Meditation and Sobriety
One of the biggest tools in my sobriety toolbox has been meditation.
What comes to mind when you think about meditation?
Is it something you already do? Do you brush it off as hippie dippy nonsense? Something in between?
A lot of people get tied into a specific of what they think meditation is and, depending on who you are, are either attracted or repulsed from the practice.
But I want to convince you that meditation comes in many forms and practices and is most certainly beneficial for everyone. Especially for people in sobriety.
Ok, so what is meditation exactly?
Meditation, simply put, is the practice of mindfulness or focus. 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 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.”
Why your sober brain needs reshaping.
I’ve mentioned before how excessive drinking impairs many important cognitive functions of our brain. It shrinks the white matter in the brain, which is the area that connects all the neural pathways.
In studies, brain scans have shown that heavy drinkers show damage particularly in the inferior frontal gyrus, the areas responsible for decision-making and impulse control.
If you feel like you’ve become more forgetful, more easily agitated, and increasingly anxious even after you’ve stopped drinking, it’s likely because your brain has been damaged a bit by your drinking.
The good news is that you can fix this! 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 so incredibly important because 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!
Additional Benefits Of Meditation For Sobriety
If your experience with early sobriety is anything like mine, you might be experiencing days where you feel like you’re going crazy. Your emotions are up and down.
You don’t know if you’re fine or pissed off or sad, but you do know that you’re FEELING too many things right now and it’s exhausting.
All those emotions you’ve been suppressing are having a little party in your brain right now. That party WILL end, my friend.
Healthline has a wonderful article that goes into detail about the benefits of meditation that you can read, but I will list for you here. All of these benefits are science-based.
- Reduces stress (yes, please!)
- Controls anxiety (double yes, please!)
- Promotes emotional health
- Enhances self-awareness
- Lengthens attention span
- Reduces age-related memory loss
- Generates kindness (especially towards yourself!)
- Helps fight addiction (more on that to come)
- Improves sleep
- Helps control pain
- Can decrease blood pressure
- You can do it anywhere!
Seriously, it does ALLLLLLLL of that? Yep!
Meditation and Sobriety
Maybe it’s a bit obvious at this point, but I think it’s worth noting how meditation specifically helps people struggling with addiction.
For me, and maybe you as well, alcohol was a way for me to quiet my mind.
I needed to quiet it because it was constantly raging with negative thoughts, memories of stupid shit I’ve done, self-criticism, and a steady stream of regret and disappointment with myself. My brain was a punching bag.
The awful tradeoff with booze is that while it might make me feel better the first couple of drinks, by the end of the night, I’d be reeling from a flood of emotions that alcohol was actually making worse.
When you stop drinking, those horrible emotions and memories do not go away, so we have to learn healthier ways to cope with them. Meditation is one way we can do that in sobriety.
In addition to helping repair some of the structural damage that alcohol has done to your brain, meditation is a tool you can use to deal with your emotions in a healthy manner, which honestly, you need right now.
What Meditation in Sobriety is NOT
1. A Silver Bullet Solution
Meditation is not going to fix you overnight.
It is a slowwwww process. Therefore it’s going to require a bit of faith and determination on your part to stick with it.
There will be some days you meditate and feel like you wasted your time (you didn’t) and there will be others day you feel genuinely refreshed afterward.
This will always be the case.
There are some immediate effects of meditation like feeling calm (or at least calmER than before you started), slowed heart rate, and relaxation.
And then there are the longterm benefits that we mentioned above. This is one of those things that will pay off in the long run.
There’s no instant gratification when it comes to things that actually work. (Wish that there was!)
2. A One-Size-Fits-All Practice
I have been on a journey with meditation in my sobriety. Truly.
There is no wrong or right way to meditate really. I would advise you to steer clear of any “teacher” who insists on some rigid regimen (unless that kind of structure works for you).
I’ve almost given up on meditation so many times in the past because I believed I was doing it wrong.
My monkey mind is always running and I truly thought if I was unable to “silence my thoughts” it meant that I was unable to meditate properly. Instead of being restorative, my practice felt like a battle.
I felt exhausted. It was too much effort.
Then I came across long-time meditation practitioner and teacher Sharon Salzberg who reassured me that EVERYBODY has chatter in their brain when they meditate. It’s normal. It’s FINE.
In the next section, I’ll introduce you to various meditation styles that could help with your sobriety journey and provide you with resources to check them out.
3. Something That Requires A Lot Of Time
There’s an old zen saying that goes, “You should sit in meditation for 20 minutes every day unless you’re too busy. Then you should sit for one hour.”
As you get further into your practice, you’ll start to see the wisdom in this quote, but for now, start small. Start where you are.
Five minutes a day is enough to start getting benefits. You’ll start to increase your time naturally as you get more accustomed to your practice and it will become a part of your daily routine.
Don’t feel like you have to jump right into a thirty-minute session (or longer). You don’t.
In fact, if you’re particularly squirmy and wrestling with a lot of emotions/chatter in your brain right now, I would probably advise against it until you know how you take to it.
What kind of meditation should I try?
That is entirely up to you, my friend. The sky’s the limit.
I’ll give 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 as well.
Different Meditation Styles To Try In Sobriety
Please note that this is by no means an exhaustive list. If you find something else that is rocking your inner world, 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 do it by forcing yourself to focus on what you’re doing at that 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 your breath. There are a lot of ways to practice mindfulness in your everyday life.
There are also a ton of great books on Amazon to help you started as well, like this one from the creator of Headspace (he’s great!).
2. Guided or Visual Meditations
Guided meditation has become a bit of 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. Again, any number of the bazillion meditation apps out there can help you with this if you’re interested.
I personally LOVE, LOVE, LOVE Insight Timer for guided meditation support. It has a plethora of meditation resources of all styles and traditions FOR FREE. In terms of free resources, I don’t think it gets any better.
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. Maybe that sounds weird to you, but I find it really helps me realize where I’m feeling tense and it’s been a big factor in managing my anxiety..
If you suffer with anxiety disorders, body scans are particularly helpful. It’s amazing how unaware we are of where tension and stress is residing in our body. When you having a particularly tough day with stress or any difficult emotion, this a perfect style to practice.
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.
Starting Your Meditation Practice in Sobriety
My advice is to start with one of the meditation apps, Headspace, Insight Timer or Calm (there really are so many to choose from). A great podcast on the topic is Dan Harris’s 10% Happier, which is also the name of his amazing book that you should definitely buy right now and read.
YouTube also has a ton of resources, though finding the right one can feel a bit like a needle in a haystack at times. 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!
Journaling Activity For Meditation
Take some time today to think about meditation in sobriety and your current headspace.
- Have you tried meditation before? What was (is) it like for you?
- What style of meditation are you interested in trying?
- What apps, books, or resources have you tried or want to try?
- What’s your headspace been like these past two weeks? Are your thoughts all over the place? Your feelings?
- Mentally, what’s been the biggest challenge you’ve faced since you stopped drinking? How are you handling it?
- How do stress and anxiety impact your life?
- What are your biggest goals for your emotional health right now?