Over the past several decades, meditation has moved in the public mind from a misunderstood New Age practice to a valid experience with notable health benefits. Meditation is now widely touted by the medical profession as an effective way to reduce pain and stress, alleviate anxiety and depression and improve the outcomes of rehab for injury, illness and addiction.
Meditation practiced in an addiction rehab setting can have a major impact on successful recovery. A 2011 study by researchers at MIT and Harvard found that just eight weeks of daily meditation helps people control their alpha brain wave function, which reduces stress and improves how they’re affected by external events.1
According to a study published in JAMA Internal Medicine, mindfulness meditation helps reduce anxiety and depression, which commonly co-occur with addiction.2 The National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health cites brain-imaging research showing that meditation actually changes the physical structures of the brain related to memory, learning and emotion.3
During our first year here at Roots Through Recovery, meditation and other mindfulness practices have been an important part of many clients’ rehab plans.
The Benefits of Meditation in Rehab
When you think of meditating, you may imagine sitting cross-legged on a pillow trying to clear your mind of all thought. But as Harvard-trained neuroscientist Richard Davidson told The New York Times, “In Buddhist tradition, ‘meditation’ is a word that is equivalent to a word like ‘sports’ in the U.S. It’s a family of activities, not a single thing.”4 There are many different types of meditation that produce different results.
Lauren Emmel, a masters-level clinician with a degree in clinical psychology, guides Vipassana mindful meditation groups at Roots Through Recovery. Vipassana, which originated in India more than 2,500 years ago, translates to “see things as they really are.” The practice of Vipassana is a path to self-transformation through self-observation and mindfulness.
“In addiction recovery, it is imperative to address the underlying causes of our addiction in order to become conscious of our feelings, learn to tolerate them and practice adaptive coping skills,” Emmel says. We do this by identifying the emotional states—fear, anger, loneliness, depression—that lead us to abuse drugs or alcohol.
“Oftentimes, we become attached to these feeling states and associated thought patterns leading to relapse, thus creating a cycle that won’t end.” Mindfulness and mindfulness meditation, Emmel says, help us break that cycle by learning how to observe the present moment and tolerate discomfort.
How Vipassana Works
Vipassana is offered in a 10-day course during rehab at Roots Through Recovery. Participants first develop some mastery over their mind by focusing their attention on the present moment and the simple experience of the breath entering and leaving the body.
After a few days of this, the mind is quieter, the ability to focus is deeper and the practice of Vipassana itself begins. This involves observing the physical sensations of the body, understanding where they’re coming from and learning to withhold judgment—to not react to the sensations. This develops mindfulness and the ability to stay calm and composed during difficult situations. The last phase of the course is learning the meditation of loving kindness to all, including oneself.
Meditation’s Healing Effects
Emmel has seen firsthand the widespread positive impact of meditation on Roots clients, including increased self-esteem, release of toxic shame, decreased anxiety, trauma resiliency and self-forgiveness. She says that a daily meditation practice prepares us for our day-to-day lives and helps us navigate heightened emotions and cravings for drugs or alcohol.
“We learn to notice our feelings, body sensations and thoughts as impermanent states and implement healthy coping skills,” Emmel says. “We start to slowly release judgment of our feelings or thoughts and develop a new relationship with our humanness.”
Roots Through Recovery will be celebrating their one-year anniversary on February 6, and Emmel will be leading a guided meditation session as part of the festivities. The day’s events also include a healing drumming circle led by David Hickman, a somatic experiencing session led by Larry Kessler and a presentation on opioid addiction by Todd “Z-Man” Zalkins. Zalkins’ recently released film “The Long Way Back” covers his own journey through addiction and into recovery.