As anyone who has ever tried to quit smoking, cut down on alcohol, or simply cut down on screen time can attest, it’s hard to change addictive behavior. Our brains are hardwired for routine, and in times of stress, we often fall back on what we know will soothe the mind. Mindfulness, or learning to become aware of thoughts in the present moment, is a good first step toward changing these behaviors.
Here are eight mindfulness tools that can help you recover from addictive behaviors with insights from Dr. Andrew Mendonsa, a nationally recognized clinical psychologist who works with clients in addiction recovery:
Slow down your thinking
When you struggle with addiction, it’s easy for maladaptive thoughts to cascade into harmful behaviors. “Slowing down your thought process gives your mind time to consider the consequences of your actions,” says Dr. Mendonsa. “Rather than jumping from A to Z, you’re more likely to consider what happens in between. This allows you to visualize the possible outcomes of a decision.”
Learn your triggers
Understanding your physical and emotional triggers is another powerful tool. Many people are triggered by stress. Others are triggered by loneliness, boredom or anxiety. Some may use addictive behavior as a reward. These people might be triggered by success or celebratory events. Understanding your own triggers can help you learn to develop more effective coping mechanisms, says Dr. Mendonsa.
Practice mindful breathing
Becoming conscious of your breath can help you calm racing thoughts and bring your mind to the present, rather than focusing on past habits or behaviors. Start by focusing on the rhythm of your breath, directing your thoughts to your inhale and exhale. You can find many free resources and exercises online to help you learn how to practice mindful breathing.
Focus on your physical senses
Similar to mindful breathing, a mindful body scan can help you bring your thoughts to the current moment. Focusing on how you feel and what you sense — the temperature, what you hear, what you smell — can help you ground your mind when it drifts toward maladaptive thoughts.
Reframe negative thoughts
Reframing maladaptive thoughts, a cornerstone of cognitive behavioral therapy, is a particularly powerful tool for breaking the cycle of addictive behavior, says Dr. Mendonsa. “When you feel the itch to engage in an addictive behavior, ask yourself: What is driving this thought? Why am I feeling this way?” he advises. “When you stop and evaluate your thoughts, you get past the ‘all or nothing’ mindset and can start to slow down the impulse to act on those thoughts.”
Understand your brain
Addictive behavior often stems from the brain’s need for serotonin, a neurotransmitter that, among other things, helps to regulate mood. In times of stress, your body produces cortisol, which depletes your brain of serotonin. Drugs often mimic serotonin, while hindering your natural production. This leads to serotonin depletion, which in turn drives drug dependence. When in recovery, finding a way to replace an addictive behavior with one that naturally boosts serotonin can help you avoid relapse. This could be exercise, a new hobby, or even video games.
Exercise is one of the best ways to help your brain restore healthy serotonin levels and boost feel-good endorphins. “I’m always an advocate of going for a run,” says Dr. Mendonsa. Even low-impact activities, like yoga or a long walk, can have an impact. In addition to the benefit to your brain, exercise also allows you to tune into your body and “check in” with how you feel physically and emotionally.
Tap into your motivations
For many who struggle with addiction, extrinsic motivation rarely leads to recovery. “‘Scared straight rarely works,” says Dr. Mendonsa. “Change that comes from within is the most powerful.” Motivation is different for everyone. You might be driven to finish school, nurture your relationship, or be present for your children. Knowing what moves you can help to more easily redirect those maladaptive thoughts.
A Note About Coping Mechanisms
Sometimes, the line can blur between harmless coping mechanism and addiction. Some people can have a drink every night to unwind without a negative impact; for others, it can become a problem. The same holds true for video games, shopping, and social media. The key is to look at how an activity impacts your health, job, everyday obligations, relationships and finances. “If an activity starts to affect any of these areas, you may have crossed the line into addiction,” says Dr. Mendonsa.
Recovering with Mindfulness
Whether you enter into formal cognitive behavioral therapy or pursue recovery on your own, mindfulness can be a powerful tool. A number of tools and apps exist online that can help. Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous meetings are free and available worldwide (even online), providing a great way to build a support community. Online classes and apps also exist for yoga, mediation and mindfulness techniques. When you become conscious of your decisions, thought patterns, and motivations, your mind can become a powerful ally against addiction.