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You’ve been wheeled into your doctor’s office on a stretcher, and your leg is swollen and black. “Sit quietly and focus on your breathing. If you’re distracted, swim your arms up and back to clear your mind.”
Are you tempted to switch doctors?
People new to addiction treatment have the same response when they’re asked to learn more about yoga and meditation.
Addiction recovery is hard work, and it’s common to expect equally sophisticated therapies for your treatment team. Many patients demand medications, fluid therapies, and other conventional treatment programs.
Let’s be clear: Conventional therapies should be part of your recovery program.
But alternative therapies, including yoga and meditation, could help you in ways conventional treatments just can’t.
What Is Meditation?
Most of us understand meditation’s broad strokes. We know it involves sitting still, clearing the mind, and breathing slowly. But there’s more to grasp, in terms of how this practice can help you control an addiction.
Meditation is designed to help you focus on your breath, and when you do, you’ll still your mind and escape the burden of your thoughts.
Meditation can be really simple. You can:
- Get comfortable. Most people sit cross-legged on a pillow or mat, but that’s not required. You can meditate in a chair, on the couch, or outside in the sunshine.
- Close your eyes. Your attention is directed inward during meditation, and the sights around you can pull your attention outward.
- Slow your breathing. Make a conscious effort to make your inhales and exhales a bit longer.
- Focus on your breath. If thoughts pop up, acknowledge them, and then let them drift away. Don’t make to-do lists, plan out your week, rehash conversations, or otherwise fill your mind with chatter. Return to your breath.
Buddhists believe that meditation can help to enhance:
- Positive feelings
Psychologists believe that the practice can decrease thought loops and rumination. Rather than replaying an incident over and over, and looking for the exact moment in which you made a mistake, you’ll focus on what is happening right now. You’ll also build skills that help you let a negative thought go when it arises.
Calm, clarity, and control are all crucial for addiction recovery, but it’s hard for beginners to get these benefits through meditation. We live in a busy, distracting world. Sitting with our breath just seems unnatural.
Researchers say it’s hard for untrained people to meditate for more than a few seconds. At that point, the outside world comes into our minds, and we stop focusing on the present. We obsess over what happened yesterday, or we plan ahead for what should happen tomorrow.
Yoga can help.
What Is Yoga?
The ancient practice of yoga combines the calm, inward focus of meditation with muscle movement and stretching. For beginners, it can make the practice of meditation easier, and the physical component of yoga comes with additional benefits.
The earliest versions of yoga had very little to do with fitness and strength. Instead, practitioners hoped to use coordinated movement and breathing to deliver mental focus. The poses kept yogis in tune with their breath.
Typically, people learn how to participate in yoga through a class. There are a series of asanas, or poses, that make up a successful practice, and some of those movements are a little unusual.
Few of us understand what a downward-facing dog pose looks like unless it’s shown to us. And some poses, including warrior poses, can cause strain and pain if they’re done the wrong way. Instructors both cue poses and help to push bodies into the right position to prevent injury.
Yoga is technically a form of exercise. Research cited by Time suggests that it has the same benefits as other forms of exercise. Yoga can:
- Boost the presence of serotonin (a brain chemical that makes us feel good).
- Reduce inflammation.
- Amend blood fat levels.
- Lessen cell stress.
And many of the same benefits seen with meditation, including an enhanced sense of well-being and peace, are associated with practicing yoga. Most classes begin and end with meditation sessions.
Do Yoga and Meditation Really Work?
Efficacy studies are straightforward, and researchers use them to test the validity of medications, therapies, and more. But those studies are tough to perform on things like yoga and meditation.
As Mental Health America points out, most studies involve two groups of people.
- Group A gets the intervention under investigation.
- Group B gets something that looks similar to the therapy being studied, but the placebo does nothing.
If Group A is much better than Group B, the therapy is deemed a success. But that designation is based on transparency. Neither group should know if they’re being treated or not.
It’s very hard to have yoga done to you without your knowledge. The same could be said for meditation. Either you are, or you are not participating.
So researchers have to get creative when they’re hoping to discover if yoga or therapy works. But they have done many studies on these practices.
According to Mental Health America, more than 600 studies have been performed on just one form of meditation, and there are many more to choose from. In these studies, researchers found a link between meditation and stress reduction.
Researchers have examined meditation and addiction in studies with tobacco. As Time explains, the results are mixed. In one study, smokers lit up less frequently when they were meditating (even though they thought they were smoking the same amount). But in a second study, they smoked more than they thought they had.
While it may not be easy to prove, the theory is simple. Meditation and yoga involve acknowledging a stray thought and sitting with it. While you might spend the majority of your time in recovery learning how to avoid triggers, yoga and meditation can teach you how to sit with a craving when it hits. Since it’s almost impossible to avoid every trigger you might encounter, this could be a great help.
Yoga also assists with what researchers call distress tolerance. While you’re in class, your muscles might clench, and your tendons might wobble. You learn to breathe through the discomfort rather than stepping out of the pose.
For people with addictions, this is a needed skill. Your brain might know a shot of heroin or a bolt of alcohol could make your pain fade. But if you learn that you can sit with the discomfort and wait it out, you might be resistant to the next craving when it hits.
Finding Treatment With Yoga and Meditation
Do you think yoga or meditation could ease your path to recovery? If so, you’re not alone. Many people look for these adjunctive forms of treatment, and as a result, plenty of facilities include them for people in need.
As Yoga Journal points out, most facilities provide a gentle form of yoga, made for people who aren’t in ideal physical shape and who may be new to this form of exercise. If you’re worried that you won’t know what to do or that the program will be too difficult, this should put your mind at ease.
But it’s worthwhile to ask about the classes on offer and the credentials of the people teaching. As we mentioned, yoga isn’t without risks, and you’ll need a teacher who can guide you through poses properly. And you’ll need a meditation coach with experience helping beginners learn how to focus.
It’s also important to remember that yoga and meditation work best when combined with conventional forms of care. Medications can ease your cravings and amend chemical imbalances, and therapy can help you understand your past and your path to the future. Insights you pick up in yoga and meditation can augment the work you do in therapy, and they can ease physical discomfort, so you might need less medication. But they’re not designed to replace those trusted forms of care.
Before you agree to get help through yoga and meditation, ensure that the facility can also help you with conventional care. If not, it’s best to keep looking.