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Mindfulness-Based Relapse Prevention: Does It Work for Addicts?

Even after seeking addiction treatment, 40% to 60% of patients are likely to relapse. Surprisingly, relapse is often viewed as a natural part of the recovery process. Learning how to free yourself from the grasps of addiction indefinitely takes time. Often times, drug or alcohol abuse is built on a foundation of stress. Once stressors re-appear, many patients resort back to what they’re comfortable with — drugs or alcohol. As addiction is a chronic issue, longer addiction treatments can reduce the likelihood of a relapse. Appropriate aftercare programs are also effective. Long-term relapse prevention techniques and programs are particularly popular. They help patients develop skills to stay abstinent. As a result, most recovery centers offer various options in their aftercare program. Mindfulness-based relapse prevention is one of the many new relapse prevention treatments that have appeared in recent years.

Importance of Relapse Prevention Programs

Even after completing an addiction treatment, there are still many obstacles in your journey to sobriety. You’ll still have to:

  • Deal with withdrawal symptoms that can last for years after your last hit or drink
  • Actively handle cravings for the drug or alcohol, especially during stressful times
  • Learn how to turn down any friends that might offer you drugs or alcohol
  • Identify triggers that resulted in the addiction and alter your response to them

What Is Mindfulness-Based Relapse Prevention?

Mindfulness-based relapse prevention is derived from Buddhist theory. It is used to treat not only drug and alcohol abuse, but also depression and other mental conditions. The basis of this teaching falls on changing your mental state and beliefs. The fundamentals involve developing a mindfulness or an awareness to the present moment while being open to accepting things as they are. Teachings include, but are not limited to:

  • The healing power of awareness
  • Cultivating mindfulness on a daily basis
  • Sidestepping the ruminative mind
  • Reconnecting and befriending your feelings
  • Understanding that thoughts are creations of the mind
  • Creating a personal space for breathing and relaxing

The most difficult aspect of the program is learning how to weave mindfulness into your life consistently. Practice the techniques until they become a habit.

How the Treatment Program Works

In most cases, this treatment is prescribed 2 hours a week for 8 weeks. Counselors recommend daily exercises to practice at home. The program is separated into 8 sessions. Each session targets a different branch of mindfulness.

Session 1: Automatic Pilot and Relapse

Patients discuss their tendency to behave mechanically or unconsciously to certain triggers. This behavioral results in substance use. This brings a sense of awareness to the issue. During this session, patients will learn how to perform body scans. This helps them to pay more attention to their body. Mindfulness is also explored through guided experience.

Session 2: Awareness of Thoughts and Emotions Related to Triggers and Cravings

Counselors introduce conscious ways of approaching triggers, cravings and negative thoughts. Patients learn how automatic reactions to triggers prevents them from being present in the moment. They also learn how certain emotions and thoughts may trigger unwanted cravings. One of the many branches of mindfulness-based prevention relapse is to change how patients think.

Session 3: Mindfulness Practices in Daily Life

Patients are introduced to practices that encourage them to stay in the moment. This leads to more awareness of thoughts, emotions and sensations. Patients further practice learning to recognize healthier alternatives and options.

Session 4: Mindfulness Practices in High-Risk Situations

Patients learn to identify triggers that are most likely to cause personal relapse. Counselors teach different ways of practicing mindfulness. Patients learn how to stay in the moment and make conscious decisions versus reacting automatically.

Session 5: Balancing Acceptance and Skillful Action

The meaning and importance of acceptance and coming to terms with one’s lifestyle is discussed. Learning how to accept the situation is key to preventing relapses and stressful situations. Patients also learn about the differences between skillful action and automatic reactions.

Session 6: The Role of Thoughts in Relapses (Seeing Thoughts as Thoughts)

Patients learn how to recognize thoughts as just thoughts. They will come and go like clouds in the sky. Thoughts are not facts, and should not be acted upon. Counselors will also discuss and explore the relationship between thoughts and relapses. Patients learn how to distract themselves from their own thoughts.

Session 7: Balancing Self-Care and One’s Lifestyle

Patients explore the importance of lifestyle balance and taking care of themselves. Health individuals are less likely to experience a relapse. Personal warning signs are identified, and patients learn how to best respond to their own triggers. A look at typical daily activities identifies which activities are beneficial and which ones aren’t.

Session 8: Building Social Support and Continuing Mindfulness Practices

Patients create reminder cards on who to call and what to do instead of abusing substances. Counselors explore the importance of a strong support system, and help patients build their own.

The primary goals of this treatment

Mindfulness-based relapse prevention is recommended to patients after they have undergone initial treatment for their addiction. As an aftercare program, this treatment hopes to achieve the following goals:

  1. Developing an awareness and understanding of personal reactions and triggers
  2. Altering one’s relationship and response to challenging emotions and physical experiences
  3. Building a lifestyle that supports mindfulness by changing key habits and thoughts
  4. Nurturing a nonjudgmental and compassionate perspective and approach towards oneself

Many of these goals target the patient’s emotional state. It helps build better responses to certain triggers to avoid relapses. The treatment also helps patients learn about themselves and their relationship with addiction. By becoming aware of your emotions, you’ll learn what triggers relapses within you. The theory is that this will help you develop tailored skills to combat the triggers.

Does It Work for Addicts?

The most important question of the hour: does mindfulness-based relapse prevention work for addicts? The short answer is yes. Studies have found that mindfulness-based relapse prevention works, but it often works just as well as other comparable interventions. As a result, it’s not the only choice out there although it is a favorable option in preventing relapses and medical and legal problems. Like other comparable interventions, this approach helps:

  • Prevent treatment dropouts
  • Deal with depressive and anxiety symptoms
  • Prevent relapse to substance use
  • Reduce frequency and quantity of use during relapses

This type of treatment program does have some beneficial qualities. There is some evidence that this approach improves patients’ quality of life, and also decreases the intensity of withdrawal cravings and negative consequences. It also improves overall mindfulness for a clearer state of mind.

Other treatment options that prevent relapses

While mindfulness-based relapse prevention offers many favorable qualities, it is not the only option. There are many comparable interventions that offer similar characteristics and qualities. Other options include:

  • Lengthening inpatient or outpatient treatment services
  • Attending individual or group counselling services
  • Finding a mentor or a friend to air grievances to
  • Building new habits with cognitive behavioral therapy
  • Using certain medications to cope with cravings
  • Changing friend groups and environments to healthier alternatives
  • Living in a sober living home with others in similar situations
  • Avoiding old haunts, like bars, lounges and raves
  • Practicing healthier habits, like eating right and exercising regularly

The most successful relapse prevention programs will prevent emotional relapse. This is typically the primary cause for a patient’s downfall. Finding a relapse prevention program that targets your emotional and mental state is key in avoiding relapses.

How to Handle and Survive Relapses

Regardless of the prevention technique implemented, relapses happen. Some relapses are more minor than others, and easier to bounce back from. The hardest part of surviving a relapse is often the mental turmoil. Most people wallow in self-pity and guilt. The key to handling and surviving a relapse is to push through it, and accept that it’s a part of recovery. Don’t let the relapse define who you are as a person. Be honest about the relapse, and let your counselors and family members know. Take ownership of the situation to turn it around. Other recommendations include:

  • Drinking more water, as a relapses will usually remove fluids from the body
  • Eating an apple or a banana for the vitamins, which will help you feel better
  • Staying active by going for a walk or a run; this also helps clear the mind
  • Staying positive by doing something, like watching a comedy show,  to improve your mood
  • Finishing up on work and chores, like the laundry, to feel more productive
  • Getting emotional or mental support by calling a friend, family member or mentor

All of the above activities help deal with the anxieties that often come with relapses. Don’t let the relapse take control over your day. Acknowledge that you relapsed, and move on. Mindfulness-based relapse prevention also teaches you to use your relapse as a learning opportunity. Think long and hard about the triggers that caused the relapse. Become aware of your emotions at the time of the relapse, and how you felt afterwards. Figure out better alternative paths and approaches to take next time.

Incorporate a Relapse Prevention Program with Your Treatment

Relapse is no big deal. Many addicts will relapse more than once on their journey to sobriety. The key is learning how to develop the skills necessary to avoid relapses. To better free yourself from the grasps of addiction, try relapse prevention in rehab. As there are many options available, speak to one of our counselors to determine which option may be best for you.