Mindfulness is a very effective, evidence-based way to recover. For years, the literature and studies have defined addiction as occurring in three stages: 1) binge and intoxication, 2) withdrawal and negative affect, and 3) preoccupation and anticipation (or craving). To simplify these stages, in stage 1 there is motivation towards the substance or activity because of the receipt of a reward to the brain and body. But the use of the substance or activity may not be regular at this point. In stage 2, the motivation simply increases as one reaches for the substance or activity in order to avoid the negative effects of not indulging (e.g., withdrawal symptoms and uncomfortable thoughts and feelings). In stage 3, there becomes an intense preoccupation. The motivation has increased to a level where the idea of the addiction has literally moved into the mind completely, to the point where a person is obsessed with the substance or activity. This happens over a period of time, of course – weeks, months or even years. It’s motivation all the way through each stage, with the last stage simply being an increased motivation reaching the level of intense preoccupation. Preoccupation is still motivation.
One challenge with conceptualizing addiction into strict and divided stages like this is that it seems too clinical for many people. It doesn’t match their actual experience with addiction. These rigid, clinical categories do not take in effect that the degree of addiction exists on a fluid continuum, a sort of progression from zero or very little motivation to a great degree of motivation towards the substance or activity of choice. No one ever experiences a clear line between any of these stages. They just experience the motivation getting progressively worse. That is a person’s actual experience. No clinical terms needed. It’s like a car going fluidly from zero to 60.
In our mindfulness work at the Kiloby Center, which is based on research into the latest studies, we find that unresolved trauma, shame and self-esteem issues, and genetic and social factors, are the real drivers behind addiction. It’s simply not about the drugs, for example. These issues determine the strength of the motivation towards the substance or activity and the likelihood of the addiction reaching stage 3 magnitude. These drivers motivate a person to use regularly as a way of medicating, avoiding or escaping the uncomfortable thoughts, emotions and sensations that result from unresolved shame, trauma, self-esteem, etc. Simply put, the more unresolved drivers, the more motivation there is towards the addiction.
The answer is not simply to stop drinking, stop using drugs or stop watching porn. Although stopping can help, once someone has reached the “stage 3” part of the continuum and is experiencing a preoccupation with the addiction, he is prone to relapse precisely because the preoccupation hasn’t been resolved (even in recovery). Stage 3 involves a loss of control. A person in recovery is attempting to gain control of their behavior again. Often people in recovery are still preoccupied in the mind with the subject of addiction and therefore very much prone to full blown relapse. As long as there is a preoccupation of any kind, the mind is focused on the addiction or recovery from it. They may be preoccupied with the label “addict,” the belief that they are “addicted,” the desire to control themselves, the desire to remain abstinent to avoid spiraling down back into addiction, the idea that they are in recovery, or the idea that they must constantly monitor their thoughts and behaviors to avoid relapse. This is all preoccupation. This preoccupation keeps the story of addiction/recovery and the stories about the addictive substances or activities planted firmly in the mind.
At the Kiloby Center, we define true recovery as being the state in which someone is not preoccupied at all, either with using or not using, having control or not having control, being an addict or being a recovering addict, with the belief that one is addicted or the belief that one is recovering from addiction. True recovery is when preoccupation in the mind around addiction and recovery has left entirely or is at least very quiet.
With mindfulness, one can begin to decrease the presence of the preoccupation in every form in which it appears in the mind. As the preoccupation diminishes, the motivation towards the substance or activity of choice decreases. This is accomplished by resolving all the driving forces behind it, such as trauma, shame and self-esteem issues. It’s also accomplished by letting go of all the stories around addiction itself including beliefs like “I want to use” and “I shouldn’t use.” Dealing directly with all these drivers greatly reduces the risk of relapse, not through control, but through eliminating the entire story of addiction and recovery in the mind and body. After all, mindfulness/presence is all about having a quiet mind.
Mindfulness helps if a relapse happens also. With mindfulness, clients begin living life in the peace of the present moment, instead of “in their heads” where preoccupation resides. Mindfulness entails a winding down of the motivation towards the substance or activity that developed earlier in life. It essentially undoes the motivational drive that was boosted during active addiction. It’s much like slowing that fast car down from 60 to zero and living at zero or very near it from that point forward. It’s like returning to an earlier point in life, before the addiction arose, and before the car sped up towards 60.
In this way of recovery, one is less prone to full blown relapse or spiraling down back into full blown addiction if there is a “slip” at some point. As one winds down to zero or close to it, the brain simply isn’t wired with a high level of motivation to continue using if there is a relapse. As shame, trauma and self-esteem are cleared from the body (emotions, sensations), the body actually rejects the substance or activity if there is a slip. With mindfulness/presence work, the body begins to feel lighter, free of unresolved or repressed emotion, more peaceful and transparent. This well-being in the body rejects intoxicating elements that cover up the well-being. In the case of relapse, a person can then use mindfulness to examine and resolve the drivers again (shame, etc) and any preoccupation that arises in conjunction with the relapse.
This is a very gentle, humane and sane approach to recovery. It creates less internal pressure within the person and less rule-based thinking and self-will/control. This unwinding feels very relaxing and freeing as preoccupation dissolves away. In contrast, if one does not dissolve these driving forces and preoccupation, he can be living during recovery at the edge of a return to stage 3 the very moment he relapses. Would it feel like true recovery to be living on the edge like that? This “living on the edge” phenomenon is why we hear so many stories of people (including celebrities) who are clean and sober for a while but then fall victim to a brutal relapse that either kills them or sends them back into a full-blown, devastating relapse. They never winded down the preoccupation in the mind and body.
If you are interested in this quite different model of recovery, contact us at the Kiloby Center for more information.