Mindfulness & Addiction

“Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.” – Viktor Frankl

Addictive behaviors, such as drinking alcohol, smoking marijuana, binging on food, or compulsively gambling, all provide a temporary escape from reality.  When we choose to escape from the constantly unfolding present moment, we are not being mindful.  While some behaviors that have the potential to be addictive can be enjoyed responsibly and in moderation, it is always worthwhile to ask yourself what specific benefits you are getting from whatever behavior you are choosing to engage in.

Costs of Addiction

According to the U.S. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, approximately one in eight Americans suffers from some form of addictive behavior.  The preventative efforts and consequences of these behaviors end up costing society approximately 250 billion dollars per year.  Consider the cost of addictive behaviors on your personal life.  The concept of “costs” extends far beyond monetary losses.  Reflect on the ways in which addictive behaviors in your own life have negatively impacted your relationships, your work, or your health.  Ask yourself if the benefits outweigh those costs.

When addictive behaviors are being used to escape or “check out” in some way, it is often because the thoughts, feelings, or sensations that accompany being fully present are too painful to bear.  There may be an overwhelming urge to do something, anything to just feel “different.”  If you have ever experienced the urge to use substances or behaviors (e.g., eating, shopping, gambling, sex) to escape from uncomfortable feelings, this is a potential red flag that there are deeper issues to be addressed.

Addiction & Dialectical Behavior Therapy

When internal distress feels unbearable, some people have a tendency to seek out self-destructive external sensations to distract from the emotional pain they are experiencing.  Dialectical behavior therapy (DBT), encourages people to distract from intense negative thoughts or feelings, but not in self-destructive ways.  The temporary relief that is obtained through the use of addictive behaviors usually ends up creating more long-term problems down the road.  It is more realistic and in your best interest to focus on finding a replacement behavior.

Imagine someone who is feeling anxious at a social gathering because they are uncomfortable around large groups or making conversations with others.  In an attempt to quell the pain of their internal fear and anxiety, they may end up drinking too much.  Consider how behaviors engaged in while intoxicated are likely to be behaviors that you would not choose in a sober state of mind.  This is a common scenario wherein the misguided attempt to dull anxiety ends up causing greater problems (e.g., doing or saying something embarrassing or hurtful) down the road.  In this case, the benefit is not worth the cost.

Mindfulness & Addiction

For those suffering with serious drug addiction or alcoholism, the best choice may be complete abstinence from all substances.  For others, who may abuse substances on somewhat infrequent occasions, it can be helpful to begin to integrate mindfulness into the experience of engaging in addictive behaviors.  It is unrealistic and undesirable for many people to completely abstain from all potentially addictive substances.  If this is the case, then the answer may be to find a way to change your relationship with the substance or addictive behavior in question.

Rather than mindlessly drinking without noticing how much or how quickly you are drinking, use the experience as an opportunity to slow down and mindfully observe yourself in the moment.  Rather than thinking of alcohol as a “tool” to make you feel better or somehow “different,” begin to change your relationship with alcohol by thinking of it as a pleasant accompaniment (i.e., not the “main attraction”) of an event.

Enjoy each sip the same way you would like to savor each bite of a delicious meal.  If you find yourself not enjoying the taste whatsoever, ask yourself why you are choosing to drink.  Be honest with yourself about what function your behaviors are serving.  With this honesty, you can begin to look within and recognize what needs to change.

If you struggle with marijuana abuse or dependency, reflect on the benefits of the drug with the same honesty. Rather than convince yourself of all of the reasons that drug use is acceptable, not that bad, or even positive, simply focus on what direct and indirect benefits it is giving you (i.e., mindfully abstain from judgment).

Noticing Themes & Changing Your Relationship with Substances

Begin to notice a theme amongst the different situations where you feel most inclined to smoke marijuana.  What is it about these specific situations or states of mind that trigger the urge to use drugs?  What would happen or be different if you faced these situations with the unclouded awareness of sobriety?

Most people have or have had struggles with some form of addictive behavior(s).  If you are able to identify a problematic relationship that you have with a substance or an addictive behavior, take the time to begin to cultivate a more mindful relationship with it.  If your current relationship with the substance/behavior is not in your best interest, not in line with your true values, or causing you significant negative consequences, it may be a sign that it is time for something to change.

Mindfulness & Choice in Using Substances

The next time you have the urge to use your substance of choice or perform your addictive behavior of choice, slow things down in the moment.  Really pause to notice the circumstances surrounding your desire to use, reflect on the pros and cons of using in the long-term, and ask yourself how the situation might end differently if you chose to cut back or even abstain in the moment.

Remember that in each moment you are faced with a choice.  The choice to continue to do things in the same way as you always have and continue to get the same consequences as you always have, or to meet the present moment with eyes wide open, fully awake and aware.

Be fully present the next time a familiar pattern emerges.  Observe the situation mindfully, with openness, without judgment, and with complete acceptance.  Be kind to yourself if you make a mistake.  It is only truly a “mistake” if nothing is learned.  How can you meet the next moment you are confronted with an addictive temptation with total awareness?

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Featured image: sundowner by jenny downing / CC BY 2.0

About Laura K. Schenck, Ph.D., LPC

I am a Licensed Professional Counselor (LPC) with a Ph.D. in Counseling Psychology from the University of Northern Colorado. Some of my academic interests include: Dialectical Behavior Therapy, mindfulness, stress reduction, work/life balance, mood disorders, identity development, supervision & training, and self-care.


  1. William H Bishop on July 7, 2011 at 4:48 pm

    Love the post – and I very much enjoy your quotes at the beginning – Frankl is a favorite of mine and I agree with his point about freedom… I have an interesting question that I have noticed coming up with some of my clients… do you think that when an intervention claims that a person must accept that they ‘have no control over the substance’ they are impeding the clients ability to develop a conscious awareness of the “space”? Are some interventions so lacking in their understanding of mindfulness that they are actually pushing “functional” cognitive rigidity on clients instead of offering the gift of reflection (which is what I believe the ‘space’ is)? I do understand that increasing emotional acceptance/consciousness and mindfulness is often the longer road… and yet I worry that sometimes our felt helplessness as a field pushes us to fix one form of cognitive determinism (stimulus- response without the ‘space’) with another more ‘functional’ form of cognitive determinism. Succinctly the question becomes, “do you believe that there is always freedom in the space… or are there some stimuli that allow no freedom in the space… no opportunity for choice? I’m going to blog about this… would love to hear your input if you should choose to write a blog on the subject as well.


    • Laura on July 10, 2011 at 5:11 pm

      Will – I’m glad that you enjoyed this post on Mindfulness & Addictive Behaviors! Frankl is a favorite of mine as well – this quote seemed fitting for this topic. It strikes me that if a person is being told that they “have no control” over their substance use/abuse, then it is taking away a great deal of their power to cultivate awareness of the “space.” It is also a convenient way to absolve oneself of responsibility in a way. I imagine that some people who struggle with substance abuse are relieved at the notion that they “have no control.” If we have no control over our behaviors in this way, it seems that our potential to replace problematic behaviors with healthy ones is severely limited.

      I completely agree with your point about pushing “functional” cognitive rigidity as opposed to offering the gift of reflection. I, too, believe that is precisely what that “space” is. Developing mindful awareness and acceptance of (painful) emotions is definitely a long road, but it seems that this is the path to true and lasting change. From the perspective of choice theory/reality therapy and “total behavior,” there is always freedom in the space. I tend to view all of our behaviors as choices, even the ones that are harmful or self-destructive. I think that people are always making the “best choice” they can come up with at the time to meet their basic needs (in reality therapy: survival, love/belonging, power, freedom, & fun). For me, once we begin to take full responsibility for the power that we have to choose or not choose our behaviors, then we are opened up to the realization that we can choose better behaviors. What do you think? I look forward to reading your blog post on this topic!

      Thanks for visiting and for the comment!

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