The traditional approach to drug and alcohol rehab includes a number of support services designed to help recovering addicts prevent addiction relapse in the months and years following the completion of an intense rehab programme. These support services include things like cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) and 12-step work through fellowships like Alcoholics Anonymous and Narconon. However, the results of a recently published study suggest there may be another option available to those who still have relapse issues when following traditional approaches.

The study, published in the JAMA Psychiatry journal, indicates something known as ‘mindfulness meditation’ can be just as effective in preventing drug and alcohol relapse as anything else. Mindfulness meditation is a type of therapy that is aimed at helping recovering addicts focus on self-awareness in order to understand what drives their cravings and the decisions attached to them. Personal meditation is the key to this therapy.

The study recruited 286 people who had already completed an intense rehab therapy programme. They were divided into three groups: a 12-step group, a cognitive behavioural therapy group, and a mindfulness meditation group. After one year, the results were as follows:

  • 9% of the mindfulness meditation group had relapsed
  • 14% of the 12-step group had relapsed
  • 17% of the CBT group had relapsed.

Researchers found that mindfulness meditation techniques are most effective when combined with other addiction relapse prevention therapies. What those therapies are, they didn’t say specifically. In either case, it is not unexpected given that a single approach rarely works across the board, for every recovering addict.

As for why mindfulness meditation helps, there are a number of opinions. The prevailing theory lies in the nature of the exercises themselves. Because mindfulness meditation is focused on self-awareness, it is flexible enough to be easily adapted to any situation. Rather than being a rigid therapy requiring the individual patient to conform, it is therapy that meets the person where he or she is.

Furthermore, mindfulness meditation is patient-driven rather than therapist-driven. For those who believe the only true cure for drug and alcohol addiction is a wilful decision by the recovering addict to abstain, this type of therapy exemplifies that principle. As a recovering addict becomes more self-aware of his or her cravings and what drives them, he or she is able to exercise more control over their decision-making. That seems to be the key.

Adding another Option

Each time a new therapy is suggested for drug and alcohol rehab, it has both its supporters and detractors. Mindfulness meditation is no exception. There are those who swear by this therapy as the most effective method to prevent addiction relapse; there are those who believe it is of very little value. What is most important is the fact that the study showed mindfulness meditation does help some people. Therefore, it is yet another option therapists can use when they believe it is appropriate to an individual client’s case.

At the end of the day, having as many options as possible is what addiction recovery is all about. The fact remains that relapse rates are still unacceptably high despite decades of scientific study and clinical research. Continuing to work from the one-size-fits-all angle is not going to change that reality. Instead, researchers and clinicians need to find as many ways as they can help individual patients.

Hopefully the addiction recovery community will embrace mindfulness meditation as another option to be added to the list of possible treatments. If it helps some patients who would not do as well with 12-step work or cognitive behavioural therapy, it is something that should be promoted as another viable choice.

IMAGE: Courtesy of CAIS Commission on Professional Development where there is a great resource on Mindfulness here.

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