Mindfulness-Based Relapse Prevention

“What is necessary to change a person is to change his awareness of himself.” – Abraham Maslow

Mindfulness-based relapse prevention (MBRP) is treatment approach developed at the Addictive Behaviors Research Center at the University of Washington to assist individuals interested in maintaing their recovery from substance abuse or dependence.  Through the practice of mindfulness, you are able to become more aware of your thoughts, feelings, and behavioral patterns.

This increased awareness allows you to develop a sense of space between “yourself” and the thoughts, feelings, and behaviors.  It is in this mindful space that you have room to see those thoughts or feelings for what they truly are and then make decisions based on this total awareness.  When you become too caught up in or linked to your thoughts, feelings, or behavioral responses, it is hard to see them realistically.  Without this mindful awareness, it is difficult to make new and different behaviors.

MBRP is intended for people who have already undergone initial treatment for their substance abuse or who are at a stage where they do not need intensive care.  The idea of MBRP is to utilize the principles of mindfulness to maintain foundational substance abuse treatment gains and begin to build a lifestyle that can support well-being and recovery in the long-term.

Mindfulness-Based Relapse Prevention

The primary goals of mindfulness-based relapse prevention are:

1.  Cultivate awareness of individual triggers and habitual reactions.  Learn how to create a space/pause in what seems like an automatic process.

2.  Change your relationship with discomfort.  Learn to recognize difficult emotional and physical experiences and respond to them skillfully and effectively.

3.  Develop a compassionate and nonjudgmental approach towards yourself and your experiences.

4.  Create a lifestyle that supports both mindfulness practice and recovery.

Siegel (2010) explains that the core of most mindfulness-based relapse prevention programs is to discover for yourself that difficult thoughts and feelings are indeed tolerable and that it is not necessary to turn to drugs or alcohol to make them go away.  Some people who struggle with alcohol abuse find social situations extremely anxiety-provoking and find it somewhat unbearable to be in them without using alcohol.

Others may have developed a habit of having a glass of wine at the end of a long work day and find this to be an incredibly difficult habit to break.  Still others have developed a habit of smoking marijuana to “relax” or when they are engaging in tasks/work they find “boring” or “tedious.”  The idea is that these situations (and all others) can be effectively handled in a mindful, alert, and aware manner without the use of any drugs or alcohol.

For people who struggle with letting go of their drug or alcohol use in certain situations/contexts, it is important to shine the bright light of mindfulness onto those situations and honestly ask yourself what the core fear is about entering into that situation without the use of drugs or alcohol.  Urges and cravings to use drugs and alcohol are much like “waves.”  It is possible to surf those waves until they pass.  Through mindfulness, you can learn to become fully aware of your urges to use drugs or alcohol, apply total mindfulness to those cravings, and watch them pass without acting on them.

Motivational-Interviewing Questions to Ask Yourself

Siegel (2010) provides some excellent focused questions to ask yourself, from a motivational-interviewing perspective, about your relationship with drugs or alcohol:

  • What feels good about using —– ?
  • What benefits does it offer you?
  • What might you lose if you gave it up?
  • Does using —– cause you any difficulties?
  • Do you imagine that it might one day?
  • Does it create any risks?
  • On balance, does it enrich your life or detract from it?
  • Have you tried to stop or cut back before?  What happened?

Do you feel like you are in a place with your drug or alcohol use where you would like to begin to apply the principles of mindfulness to help you either maintain sobriety or cut back on your use?  The first step towards changing your relationship with any substance is become more aware of that relationship.  You must see it clearly for what it is.

It can be painful to see ourselves in the harsh light of reality.  Mindfulness allows you to begin to strip away the layers of denial, rationalization, and minimization to see the issue for what it really is.  Try to embrace the freedom that comes along with this new mindful awareness.  Once you decide to see yourself clearly in this way, you have the power to begin to make real changes.

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Mindfulness-Based Relapse Prevention. (n.d.). Retrieved from http://www.mindfulrp.com/

Siegel, R.D. (2010). The mindfulness solution: Everyday practices for everyday problems. New York, NY: The Guilford Press.

Featured image: Last sip of wine by paulaloe / 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 Comment

  1. David Rasmussen on June 16, 2019 at 1:02 pm

    I am starting groups in NYS county jail with males and am looking for suitable topics to utilize with this population that would be beneficial to the inmates

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