Addiction Relapse Prevention Possible by Exploring Drug-Associated Memories


Memories contribute to who we are and our experience of life. Recovering drug addicts can avoid relapsing by exploring drug-associated memories through mindfulness practice. When memories are positive they provide us with a sense of joy and well-being. But when our memories are unpleasant they can compel us to avoid them at all costs. We can find ourselves withdrawing from others, avoiding anything that might trigger a negative memory, or trying to escape our thoughts and feelings all together.

Humans evolved with a negative bias which enabled us to survive in a predaceous world. Is that a tan rock in the distance? Or a lion. Our early ancestors who could not discern the difference ended up on the dinner table. We remember. According to Professor Robert Sapolsky, zebras don’t get ulcers because zebras only think about lions when lions are present. We, on the other hand, think about lions (or negative events) all the time.

While drug use can be considered an unsuccessful repair attempt, at its core, addictive drug use is rooted in memories both positive and negative. Because memories are so powerful many people would like to avoid thinking and, thus, re-experiencing the feelings associated with memories. Exploring those memories through mindfulness practice offers recovering people the greatest opportunity to successfully avoid relapse. Mindfulness practice teaches us how to experience our thoughts in a more productive way by inviting us to accept our thoughts and feelings without ruminating, judging, or trying to fix how we feel.

By learning how to breathe, relax, and simply observe our thoughts we can increase our capacity to tolerate various emotional states without turning to compulsive behavior. With practice and time we can develop a non-threatening relationship with our own thoughts.

As scientist search for a cure for addiction, a pill that will enable us ignore its siren call, I remain doubtful. My skepticism is born out of my experience with nasal sprays—which worked wonderfully for about two hours after which my nostrils were blocked far worse than before. That experience taught me about the concept of rebound. Addiction is a rebounding condition. Recovering addicts don’t get to return to the beginning stage of their addiction if they start using drugs again. Their addiction picks up where it left off and they quickly discover that it is far worse than before.

I can’t imagine the side effects of any pill capable for curing addiction. Mindfulness has no side effects. It also increases the capacity for compassion for self and others. It can also decrease the effects of trauma. Studies have shown that it helps decrease chronic pain. It is effective in reducing both depression and anxiety. Mindfulness is something you can learn and practice anytime and it is free.

Mindfulness does not erase memories or empty the contents of your mind. Your mind will not become a blank slate. Over time, with practice, mindfulness can take the charge out of memories by teaching us how to accept without judgment our thoughts and feelings. Mindfulness teaches us how to be happy.