Can Mindfulness Be Helpful for Treating Substance Use Disorders (SUDs)?

Substance use disorders have skyrocketed at alarming rates, posing significant global challenges.  Recent data from the National Survey on Drug Use and Health report that 43.3 million people (aged 12 and older)…

Athletic man doing exercise at the beach - Maui Recovery

Substance use disorders have skyrocketed at alarming rates, posing significant global challenges. 

Recent data from the National Survey on Drug Use and Health report that 43.3 million people (aged 12 and older) met the DSM-5 criteria for having a substance use disorder in the past year. This factors out to be 16.5 percent of the population.

From cities to rural communities, the grip of addiction knows no boundaries and affects individuals from all walks of life. Behind the statistics lie untold stories of personal struggles, shattered relationships, and the desperate need for effective solutions to this epidemic.

Traditional treatment for substance use disorders follows a multifaceted approach, addressing addiction’s physical and psychological aspects.

Detoxification programs help individuals safely withdraw from substances, while counseling and therapy provide a platform for exploring underlying emotional issues. Medication-assisted treatment may also be utilized to manage cravings.

However, addiction treatment providers continue to seek innovative approaches that go beyond the traditional methods to maximize success rates and long-term recovery. In recent years, other therapies, such as mindfulness have gained attention in helping to treat addiction.

With its roots in ancient Buddhist practices, mindfulness involves nonjudgmental awareness and acceptance of one’s thoughts and feelings in the present moment. It is proving to be a successful tool in recovery when used alongside more traditional substance use disorder treatments.

Understanding substance use disorders

The National Institute of Mental Health defines substance use disorders (SUDs) as treatable mental disorders that affect someone’s brain and behavior and leads to their inability to control substances such as legal or illegal drugs, alcohol, or medications.

Substance use disorders can have severe physical and psychological ramifications and affect individuals of all ages and backgrounds.

Understanding substance use disorders requires delving into the intricate web of factors that contribute to how they begin and how they are maintained. 

Understanding substance use disorders involves recognizing these facts:

  • Addiction is not a matter of willpower or moral failing.
  • Addiction is a complex interplay of genetic, environmental, and psychological influences.
  • By unraveling the underlying emotional pain and trauma that often accompany substance abuse, we can begin to understand substance use disorders.
  • Through empathy, education, and a compassionate lens, we can truly comprehend the profound challenges individuals with substance use disorders face.

Traditional treatment for substance use disorders

woman at community support group for mental health, counseling or help

The traditional approach to treating substance use disorders typically involves a combination of the following:

  • Detoxification
  • Inpatient/residential rehab
  • Outpatient rehab
  • Behavioral therapies
  • Medication-assisted treatment (in some cases)

While these methods have been the cornerstone of addiction treatment for many years, they are not without their challenges.

​​A primary problem with the traditional approach? It often focuses only on the physical aspects of addiction, such as detoxification and withdrawal symptom management. Of course, these steps are crucial for ensuring safety during the early days of recovery, but they do not address the underlying psychological and emotional factors that contribute to substance abuse.

Another challenge with the traditional approach is that it can overly emphasize uniform treatment protocols. These approaches may not always fully address the unique needs and circumstances of each person. Addiction is a deeply personal experience, and productive treatment should be customized to meet each individual’s specific needs. 

Finally, traditional treatment approaches tend to be time-limited, with a focus on short-term goals. In contrast, recovery from substance abuse is often a lifelong journey that requires long-term relapse prevention strategies.

The traditional approach to treating substance use disorders has its merits, but it also faces several issues. To address these issues, a comprehensive and holistic approach is needed, one that:

  • Integrates evidence-based practices with personalized care
  • Addresses the underlying psychological and emotional factors that accompany addiction
  • Considers the broader social causes of addiction
  • Provides ongoing support throughout the recovery process

The role of mindfulness

Mindfulness is a practice that seems simple enough but actually takes practice and commitment to implement effectively. Mindfulness refers to being fully in the present moment with curiosity and non-judgment. At its core, mindfulness involves intentionally paying attention to “the now,” which includes thoughts, feelings, and the surroundings.  

Research has shown that mindfulness practices have numerous psychological benefits, making them a promising addition to traditional addiction treatments.

Through practicing mindfulness, individuals with substance use disorders can develop relevant skills in addiction treatment, such as emotional regulation, impulse control, and stress management.

Another key aspect of mindfulness is its ability to increase self-awareness. Those in recovery can become more attuned to their cravings, triggers, and automatic reactions related to substance abuse.

The goal is that this heightened awareness allows them to recognize these patterns as they arise and choose healthier responses.

Mindfulness can also help individuals develop a non-judgmental attitude toward their thoughts and cravings, while also reducing self-blame and shame – barriers to recovery.

What does the research show about mindfulness in treating substance use disorders?

Mental health mindfullness wellbeing and balance concept. Sounds therapy. Women health. Tank drum

Research studies have shown promising results regarding the usefulness of mindfulness-based interventions in addiction treatment.

For example, a research study published in JAMA Internal Medicine in 2014 had the goal of determining the effectiveness of meditation programs in improving stress-related outcomes of those with mental health and substance abuse issues. The study found that mindfulness meditation programs showed moderate evidence of improved anxiety, depression, and pain.

Another study published in Front Psychiatry in 2023 examined the effects of mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) on sleep quality in male patients with alcohol use disorder. The results showed that participants in the MBSR group had improved sleep quality compared to those in the control group and suggested that mindfulness interventions may be effective in helping to reduce substance use.

Additionally, neuroimaging studies have provided insights into the mechanisms of how, exactly, mindfulness affects the brain. Regular mindfulness practice has been associated with changes in the brain regions involved in self-regulation, including the prefrontal cortex. These changes contribute to improved emotional control and better decision-making.

The evidence supporting the use of mindfulness in substance use treatment is certainly promising, but it is not a one-size-fits-all solution. Mindfulness should be viewed as a tool to be used as part of a comprehensive treatment plan.

It’s important to note that mindfulness requires regular commitment and practice to gain sustainable benefits. Learning to be mindful takes time and effort. Because of the commitment needed, ongoing support should be given to those using mindfulness-based interventions to help keep them motivated and engaged.

Integrating mindfulness into substance use disorder treatments

Incorporating mindfulness into substance use disorder treatments can offer individuals a revolutionary approach to their recovery. Here are a few ways in which mindfulness can be integrated into substance use disorder treatment programs:

Mindful breathing and body scans

Mindful breathing exercises and body scans are excellent starting points for introducing mindfulness in treatment.

Participants are asked to focus their attention on their breath or methodically scan their bodies for sensations.

Mindful breathing and body scans heighten a sense of grounding, which allows individuals to observe their thoughts and emotions. These techniques can be incorporated into individual therapy sessions or group activities.

Mindfulness and coping with cravings

Cravings are perhaps the most significant challenge in substance use disorder recovery. 

Mindfulness techniques can be taught to individuals to help them cope with cravings. Participants are encouraged to observe the physical sensations, thoughts, and emotions that accompany their cravings. Then, they can develop the ability to ride the wave of discomfort without acting on it. 

Through mindfulness, those with a substance use disorder can learn to identify the temporary nature of cravings and practice healthy responses.

Mindfulness-based relapse prevention

Mindfulness-based relapse prevention (MBRP) programs have gained recognition as constructive approaches to prevent relapse.

MBRP combines traditional relapse prevention strategies with mindfulness practices, strongly emphasizing acceptance and self-compassion.

Participants learn to recognize triggers and cravings while developing mindfulness skills to respond skillfully. The goal of MBRP is to help individuals gain an extensive set of tools that foster resilience and reduce the chances of relapse. 

Mindfulness in group therapy

Group therapy session sitting in a circle. Sunbeam background. Selective focus.

Group therapy provides an ideal setting to incorporate mindfulness practices. 

Facilitators can guide participants through mindfulness exercises, while creating an open and supportive environment. 

Mindful listening and empathy can also be encouraged, allowing individuals to make connections within the group. 

There are so many positives about group therapy in addiction treatment and group mindfulness practices can help further promote the sense of community, mutual support, and shared growth. 

Mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR)

Stress is a common trigger for substance abuse.

Mindfulness-based stress reduction was coined by Jon Kabat-Zinn in the 1970s to help treat patients with mental illness.

MBSR techniques can be incorporated into addiction treatment programs to equip individuals with essential stress management tools. MBSR involves various mindfulness practices, including meditation and yoga.


Mindfulness shows great promise as a valuable adjunct to traditional treatments for substance use disorders.

Mindfulness skills can contribute to critical aspects of addiction recovery, such as:

  • Emotional regulation
  • Impulse control
  • Stress management
  • Reduced cravings
  • Relapse prevention

As mentioned before, mindfulness should not be seen as a standalone treatment but rather as part of a holistic approach to lasting recovery.

Future research will continue to explore and refine the integration of mindfulness into addiction treatment programs to optimize outcomes for individuals struggling with substance use disorders.

How can Maui Recovery help?

Maui Recovery offers an empathetic and caring environment designed to help individuals overcome their addictions – and any co-occurring mental health conditions – so they can begin their path to lasting recovery. 

The dedicated staff members at Maui Recovery understand the challenges individuals face and provide personalized treatment plans to help clients break free from their substance use disorder.

Our holistic approach to recovery employs evidence-based therapies like Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) and Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) to address both the physical and psychological aspects of addiction. Our dynamic programs also include experiential treatments, such as nature immersion and adventure therapy.

If you or a loved one would like to talk to us about what we can offer you at Maui Recovery, please contact us today. We’re here for you.

Contact Us

If you’re struggling with an addiction, or know a friend or family member who is, reach out to one of our experts today. We’re here for you.

Related posts

Call Now