How to Stay Present in Recovery: Mindfulness Techniques
“Being present” is a term you’ve likely heard thrown around in conversations or via the web or social media, whether you’re in recovery or not. But what does it mean to stay present, how do you go about actually doing it, and why might someone want to stay present in recovery?
Staying present—or mindful—in your life can be difficult depending on the situation. But it’s also one of the best things you can do to improve your focus, decrease your stress levels, and manage overwhelming emotions.
When you’re struggling with substance misuse and/or a substance use disorder, it’s extremely common to have cravings for your drug of choice, overwhelming emotions, and even reckless urges. Many mindfulness practices exist to manage these factors and help you become aware of your thoughts and accept your experiences. So here are some insights on staying present and fostering mindfulness while in recovery.
What Does it Mean to Stay Present in Recovery?
Mindfulness is the practice of cultivating a state of awareness. It’s rooted in eastern traditions and has been continually adapted to western medicine and psychology. Staying present or mindful in your daily life is not a singular act. Instead, mindfulness involves various techniques and practices. It may be easiest to think of staying present as a practice, or a consistent chain of actions that revolve around mindfulness, rather than a single action.
There are two major concepts of mindfulness that are regarded as antidotes for various forms of psychological distress:1
- Awareness of yourself and your surroundings.
- Nonjudgmental acceptance of what you’re experiencing moment to moment.
Many people consider mindfulness to be a powerful and simple remedy for rumination (e.g., dwelling on negative or worrisome thoughts), anxiety, chronic pain, and more. While the tools of mindfulness have many applications, they generally help people to sidestep their tendencies to avoid, suppress, and/or over-engage with their own distressing thoughts and emotions.1
By using certain mental and physical tools, such as mindful breathing, meditation, and body scans, you can devote your attention to the present moment. In turn, doing so can help to cultivate everything from inner stillness to self-control—all of which can apply to your immediate situation and generate an enhanced sense of ease in your life.
When you’re present, you are not thinking about the past or the future, nor are you contemplating anything other than what is right in front of you. In a mindful state, you face challenges head-on, you weather uncomfortable emotions, and you cope using healthy coping skills. These factors help you to face rather than suppress issues.
Benefits of Mindfulness
These benefits aren’t just woo-woo mentality. Various studies have reinforced the positive effects of mindfulness, revealing an association with self-reported improvements of psychological health as well as differences in brain activity.1 According to a paper published in the Clinical Psychology Review, a host of studies have linked mindfulness to myriad potential benefits, including improved or heightened levels of the following:1,2
- Satisfaction with life.
- A sense of autonomy.
- Adaptive emotion regulation.
- Working memory.
- Cognitive flexibility.
- Relationship satisfaction.
Along these same lines, research has indicated that mindfulness can also help to reduce rumination, stress, and emotional reactivity (i.e., when intense emotions are triggered by an external event).2 While there’s not always a direct correlation between mindfulness and substance misuse in the literature, the aforementioned benefits are likely to aid those in recovery.
Staying present and making sure you’re grounded in the moment may sound simple, but putting it into practice takes, well, practice. This is especially true when you’re in recovery from a mental health condition and/or substance use disorder whose symptoms innately pull you out of the current moment.
Tips for Staying Present in Recovery
There are various ways that someone can practice mindfulness in their daily life— whether from the comfort of their own home or through the guidance of a professional. Here are a handful of options.
Mediation is a broad term that lends itself to hundreds, if not thousands, of meanings. Meditation comes in myriad forms, including everything from grounding, walking, and breathing meditations to visualizations and even yoga. Many of these practices focus on grounding yourself in the moment and letting go of thoughts about the past or future.
During meditation, one might practice sustaining their attention on their current experience and gently guiding the mind back toward their present experience if it wanders. Although many people think of yoga as purely physical exercise, many types of yoga actually place more emphasis on the mind than the body.
If you’re new to meditation, you can learn about it through various recovery and treatment programs that integrate meditation into their offerings, and/or they may be able to direct you to various meditation programs or centers near you. However, beyond treatment environments, myriad meditation apps as well as free online videos are also available. Of course, once you get the hang of it, you can meditate on your own in a variety of manners and locations.
Ways to Stay Present in Recovery
There are numerous ways to practice mindfulness in recovery. Here are just a few top-of-mind options to get you started.
- Reverse the order of your daily routine. Do you usually brush your hair and then your teeth first thing in the morning? Try switching up your routine. Doing so can generate more mindfulness for what you’re doing at the moment. This switch may seem like a small act, but the accumulation of small and intentional mindful practices can add up to significant changes in thinking, acting, and being.
- Focus on your breathing. Whenever you find yourself ruminating, stressing, or feeling a sense of unease, focus on your breath as a way to come back to the current moment—rather than dwelling on the past or future. You can simply take a few deep breaths, or you can do some meditative breathing. Consider counting to a certain number as you breathe in and count again as you breathe out, all the while focusing on how your breath feels going in through your nostrils, filling your lungs, and then exiting your body. If your mind wanders, simply refocus on your breath and counting. There is no wrong way to do this, and the practice will feel easier and more natural the more you do it.
- Perform a body scan. This is a practice of simply paying attention to certain areas of your body and identifying any sensations. Usually, people begin by focusing their attention on their head and working their way through all of their body parts down to their toes. Do you feel tingling anywhere? Are there sensations of cold, warmth, air movement, etc.? Are your clothes tight or loose? How does it feel where your feet touch the ground? By focusing on what’s happening with your body, you ground yourself in the moment and give your mind a break from whatever unease you may have been experiencing.
- Move mindfully. Instead of heading to the gym and jumping into your typical leg-day routine, mix it up and try something new. Doing so can connect your brain to your body and make you a bit more mindful of what’s going on in the moment. Also consider integrating mindful meditations into a daily walk. Even a 15-minute walking meditation can make a significant impact on your mental and perhaps even physical well-being.
Why Work on Staying Present in Recovery?
Mindfulness is thought to alter the brain’s functioning in astonishingly positive ways. According to an article in the American Family Physician, mindfulness-based meditation can be an effective treatment for depression and anxiety disorders.3 It’s shown to be better than no treatment and some active therapies as well as at least equivalent to some evidence-based treatments such as selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (e.g., antidepressants).3
When you use drugs, alcohol, food, sex, or even gambling to feel something—anything—other than what you’re feeling in the moment, that is the opposite of staying grounded in the present. It’s acting on autopilot. And mindfulness can bring you back to the present. By focusing on only what is happening in the here and now, you can also experience healthy detachment from negative stimuli.
Recovery from substance misuse and mental health conditions tends to involve the implementation of new, healthy coping skills to manage uncomfortable emotions and cravings. While mindfulness alone isn’t sufficient treatment for addiction, it can be an effective tool to help you remain grounded in the present, ultimately helping you to better cope with life and recovery. In fact, mindfulness may be one of the best natural, not to mention free, coping skills available.
All that mindfulness requires is practice and a bit of patience. Before you know it, you’ll likely feel lighter, and life may seem a little bit easier. Like recovery, it’s helpful to take life one day—and one breath—at a time.