There’s been a lot of media attention on Mindfulness lately, but not so much on how useful it is for dealing with an alcohol problem. So how does mindfulness help us deal with mental health problems generally, and with alcohol issues specifically?
There is very little research into how it achieves its effects, however my own mindfulness practice leads me to believe that one of the main mechanisms by which it is helpful is the development of an ‘observer view’ on your own mental processes.
This observer view occurs largely as a result of focusing on clearing the mind and concentrating on the breath. When the mind inevitably wanders off this focus, a key part of mindfulness is to notice that you have started thinking about something, then calmly return to focusing on the breath again. It’s the ‘noticing’ what the mind is doing that is helpful I believe. From that we can learn to observe our own thoughts more generally, when we’re going about the rest of our day, not practicing mindfulness necessarily. If we can be more aware of when patterns shift in our inner landscape, it can only be a good thing. If we therefore become more self aware, rather than reacting automatically to our thoughts, we can have more choice in how we respond, in whether we have a drink, or choose something more helpful for us.
Another effect of mindfulness, or meditation as it used to be called, is in allowing the ever-active mind to take a break. To just perceive and be aware, without any labeling or inner commentary on what’s happening, even if it’s only for a few seconds at a time. A pause for breath, in both a figurative and literal sense. This allows certain neurons to rest and re-balance their associated neurotransmitters (the chemicals which our brain cells require to communicate with each other). If this allows us to de-stress, or for the mind to cope with stress more effectively, then again we can be less likely to reach for alcohol.
If you are drinking as a reaction to anxiety or worry, you can easily see how having a moment to step away from those concerns could be very calming, and potentially help to avoid the urge to calm yourself with a drink instead.
Many people are put off the idea of mindfulness practice because they believe it requires long sessions of sitting cross-legged in front of a candle, chanting certain special phrases. That’s more like the traditional form of meditation, whereas modern mindfulness can be practiced for 1 minute at a time, several times during your day, even while you’re sat at your desk working perhaps. The key is to allow your mind to focus on the breath, or a pleasing view perhaps, and try to just perceive it, without discussing it in your mind. You might only be able to sustain that for a few seconds at first, but that’s fine.