One of the biggest tools in my sobriety toolbox has been meditation.
It’s a practice that goes back thousands of years and is one of the simplest ways to promote emotional and physical well-being.
The benefits of meditation are profound.
It’s been shown to improve emotional resilience and self-awareness as well as reduce stress and anxiety – things that people who used to drink heavily especially need.
In this post, I want to explore the benefits of meditation that are particularly beneficial to people in sobriety, plus give you options and tools to start a new practice (or dust off an old one).
Let’s get started! First, the basics.
- Ok, so what is meditation exactly?
- The Science Behind Meditation
- A Brief Explanation of What Alcohol Does to Your Brain:
- Why meditate in sobriety?
- Benefits Of Meditation For Sober People
- What kind of meditation should I try?
- Different Meditation Styles To Try In Sobriety
- Starting Your Meditation Practice in Sobriety
Ok, so what is meditation exactly?
The Cambridge dictionary defines meditation as “the act of giving your attention to only one thing, either as a religious activity or as a way of becoming calm and relaxed.”
There are many ways that people practice this.
Some sit in meditation (what you might traditionally think of) and focus on their breath, eyes closed, observing thoughts as they float by. Others may use chanting or mantras. People meditate while walking or doing daily tasks (more on that in a minute). And some meditate through prayer.
Any time you stop the racket in your brain long enough to focus on silence, the dishes you are washing, or your breath, you are practicing meditation, or rather, you are practicing mindfulness.
Have you ever sat mesmerized by a running stream of water, so much so that you lose time a little?
That’s a form of meditation. And your brain thinks it’s delicious.
The Science Behind Meditation
Why have people for thousands of years engaged in some form of meditation? Why am I bothering you to do it?
Well, because it works!
Whenever you engage in mindfulness, you are rewiring your brain by building up the areas that promote things like focus and decision-making and diminish the areas that bring us fear, anxiety, and stress.
This critical rewiring is called neuroplasticity.
Neuroplasticity is our brain’s ability to change according to our experience. Brainworks provides a really great explanation of neuroplasticity that I’ll include here:
“With every repetition of a thought or emotion, we reinforce a neural pathway – and with each new thought, we begin to create a new way of being. These small changes, frequently enough repeated, lead to changes in how our brains work.
Neuroplasticity is the ‘muscle building’ part of the brain; the things we do often we become stronger at, and what we don’t use fades away. That is the physical basis of why making a thought or action over and over again increases its power. Over time, it becomes automatic; a part of us. We literally become what we think and do.”Brainworks
A Brief Explanation of What Alcohol Does to Your Brain:
Drinking alcohol reshapes our brains in profound ways. It’s been shown to:
- Impair brain function: alcohol is a central nervous system depressant, which means it slows down brain function.
- Change brain chemistry: alcohol alters levels of neurotransmitters resulting in changes to mood, behavior, and cognitive function.
- Shrink brain volume: chronic drinking (even one drink per day) has been shown to reduce overall brain volume.
- Damaged brain cells: alcohol’s inflammatory effects can damage cells and disrupt the connections between brain cells.
- Increase risks of brain disorders: heavy, chronic drinking has been associated with brain disorders like dementia and Parkinson’s and can lead to a serious condition known as ‘wet brain.’
Brain scans of heavy drinkers have shown damage, particularly in the inferior frontal gyrus, the areas responsible for decision-making and impulse control. This is one contributing factor to the ways alcohol changes our personality and makes us more emotionally reactive and impulsive.
If you feel like you’ve become more forgetful, more easily agitated, and increasingly anxious even after you’ve stopped drinking, this can explain why.
The good news is most people can repair this damage:
It’s also why meditation is such an important sobriety tool.
A consistent mindfulness practice will help you repair these neural pathways, create new ones, and reverse the shrinkage in white brain matter, which is incredibly important because (as I just mentioned) reduced white brain matter is linked to major cognitive diseases like Alzheimer’s and dementia.
If you want to learn more about the science behind mindfulness and how it reshapes your brain, I highly recommend reading Mindsight by Dr. Dan Siegel. He walks you through exactly how the brain works and why mindfulness is an effective tool for changing your brain. An absolutely fantastic read!
Why meditate in sobriety?
Sobriety, especially early sobriety, can be an emotionally fraught time. Those first 30 days are especially challenging. In addition to managing those early withdrawal symptoms, many people report heightened levels of anxiety, depression, and irritability.
For people who already suffer from anxiety and depression, these conditions can become even more amplified in the immediate absence of alcohol.
I wish I could tell you that there is one thing you can do that will make those symptoms and feelings go away.
The truth is that early sobriety depression and anxiety are best alleviated via a combination of strategies and behaviors done consistently over a period of time.
One of those strategies can (should?) include meditation.
It is one of the best tools we have for healing and reversing the damage alcohol inflicts on our brains and bodies.
Benefits Of Meditation For Sober People
Meditation, combined with abstinence from alcohol, is a near-perfect antidote for the damage alcohol causes our brains.
It has been shown to:
Sobriety can be an emotionally disorienting and volatile time. Meditation can help repair and heal the underlying causes of those feelings and teach us how to be more at peace with ourselves and our surroundings.
What kind of meditation should I try?
If you’re sold on the idea that meditation can help you stay sober and heal the damage drinking has wrought on your life, the next question is, “Where do I start?”
Part of mediation’s power is in its simplicity.
You can close your eyes and focus on your breath for ten minutes per day and reap enormous benefits.
But most people want to learn a bit more and receive guidance. Luckily, there is plenty out there! I’ll put forward what I know and the tools I’ve found most helpful.
Below is a quick summary of the major practices and styles, as well as resources where you can learn more and get some help via guided meditations. I’ve also written about three books that made me really love meditation before, so you are welcome to use that as a resource.
Different Meditation Styles To Try In Sobriety
Please note that this is by no means an exhaustive list. If you find something else, go for it!
1. Mindfulness Meditation
This is my personal go-to.
It is a catch-all category for meditation practices that involve being present in the moment and having a singular focus, usually the breath.
You can also practice mindfulness by focusing on what you’re doing at the moment instead of letting your thoughts wander.
Here’s an example of what I mean. When you’re folding clothes, you just focus on the task and don’t think about anything else.
That’s mindfulness! A brain break, if you will.
More commonly, you can sit in a quiet place (or lie down) and close your eyes and focus on the in and out of your breath. There are a lot of ways to practice mindfulness in your everyday life.
Free tools for Mindfulness Meditation:
My favorite free meditation tool is the meditation app, Insight Timer. It has an extensive library of guided meditations, courses, lectures, and calming music – anything you could possible want.
All for free.
You can get personalized recommendations, build a playlist library, and connect with other meditators from around the world.
If you don’t want to pay for an app, this is the best place to start.
Paid tools for Mindfulness Meditation (that are 100% worth it):
Allow me to start with a non-affiliate disclosure. I’m not an affiliate for any of these tools. I’m not sure they even have an affiliate program. These are apps that I have used and found genuine value from.
I recommend paying for a paid tool if you are brand new or struggling to make meditation a regular practice on your own. The advantage of these tools is their structure.
You’ll get daily lessons and exercises from meditation experts that will help you adopt a meditation practice long-term.
The two paid apps I recommend are:
This is perfect for people who want more than a collection of guided meditations. If you want to understand meditation, your brain, or why you think and stress over things like you do, these will be helpful.
Waking Up with Sam Harris has been especially helpful on my journey. It’s like a small therapy session in an app.
With that, let’s discuss some other meditation practices you can try.
You don’t have to figure this out on your own.
2. Guided or Visual Meditations
Guided meditation has become a bit of a misnomer because any style can technically be guided, but in this context, it’s a teacher guiding you through your practice and leading you through a visualization exercise.
Sometimes I do these when I’m feeling particularly busy-brained.
I personally LOVE, LOVE, LOVE Insight Timer for guided meditation support. But you can just as easily pop onto YouTube and type “guided meditation for (insert problem here” and find something.
Here’s one example:
3. Vipassana Meditation
Vipassana meditation focuses on “seeing things as they really are.” It is in the Buddhist tradition, though you don’t need to be Buddhist to practice it.
It involves a lot of noticing and observing within your body.
I actually really like Vipassana meditation, mainly the body scans where you sit (or lay down) and bring your awareness, gradually, from the top of your head down to your toes.
It’s a really powerful tool. When you start doing body scans, you’ll soon realize just how disconnected you are from your body.
You’ll see just how much tension and clenching is happening all over. The slow releasing and breathing into the parts that are tight, aching, or just tense can feel like hitting reset on your entire body.
If you suffer from anxiety disorders, body scans are particularly helpful.
Think about how you feel when you’re overwhelmed. It’s so of this all-over, panic-stricken, run-and-hide kind of energy.
When you do body scans, you slow it all down, and then you start to notice things like, “Hey, my heart is beating fast,” or “My jaw is clenched,” or “Wow, I didn’t even realize I’m the muscles around my eyes are tensed.”
From there, the body scan is simple. You soften whatever is tight and tense, sometimes “breathing” into it, and amazingly, the body relaxes. You feel better.
Your problems don’t disappear, but you’ve scratched the itch, and in sobriety, sometimes that’s enough to keep you from relapsing.
To get more understanding of this practice, I recommend anything by Joseph Goldstein. He is a fixture in the US meditation world.
4. Loving Kindness Meditation
This one is similar to Vipassana, but instead of focusing on your body, you’re focusing on a thought – the well-wishing of others.
You basically go through your practice directing well wishes to yourself, to someone you love, to someone you’re not a big fan of, and then the world writ large.
You do this in your mind and also out loud, usually in the form of “May you be happy. May you be well. May you be healthy. May you be at peace.”
Again, there is no rule that says you have to say only those exact phrases.
Sometimes I find this meditation style silly, but it’s probably because I really need it. I struggle with loving kindness, particularly self-compassion. This meditation style helps with that.
It’s worth keeping an open mind about and trying, which I do about once per week.
Sharon Salzberg has many resources on Loving Kindness that I highly recommend if this style appeals to you.
Starting Your Meditation Practice in Sobriety
My advice is to start with one of the meditation apps or podcasts on mediation or pick up a book like Dan Harris’s 10% Happier to start learning about the many benefits.
YouTube also has a ton of resources, though finding the right one can sometimes feel like a needle in a haystack. Don’t overthink it too much.
Just start. That’s all you have to do. You don’t have to worry if you’re doing it right (you are) or if it’s working (it is). You got this!