? Again, when we automatically attribute it to the romance cooling, it can send us in a downward spiral. This is not to say just interpret everything with rose colored lenses, it’s just saying, let’s take a look at how we automatically choose the negative one and branch out from there. The list of examples is long.
The trick here is to just simply be aware of any of this when it arises without judging it. Start to notice how these 3 things are interconnected. You may feel an uncomfortable emotion set in and while you’re choosing to actually be aware of how it manifests in your body, the door in the mind opens to rationalizing ”maybe I could just have one drink, after all I deserve it.” Aha, there it is. Name it and gently bring the attention back to noticing the feeling that is there.
With this new space you might also choose to call a friend or sponsor or go to a meeting. This is not meant to be a replacement to any 12-step or other secular meetings, but can also be seen as a complement to it. Whether the view is that addiction is a brain disease or whether it’s a behavioral issue, or both, we can still become more mindful of the interplay of triggers, cravings, and urges and create more space to break out of auto-pilot, interrupt the relapse cycle, and approach our pain, cultivating more care and compassion for ourselves in everyday life.
Stay tuned, in a future post I’ll discuss one practice that can help. As always, please share your thoughts and questions below. Your insight and questions provide a living wisdom for us all to benefit from.