Traditional therapies have been great in the field of addiction treatment for decades. Individual counseling and group therapy are considered staples of addiction treatment.
However, some newer ideas for building a life of recovery have been emerging in recent years. Let’s discuss them and see if they might be useful to you and worth adding to your life.
Mindfulness and Recovery
How much of your life is on autopilot? How often do you just find yourself floating through the day from one task to another without really thinking about what you’re doing and why you’re doing it? Addiction can be like this. We get into patterns and habits without even noticing them. If we’re not paying attention, we can wake up one day and realize we’re far away from where we want to be.
Mindfulness is a way to stop this autopilot way of living and to take control of your thoughts and reactions. What is mindfulness? Mindfulness is taking a step back and practicing meta-cognition (basically a fancy way of saying “thinking about thinking”). There are many ways to engage in mindfulness, but it boils down to intentionality and being aware of what you’re doing, why you’re doing it, and how you feel about the likely outcomes of your actions.
Many describe mindfulness as being fully in the here and now. This mental shift is essential in recovery because we often get caught up in the past or spend too much time worrying about the future. Mindfulness is an important part of emotional regulation and reminding our nervous system that we are ok. Our brains create all kinds of scenarios about the future and the past that scream “Possible danger!” But all our nervous systems can deal with is the present moment, so they just hear “Danger now!” and react. Mindfulness gets in the way of that and gently reminds us that there’s no danger now, no reaction is necessary.
Some easy mindfulness reflections to start asking yourself in your recovery:
- When I’m feeling triggered, can I slow down and get curious? Where is this feeling of activation coming from? What is the feeling in response to?
- What physical, mental, or social needs are unfulfilled in my life?
- When it starts to feel overwhelming, how can I distract, process, or deal with feelings when they arise?
- Am I taking steps towards or away from where I want to be?
Like most things, mindfulness is a skill that needs to be practiced. Many get discouraged because practicing mindfulness doesn’t always come naturally. But, once implemented, mindfulness can be a powerful tool in your toolbox. Journaling is a great activity to use as part of your mindfulness practice, so you can reflect and process with pen and paper and even look back and reflect on previous feelings and thoughts.
Using Mindfulness to Expand and Explore Your Experience of Therapy
Somewhat counter-intuitively, most change happens in-between counseling sessions. In this sense, mindfulness is empowering, supporting people to learn not only that only they can make a change, but, more importantly, that they are capable of changing.
In the therapy context, using mindfulness to enhance the therapeutic experience might look like being more curious about the experience of using an exercise learned in therapy, let’s use Journaling as an example. As mentioned earlier, Journaling allows for a record of introspective insights. If we delve deeper into our experience of changing, we might record that we felt angry at how hard it is to change. Maybe going even deeper into our experience, we can record what visceral sensation was noticed that “told” us we were angry, and, getting even more curious about it, perhaps we can deduce where it originated. In that way, we can pay attention to what it felt like to change a certain way, how we reacted emotionally, and a way of acting when we feel that emotion that leaves us feeling proud of ourselves. In that way, we can ask our therapist a much richer and more specific question, or ask them to help us brainstorm different ways of handling that emotion.
For many, exploring emotions and acknowledging feelings is not at all an activity they are experienced in. Journaling can then become a way of tracking feelings and asking a therapist for help in exploring them. The point is, wherever someone is with emotional experiencing and exploration, the only ingredient that is important is a willingness to try.
When emotional experience still remains a challenge, it is absolutely not a sign that someone “isn’t trying hard enough,” it just might be a sign that someone responds to another activity. These types of therapeutic activities can include:
- Art therapy – Expressing your inner life through painting, sculpting, drawing, and other forms of visual art.
- Outdoor/adventure therapy – Engaging in therapy while doing a somewhat rigorous acivity outside.
- Drama therapy – Using characters to act out emotions rather than simply state them.
- Music therapy – Singing or playing music as a vehicle for self-expression and self-disclosure.
The specific avenue of therapy someone responds to is far less important than remaining mindful and noticing the impact and experience. The point is not to draw out painful memories faster, but simply to notice what modality lets someone feel comfortable and creates an environment that feels safe.
“Traditional” Approaches to Recovery
Now that we’ve discussed some alternative approaches, it should be said that no one approach to therapy provides more or less benefit to clients – it all revolves around what approach someone responds to. Therapy models remain built around being with someone or some others, be it individual therapy, group therapy, adventure therapy, or what-have-you.
Many people have received support from all kinds of therapeutic approaches. Mindfulness can be a great addition to many forms of therapy and lead to substantial and lasting change. It’s all about finding what works for you.
Addiction affects so many areas of life, so recovery demands that that all these areas receive appropriate awareness and healing. Many people in recovery will acknowledge that they use a mix of different supports, therapies, groups, mantras, and mentors to build a life of recovery that works for them. If one kind of support works for one person, that’s wonderful! However, there is nothing to say it will work for everyone. Most people will try out a few things that don’t feel right and won’t work for them, and that’s perfectly fine – but please also find the things that do!
How To Incorporate Mindfulness and Experiential Therapy in Your Recovery
Starting therapy is a big (often scary) step, no matter how familiar someone is with the “counselling experience.” The hope is that someone is able to celebrate themselves for finding the courage to take that risk and reach out for help and support – no matter what it might look like.
If you live in the Vancouver, British Columbia area and want to speak to a trained and empathic substance abuse counselor, book a complimentary consultation with Bill Arbuckle through the Hard Road Counselling website.
If you want to attend a 30-day recovery program in a healing coastal sanctuary in Baja, California, Mexico, contact After the Storm Recovery to learn more about their program.
About Bill Arbuckle
Bill Arbuckle has worked in the field of addiction treatment since 2009. Bill specializes in treating addiction and trauma using Accelerated Experiential Dynamic Psychotherapy (AEDP) and Eye-Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR).
Bill also has personal experience with addiction and substance use, found his way back to the light, and works to help others do the same. He is the founder and clinical director of Hard Road Counseling, a practice specializing in addiction counselling in Vancouver, British Columbia. He is also the clinical director of After the Storm Recovery Center in Todos Santos, Baja California, Mexico.