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A Focus on Mindfulness-Based Relapse Prevention

It is human nature to gravitate towards things that give us pleasure, or things that help us avoid pain and discomfort. Some people, for example, reach for chocolate when they are sad, or food when they are stressed. Other people might reach for a bottle of booze. Some turn towards drugs to relieve feelings of distress. Oftentimes, this is where addiction begins – using drugs to escape or to cope.

According to psychologist and researcher Sarah Bowen, M.D., practicing mindfulness in recovery can reduce a person’s tendency to rely on drugs or alcohol when faced with negative feelings or situations. Rather than turning to drugs to relieve pain temporarily, mindfulness allows a person to become more aware of their pain, as well as the root of it, and find healthy solutions to move past it. This is the whole concept behind mindfulness-based relapse prevention. But first, what is mindfulness?

Mindfulness, simply put, is the mental state in which a person is fully aware and conscious of the present moment. It implies that your mind is wholly focused on what is happening with you – your thoughts, your feelings, your body – and also accepting it. It is a level of meditation that allows us to pay attention to our thoughts and feelings without judgement, accepting all that comes our way (including negative experiences), and growing from it.


Mindfulness is not avoiding the present, dwelling on the past, thinking about the future, or getting overwhelmed by any of it. According to The Fix, “Mindfulness meditation teaches people how to accept suffering as a normal, cohesive experience, and then move on from it.” For these reasons, experts believe, it is key to overcoming substance addiction.


Substance addiction currently impacts more than 20 million Americans. And, just like other chronic illnesses such as hypertension, substance addiction is a relapsing disease. Relapse of substance abuse, most often, happens when negative emotions and cravings surface. Programs like mindfulness-based relapse prevention (MBRP) target those triggers exactly, keeping short-circuit, addictive behaviors at bay when negative experiences arise.

Several studies (see here, here, and here) have been done on the efficacy of MBRP and mindfulness meditation in addiction treatment – showing that it is in fact beneficial in preventing relapse of drug abuse. According to this research, mindfulness helps those in recovery accept stress and distress as normal experiences in life, rather than feeling as though they need to be handled with substance use.

Consider this example. Someone is experiencing anxiety about an upcoming event. They can dismiss this worry with alcohol, drugs, or their vice of choice, only to find that the worry still exists upon sobering up. Or, they can practice mindfulness. Mindfulness enables the person to acknowledge and accept their worries, and face them head-on. Rather than avoiding anxiety, they recognize it is there, it is uncomfortable, but it is also temporary. They move past it. In addiction treatment, this can make all the difference. Those in recovery are often faced with difficult cravings, situations, and emotions. Rather than preemptively dismissing the difficult stuff with “harder” stuff, such as drugs and booze, mindfulness allows them to accept the negative experiences and become stronger as a result.

Just recently, the National Institute of Drug Abuse funded a study regarding the efficacy of mindfulness-based relapse prevention and addiction treatment. The study found that, among young women with substance use disorders, mindfulness awareness training correlated with improved outcomes in recovery.

While mindfulness is encouraged and practiced in many reputable addiction treatment centers today, including Turnbridge in New Haven, Connecticut, mindfulness-based relapse prevention is a formal, group-based program founded by researchers, including Dr. Sarah Bowen, at the Addictive Behaviors Research Center, University of Washington. MBRP is about training the mind and changing thought processes that are problematic – negative thinking, reactive behaviors, impulsive decision making, lack of awareness, etc. Negative thinking and feelings tend to trigger cravings. They are relapse triggers. Mindfulness-based relapse prevention is about teaching people in recovery how to recognize and be aware of negativity and negative thought processes before they lead to cravings and impulse.

As Sarah Bowen told Huffington Post, mindfulness helps people become aware of what is happening in their minds. “Once they see that,” she explains, “they have a choice and they have some freedom. We’re trying to teach people to become experts on themselves so they can see these processes unfolding and how they lead to places they don’t want to go. Then, they see the places where they can intervene. How do we become aware of how we feel, and practice sitting with things that are uncomfortable — things we feel like we can’t tolerate? In fact, we can tolerate them. We just need to practice.”

Mindfulness meditation can be beneficial for both a person’s physical and emotional wellbeing. Not only can it ease a person’s emotional pain, it can also promote positive immune function, and reduce depression and stress. Turnbridge, as a result, often integrates mindfulness-based therapies into young men and women’s treatment plans. Mindfulness techniques include mindfulness meditation and urge surfing, and are typically sensory, emotional, and bodily in nature. The goal of mindfulness-based relapse prevention and treatment at Turnbridge is to help individuals observe and accept their internal experiences, rather than modify or suppress them. According to Turnbridge counselor Audrey Bell, LMSW, “This practice allows young men [and young women] to take a non-judgmental stance of one’s self and focus on acceptance of unpleasant thoughts and experiences.”

For more information on mindfulness-based addiction therapy, or to start your loved one on the path towards recovery, please do not hesitate to reach out. Call 877-581-1793 to learn more about Turnbridge’s drug treatment programs for young men and women.