The Role of Yoga and Meditation in Substance Abuse Recovery

Yoga and meditation are two evidence-based lifestyle practices commonly used in recovery programs that are also believed to benefit the brain.

Most substance abuse recovery programs consist of detoxification, clinical support, behavioral therapy, individual and group counseling, relapse prevention education, and aftercare support. But addiction is a brain disease. That’s why leading recovery centers also provide activities and practices that can help heal the brain. Yoga and meditation are two evidence-based lifestyle practices commonly used in recovery programs that are also believed to benefit the brain.

Yoga: A Physical and Spiritual Practice

Yoga is an ancient Indian practice that seeks to create harmony between the mind, body, and environment. Today, the practice has become a popular form of physical exercise that encourages, promotes, and teaches people to develop healthy control of their mind and body. Often used to enhance physical well-being, yoga combines low-impact physical activity with postures called “asanas,” breathing techniques called “pranayama,” relaxation, and meditation. Most people recognize and understand the physicality of yoga, but the core of the practice emphasizes spiritual wellbeing.

Derived from the Sanskrit word “yog,” yoga means union. The ultimate goal of practicing yoga is to develop unity between the body, mind, energy, and earth to bring about a state of equanimity or calmness. Although modern yoga isn’t tied to a specific religion, the practice promotes spiritual concepts important to addiction recovery such as:

  • Maintaining physical and mental balance
  • Managing your life and purifying yourself
  • Successfully living in society
  • Honesty and living in integrity
  • Being content and thankful for what you have
  • Leading a disciplined life
  • Having and maintaining a purpose and life plan

Meditation: A Stress-Relieving & Reflective Practice

Meditation is a wellness practice that focuses on training your mind to pay focused attention. One of the practice’s main goals is to teach participants how to fully embrace the present moment. By focusing on the present rather than the past or future, participants can reach a point of mental clarity, serenity, and stability. Although the tradition originated in India, meditation’s innate ability to reduce stress and relieve anxiety has made the practice extremely popular in Western cultures.

In addition to helping participants better regulate emotions, manage stress, and develop an overall healthier consciousness, research suggests that meditation can physically change the brain. By initiating and creating positive changes in the brain, meditation can help promote healthy behavior habits, which is extremely beneficial for substance abuse recovery programs. By eliciting positive brain changes, meditation can help recovering addicts uncover some of the underlying issues related to their substance use challenges, which is a key aspect of addiction recovery.

Benefits of Yoga and Meditation for Addiction Recovery

Recovery centers incorporate yoga and meditation into treatment curricula for many reasons. Both practices promote wellness, can strengthen the physical body, reduce stress, and calm the mind. But here at StoneRidge Centers, we encourage clients to practice yoga and meditation because of their benefits and fascinating ability to help restore the brain to optimal health.

Yoga Increases A Natural Brain Chemical that Regulates Stress and Anxiety

Stress and anxiety are inevitably connected to substance use and addiction. Research even suggests that the majority of people grappling with addiction challenges use addictive substances as a way to cope with stress or anxiety. Luckily, yoga helps increase a naturally occurring brain chemical that helps us cope with stress, anxiety, and difficult challenges in a healthy way.

A study published in the Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine showed that practicing yoga techniques increased levels of gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA) in the brain. GABA, a chemical produced by the brain, acts as a natural tranquilizer, calming us down when we’re faced with anxiety and stress, which are common side effects of drug and alcohol withdrawal. By incorporating yoga in their treatment programs, recovery centers can help ease the detoxification process, teach individuals a healthier coping strategy, and help protect them against stress-induced relapse.

Meditation Helps Decrease the Restless, Worrisome, Overly Critical “Monkey-Mind”

The default mode network (DMN) is the brain network responsible for mind-wandering and self-referential thoughts. Also known as the “monkey mind,” increased activity in this part of the brain leaves us unsettled, restless, confused, indecisive, and uncontrollable. The monkey mind is also known as your inner critic, the silent yet strong voice that constantly attacks your self-esteem. Addictive substances such as drugs and alcohol activate the monkey mind, triggering depression, insecurity, paranoia, obsessive compulsive behavior, and other adverse effects. Fortunately, meditation can help decrease activity in the DMN.

According to a Yale study, consistent meditation practice helps to quiet the “monkey mind,” boosting confidence, mood, and overall perspective. As recovering addicted people gain a better perspective of themselves, they’re better able to overcome underlying addiction issues, often making cognitive behavioral therapy and other treatment methods more effective.

Yoga Increases Gray Matter Density in Brain Areas That Manage Impulse Control

Abusing drugs and alcohol decreases the amount of gray matter in the brain. Gray matter is responsible for many of your brain’s functions such as learning skills and memory. Gray matter also affects your self-awareness and how you perceive the world around you. Diminished gray matter can cause cognitive impairments such as memory trouble, poor planning, and a lack of higher-level thinking. Luckily, yoga increases gray matter volume in the hippocampus and frontal sections of the brain.

These regions of the brain govern learning and memory. Higher levels of gray matter in these regions help better control the amygdala, which signals and responds to fear, anxiety, and stress. Higher levels of gray matter in the frontal areas of the brain can regulate impulse control. Essentially, yoga helps those in recovery overcome compulsive, reactive behavior patterns by learning, memorizing, and adapting better, higher, and healthier thoughts, a skill commonly associated with cognitive behavioral therapy.

Meditation Can Help Strengthen Brain Areas Associated with Resisting Cravings

Meditation helps people recover from addiction by promoting positive changes in regions of the brain responsible for self-control. In fact, one study reveals that meditators were able to separate the craving feeling from the act of smoking. By focusing on the present, meditators learn that one feeling or thought doesn’t have to lead to another feeling, thought, or action. By consistently participating in meditation, recovering addicts can learn to “ride the wave” of a craving, helping reduce the likelihood of relapse.

Treatment Programs to Restore the Brain to Optimal Health

Addiction is a complex, chronic disease that originates in the brain. Luckily, the brain is neuroplastic and capable of changing based on positive or negative habits, practices, and stimulations. That’s why we, at StoneRidge, combine lifestyle practices like “the brain diet” with clinical support. We also encourage our clients to experience the power of yoga, meditation, and mindfulness through popular smartphone apps like Calm, Headspace, and Insight Timer, as well as websites like Glo, Alo Moves, and free videos on platforms like YouTube.

Addiction may have negatively impacted your brain, but you can restore your brain to optimal health and overcome substance abuse challenges. Let us help you get there. Contact us today if you’re interested in learning more about our unique approach to treatment.

Innovative, Evidence-Based Therapies

Because mental health and addiction concerns are so often interconnected, we utilize research-based approaches with evidence-based outcomes that promote overall healing and recovery.

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Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation (TMS)
This low-impact magnetic stimulation activates neurons inside the brain, relieving symptoms associated with depression and anxiety.

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qEEG/Brain Mapping
Using brain scanning and readings, we create a map of our patients' brains, helping us develop more targeted and effective treatments.

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Neurofeedback
This process assists patients in visualizing their own brain functionality through continuous EEG readings.

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Spravato Therapy
We use carefully monitored doses of Spravato to help patients struggling with complex mental health disorders, including severe depression.

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Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT)
Patients use this practice to help reframe intrusive or negative thought patterns and develop coping techniques for long-term recovery.

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Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT)
This practice helps patients learn to regulate emotions, communicate more effectively, and process their own thoughts and feelings..

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Eye Movement Desensitization (EMDR)
Licensed and trained therapists guide patients through this technique for managing stress and anxiety on an ongoing basis.

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Individual Therapy
Patients experience one-on-one therapy sessions with a licensed therapist to provide a safe and private place to recover and heal.

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Group/Family Therapy
Patients can practice the skills and techniques they have learned in treatment with others in a safe, therapist-guided space. .
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