Science is only beginning to catch up with what yogis and Buddhists have known for centuries. Mindfulness, meditation, and conscious breathing techniques are effective ways to deal with stress. They can even help us live better, longer lives.

A new study by researchers at Dublin’s Trinity College reveals that there’s a neurophysiological link between mindful breathing and a healthy brain.

Mindfulness is in vogue in the corporate and celebrity worlds, but can it also help people who struggle with drug and alcohol addiction to stay clean?

Read on to learn just how promising mindfulness based relapse prevention (MBRP) can be.

First: What Is Mindfulness?

Mindfulness is an ancient practice. In recent years, it’s gained traction thanks to a form of therapy called dialectical behavior therapy, or DBT. DBT was originally developed as a treatment for borderline personality disorder.

Therapists soon found that DBT is a good tool for anyone because it offers simple, effective techniques for coping with life’s stressors.

Mindfulness is one of four skills taught by DBT. The other three are distress tolerance, interpersonal effectiveness, and emotion regulation. All of these can assist with relapse prevention. However, this article focuses on how staying in the present moment can work for recovery.

Mindfulness Based Relapse Prevention

The Trinity College study showed that mindful breathing can positively impact our ability to pay attention. Other scientific research indicates mindfulness can also work to inhibit neurological processes that deal with cravings, anxiety, depression, and negative effects. In other words, mindfulness may help combat some of the factors that contribute to relapse.

One of the key tenets of mindfulness is acknowledgment of a situation or emotion. In traditional relapse prevention programs, the recovering addict is often encouraged not to even think about her cravings or her former drug use.

The idea is that by banishing all thoughts of drugs, staying clean is easier.

Yet that tactic can often turn into the proverbial “elephant in the room.” When you’re not supposed to think of something, it’s difficult to think of anything else. Mindfulness based relapse prevention flips the script. It asks people to accept the temptation to use again is normal, and may always be a part of their life.

Making the Mind a “No Judgment Zone”

In fact, mindfulness asks the individual to stop judging their thoughts and behaviors. This can help them accept and forgive themselves.

Of course, it can be extremely difficult for recovering addicts to stop judging themselves based on their use of drugs or their abstinence. After all, that is how society, family members, and friends judge them.

Such judgment sets up a duality that can be difficult to cope with: can the addict remain “good” for the rest of her life? Or will she give in to the temptation to be “bad” and use again?

MBRP eliminates this black or white, all or nothing way of thinking. It can help the person who is in recovery accept herself, flaws and all.

Surfing the Urge

It’s not just inchoate navel-gazing. Mindful relapse prevention also provides practical tools for the recovering addict to use. One of these is “urge surfing,” and it means exactly that — riding the wave of a craving until it crests, then crashes and recedes.

When an addict gets the urge to use, all she has to do is surf. She doesn’t have to tamp down the craving or judge herself for having it — nor does she have to give in to it. With practice, she’ll learn that although it may not feel like it, the craving will eventually end.

Until then, the other strategies of mindfulness will see her through. These include deep breathing, paying attention to her feelings, and accepting those emotions.

One of the major advantages of urge surfing? It helps the addict from spiraling downward with negative thoughts, like “I’m such a failure” or “I’ll never manage to stay sober” or “why can’t I be strong?”

All too often, thoughts like those are a shortcut that leads directly to the bottle, the pipe, or the needle.

Does MBRP Work Better Than Other Programs?

The results of one study, published in the medical journal JAMA Psychiatry in 2014, point towards yes. Researchers compared recovering addicts who had undergone MBRP-based sobriety programs with those who used traditional 12-step programs, such as Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous.

The relapse rate among the former group was lower than among the 12-step program participants.

There was another surprising finding. The individuals who used mindfulness based relapse prevention techniques used fewer substances overall. In other words, their relapses were less extensive and severe.

This is not to say that MBRP should replace other approaches to relapse prevention. Many people who are in recovery use a combination of various skills to stay clean and sober. However, it does underscore the potential benefits of incorporating mindfulness.

In the Final Analysis

Mindfulness based relapse prevention has some principles in common with the 12 step model used in AA and NA. Both programs rely on meditation, acceptance, and thoughtful examination of the self. Other aspects of working the 12 steps are not in line with MBRP. These include admitting powerlessness, appealing to a higher power, and labeling oneself as an addict or as diseased.

However, as one of the most well-known adages of AA would say, individuals, can take what they like and leave the rest. Any tool that can help a person in recovery should go in her toolkit — there’s no need to subscribe strictly to one modality.

Mindfulness based relapse prevention is not a panacea. But it is one approach that recovering addicts might want to learn more about.

Is someone you love struggling with addiction? We encourage you to read more about our one-of-a-kind selection and review process. Here at Addicted Minds, our goal is to match patients with clinical programs that can provide them the very best standard of care.