The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services estimates that more than 22 million Americans suffer from substance abuse related to drugs and alcohol. Sometimes we turn to substances to manage stress, forget problems, numb out pain and escape from unpleasant experiences.
For addicts, consistent use causes impairments to the brain, overwhelming cravings and the compulsion to ingest the substance to feel “normal.” Often in denial, they first need to recognize they have a problem before they can seek treatment, usually through traditional 12-step programs. Recovering addicts must then face the strong possibility of relapse, which includes emotional, mental and physical urges to start using again.
Because yoga and mindfulness practices enable us to sustain difficult feelings, unwanted sensations and physical ailments in healthy ways, they are key holistic techniques for avoiding addictions and preventing relapses. Therefore, a rising number of addiction treatment facilities, including the top-ranked Betty Ford Center in Rancho Mirage, CA, offer yoga and other mind-body awareness programs in addition to traditional drug therapies.
With relapse rates higher than 40 percent, it is more effective to avoid addictions than to treat them after they develop. Yoga and mindfulness help us steer clear of addictions because they foster peaceful inner awareness regardless of our external circumstances. They help us release our attachments to how we would like things to be, and appreciate them for what they are. As such, we are less likely to use substances for comfort, relief and escape from whatever makes us discontented or dissatisfied.
The word “yoga” means union in Sanskrit and generally refers to union of the mind, body and spirit. Although Westerners typically associate yoga with the practice of physical postures or poses, it involves much more. Yoga allows us to connect with our bodies, deal with physical discomfort, experience sensations without judgment, and notice the impermanence of our thoughts and feelings. By doing or holding challenging poses in our yoga practice, we are empowered to sit with difficult emotions and allow them to pass without strong aversions to them. Restorative poses also allow us to quiet our minds and rest our bodies, giving us more energy to change unhealthy habits.
The sister practice of mindfulness (i.e., full awareness of the present moment) also produces similar results. By sitting in a quiet space for a specified time and concentrating on a mantra or object, or simply noticing what unfolds, we learn to be comfortable with what is. We notice that undesired thoughts and feelings come and go, and we do not always need to act on them.
Recovering addicts who practice yoga and mindfulness can stay grounded even when uncomfortable states arise during the withdrawal stage. With mind-body awareness programming, they have better impulse control over cravings and urges that would otherwise trigger a relapse. They can use these holistic methods to deal with the difficult emotions and physical sensations that arise during recovery, instead of reverting to substance abuse to quell or avoid them.
Roy King, Ph.D. and M.D, a professor of psychiatry and behavioral science at Stanford University, explains that dopamine, a neurotransmitter present in regions of the brain that regulate movement, emotion, cognition, motivation and feelings of pleasure, is elevated when drugs are introduced into the body. He notes that addicts continue to use because their brain keeps craving the dopamine surge. In his research of the biological effects of yoga on drug abuse, he found that yoga can change our brain neurology and help diminish cravings, anxiety and other inner experiences that can lead to harmful actions. King notes that yoga and meditation reduce the dopamine impulse in the brain and, in effect, dampen cravings that lead to relapse.
Addictions Are Symptoms
Most of us have some type of addiction. But not all, including our addiction to a favorite TV show or morning coffee, are necessarily harmful. But we owe it to ourselves to get treated when our addiction threatens our lives and hurts those around us. An addiction is a symptom of a deeper, underlying problem. Through yoga and mindfulness, we can uncover the cause of our addiction, transform it and ultimately recover from it.