Why I teach mindfulness for addiction recovery

Hello, my name is Charley Allen and I am a licensed psychotherapist working here at Thrive Treatment. I would like to share with you some of my experience with mindfulness and explain why I teach mindfulness to our clients here at Thrive.

To give a little backstory, when I was a child growing up in rural Louisiana I was what was called then a “hyper” child. I was very active and struggled to pay attention in school or in most situations for that matter. This caused problems in school and I was often reprimanded for my behavior. I can remember how incredibly difficult it was for me to sit still and pay attention to the teacher.

The diagnostic label Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD) was first made by the American Psychiatric Association in 1980 and Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) wasn’t named until 1987. Though I was never formally diagnosed with these conditions I firmly believe that I suffered from them, specifically ADHD.

Along with ADHD I began to experience intense anxiety. In social situations, performance situations (public speaking, sports competition, etc.) and at other times I would have strong anxiety. Not only was this very uncomfortable but it would limit my ability to function and perform well. I would often “freeze up” or avoid certain situations which might trigger my anxiety. One of the unfortunate consequences of this was that I started to feel intense embarrassment.

When I was 15 years old I took my first drink of alcohol and almost instantly my anxiety miraculously disappeared. I learned that for me, alcohol was not only very effective for relieving my anxiety but that it was also socially acceptable. For the next twenty years I continued to self- medicate my anxiety with alcohol and eventually other substances.

As time went on my alcohol and drug use progressed while my anxiety also got worse. In my late 20’s I began to have panic attacks, characterized by sudden surges of overwhelming anxiety and fear. My heart would pound and it would feel like I couldn’t breathe. I would sometimes think that I had a brain tumor or that I was going insane. Several times I blacked out during a panic attack, once while driving on the 101 Freeway in Hollywood. I crashed my car into a guard rail but by some miracle I was not harmed.

At this point I realized that I had to get help with my anxiety and panic attacks. I began to research anxiety and speak with others who suffered from it. I learned that while medications such as Valium and Xanax could alleviate symptoms for a short while they did not treat the root causes of anxiety. I also learned that these types of medications could be very addictive. In my research I learned that meditation and other what are called mindfulness practices had been shown to help alleviate anxiety and panic attacks. I previously had some experience with meditation and yoga and had enjoyed them. So I began to meditate on a daily basis and continued to do more research into mindfulness.

Around this time I came to realize that I had a problem with drugs and alcohol. The negative consequences of my alcohol and drug abuse were now equal to if not greater than the anxiety that I was self-medicating. I decided then that I should get sober, and that it would be an essential part of addressing my anxiety and panic attacks.

As I began to meditate more often and for longer periods of time, I noticed that I my anxiety was starting to slowly decrease. If my anxiety was intense I would meditate and after a few minutes the anxiety would begin to go down. Another thing I noticed was that meditation was helping to decrease my cravings for drugs and alcohol. This was a very big deal. As anyone who has ever tried to get sober will tell you, cravings can be intense and incredibly uncomfortable, and can often lead to relapse. The fact that I could diminish my cravings by meditating was a huge source of relief for me and was crucial in me staying sober.

Fortunately I was able to stay sober and my anxiety continued to diminish. At five years sober,after marrying my lovely wife Tara and us having our son Murphey, I decided to leave my career in the television business and go back to graduate school to become a psychotherapist. This decision was a direct result of my experiences in getting sober and addressing my anxiety.

During grad school meditation helped me immensely in managing the stress of studying and taking tests, all while holding a full time job. During graduate school I deepened my research into the benefits of mindfulness and meditation. I learned that extensive clinical and scientific research was proving that mindfulness practices can provide incredible benefits for health and well being for a person. Some of the proven benefits include:

– Better focus and concentration

– Increased calm and sense of well being

– Decreased stress and anxiety

– Improved impulse control

– Increased ability to self regulate emotions

– Increased self-awareness

– Increased empathy and understanding of others

I was encouraged by this scientific proof. I was also seeing these positive effects in my own life. I decided that when I became a therapist I would use mindfulness as a way to help my clients. While in graduate school I began working as a counselor at Axis Residential Treatment. a drug and alcohol treatment program in Los Angeles. As a counselor I began to introduce mindfulness in group counseling sessions and individual counseling as well. I found that while many people have heard of mindfulness and meditation, not many had a clear understanding of what those words meant.

One of my favorite definitions of mindfulness comes from Jon Kabat-Zinn, a renowned mindfulness teacher, writer and clinician, “Mindfulness means paying attention in a particular way, on purpose, in the present moment, and non-judgmentally.” Or, in other words, mindfulness is paying attention to what is happening right here, right now and without judgement.

As for meditation, the definition I like the best comes from the magazine Psychology Today: “Meditation is the practice of turning your attention to a single point of reference. It can involve focusing on the breath, on bodily sensations, or on a word or phrase known as a mantra. In other words, meditation means turning your attention away from distracting thoughts and focusing on the present moment.”

What I have found is that meditation and other mindfulness practices can help people in early recovery (and long term recovery as well) manage their anxiety, decrease cravings, and increase their ability to focus their attention on learning what they need to learn in order to stay sober.

I feel it is important to point out that sometimes people misunderstand meditation in relation to religion. Meditation does not belong to any one religion. In the words of spiritual teacher Deepak Chopra, “Meditation is part of every spiritual tradition in the world but has nothing to do with belief or ideology or doctrine. It’s a simple mental technique to go to the source of thought.”

It is my belief that meditation and other mindfulness practices are powerful tools for treating anxiety, drug addiction and many other mental illnesses as well. And perhaps the best part is that it is absolutely free. While one can pay for yoga classes, or meditation workshops, etc, its not necessary. One can sit quietly and still, turn their attention towards their breath, and simply pay attention the the breath. If thoughts come in and take one away from paying attention to the breath, they can simply move their attention back to their breath. This is called “Anchor Breath” meditation. Do this for five, ten or twenty breaths and see what happens.

One thing I have found is that meditation can be very difficult and uncomfortable for beginners. Many people find it hard to sit still. Or their mind races uncontrollably. Or they feel they that they have too much to do and that they don’t have time to meditate. These are all natural reactions. I often like use this analogy: Suppose I asked you to play a song on the piano. If you had never played piano before you would undoubtedly say that you couldn’t do it. But with practice I am confident that anyone can learn to play the piano. It is the same with meditation. While it can be extremely difficult and seemingly impossible at first, one gets better with practice.

In closing, I would like to emphasize that meditation and mindfulness can help anyone, not just those who suffer from anxiety or addiction. Most people have stress in their lives. Meditation is an incredible tool for managing stress. Many people suffer from depression. Mindfulness practices have been clinically proven to help improve mood and sense of well being. In my own life I have seen that mindfulness has helped me to be a better parent. I find that I am able to be more present for my son and give him my undivided attention. And the list of benefits goes on and on.

So that is the story of how I came to teach mindfulness to people who are recovering from addiction. If you have little or no experience with meditation but are interested in trying it, please feel free to contact me via email at: charley.allen@thrivetreatment.com and I would be more than happy to share my experience and mindfulness resources with you.

Thrive Treatment

Thrive Treatment’s founder collected some of addiction treatment’s most respected and successful clinicians who authentically share a passion for helping others flourish and believe in the same key ingredients to long-term recovery success: values, accountability, life skills, and having fun in recovery.