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Is Mindfulness an Effective Alternative for Treating Opioid Addiction, Chronic Pain and Mental Health Issues?

By Kathryn Taylor Millán, MA, LPC/MHSP

The concept of mindfulness has increased in popularity over the last few years, both in pop culture and in medical circles. While mindfulness and meditation practice have recently become buzzwords in psychology journals and social media, they are actually related to ancient teachings that date before the current era.

Mindfulness does not have to happen in any particular location or in any particular pose. It’s a state that costs no money to obtain and is fairly easy to understand. A mindful state is achieved when a person is able to focus his or her awareness on the present moment. It involves clearing the mind as much as possible and gently acknowledging one’s own body sensations, thoughts and emotions without judgment.

Mindfulness often requires practice, and once it’s mastered, those who use it often find a feeling of peace or comfort. Many people benefit from a mindfulness teacher or coach in the early stages of their practice and eventually find it fits well with everyday living.

Woman practicing mindfulness

The Evidence-Based Benefits of Mindfulness

Mindfulness involves much more than just sitting still or relaxing. Mindfulness involves a new way of thinking and seeing the world. People who enter a mindful state will see measureable, physical differences in their life experiences. In many cases, blood pressure and heart rate may regulate, breathing may deepen and slow and thought processes become more clear and relaxed.

Meditation is not limited to therapy or yoga class. Major corporations like Google, Aetna, General Mills, Intel and Target have researched and implemented mindfulness programs for their employees. Managers and CEOs alike have found that helping their employees become calmer and more present boosts employee happiness and productivity.1 Meditation can benefit anyone who wishes to be more successful.

Mindfulness can have several positive effects. Consider the following:

  1. Mindfulness improves memory and thinking ability. You owe it to your brain to give mindfulness and meditation a try. Mindfulness improves visual processing, reaction time, executive thinking and working memory. Studies show that just four days of meditation practice can improve brain processes, and long-term meditation practice only increases these positive effects.2
  2. Mindfulness reduces anxiety. Studies that included patients with generalized anxiety disorder — a debilitating condition that causes ongoing worry and fears that impact daily living — found that an eight-week mindfulness-based stress reduction program greatly alleviated anxiety symptoms.3 Lowering anxiety levels may help prevent relapse during addiction recovery and help improve a number of mental health conditions.
  3. Mindfulness helps concentration. If you struggle to pay attention to everyday details or if you’ve been diagnosed with ADHD (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder), a daily session of mediation can help you stay on track throughout the entire day. One Harvard study found that meditation actually helps alpha brainwaves, located in the brain’s cortex, suppress distracting sensations and focus on intended tasks and thoughts. With regular mindfulness practice, this benefit only increases.4
  4. Mindfulness treats and prevents depression. Patients who combine Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) and Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT) experience improvement in depression symptoms and are less likely to relapse with major depressive episodes. This combination of treatments allows individuals to recognize and interact with depressive feelings and thoughts in new ways. By treating themselves with compassion and using body-mind awareness, individuals have been able to experience a great deal of relief from depression symptoms.5

Mindfulness for the Treatment of Chronic Pain

Anyone who suffers from chronic pain can agree it’s difficult to experience everyday life under the constant pressure of pain. People who live through daily physical discomfort have often tried a number of remedies and may be skeptical that mindfulness or meditation could make a difference. It’s true: A daily mindfulness practice will not alter the physiological causes of pain. However, mindfulness practice can alter the way the brain perceives pain and possibly help alleviate the need for dangerous opioid painkillers.

The first way that mindfulness and meditation benefit the body is by aiding the immune system. People who suffer from chronic autoimmune disorders like rheumatoid arthritis, lupus or Crohn’s disease can benefit from regular meditation practice. Studies show that eight weeks of Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MSBR) therapy led to the production of healthier antibodies and a more regulated immune system.6 Autoimmune disease patients who combine MBSR therapy with Cognitive Behavioral Therapy experience greater overall life satisfaction and greater relief from physical pain than those who do not try these holistic approaches.7

Alternative Treatment for Opioid Addiction

Dealing with ongoing pain can feel hopeless, overwhelming and exhausting. Well-meaning doctors often quickly prescribe dangerous opioid painkillers to treat a variety of cases. These prescriptions have contributed to the overwhelming statistics surrounding prescription painkiller addiction and heroin addiction in the United States today.

A 2015 study from the University of New Mexico discovered that an average of 25 percent of pain patients eventually misuse their medication, while 10 percent of patients go on to struggle with opioid addiction.8

The human brain produces natural painkillers within itself, and opioid drugs were designed to act like these natural painkillers. Over time, the use of opioid drugs causes the brain to stop producing its own natural painkillers. Dependence and addiction begin once the brain requires only the constant use of opioid drugs to feel any relief from pain.

Mindfulness meditation treats pain without interfering with the body’s natural opioid-producing system. A recent study by Wake Forest University found that patients were able to reduce their pain levels by 21 percent using meditation alone.9

Holistic Services at The Canyon

The Canyon offers a number of holistic recovery services in a beautiful, serene setting among the rolling hills and lush landscape of Malibu, California. Our highly experienced team offers a number of evidence-based treatments for both addiction and mental health concerns. Along with our clinical expertise, we offer a number of holistic services and features.

On-site landmarks honor all spiritual traditions and offer a comfortable backdrop to practice mindfulness and meditation under the guidance of experienced recovery leaders. Our meditation dome offers a free-standing oasis, surrounded by nature that is just a few steps away from our luxury treatment facility. Our labyrinth prayer walk was constructed to emulate cross-cultural meditation paths that can be found worldwide, offering space to reflect on peaceful inner change. Individuals who prefer a more adventurous experience may choose to enter our on-site Native American-inspired sweat lodge, which allows deeper understanding of self under the guidance of an experienced mental health practitioner.

However you choose to embrace healing, The Canyon offers the peaceful surroundings and comprehensive evidence-based treatment to help you meet your goals.


1 Schaufenbuel, Kimberly.Why Google, Target, and General Mills Are Investing in Mindfulness.” Harvard Business Review, December 28, 2015.

2 Zeidan, Fadel, et al.Mindfulness meditation improves cognition: evidence of brief mental training.” Consciousness and Cognition, June 2010.

3 Hoge, EA, et al.Randomized controlled trial of mindfulness meditation for generalized anxiety disorder: effects on anxiety and stress reactivity.” Journal of Clinical Psychiatry, August 2013.

4 McGreevey, Sue.Turn down the volume.” The Harvard Gazette, April 22, 2011.

5 Kuyken, Willem, et al.Effectiveness and cost-effectiveness of mindfulness-based cognitive therapy compared with maintenance antidepressant treatment in the prevention of depressive relapse or recurrence (PREVENT): a randomized controlled trial.The Lancet, April 20, 2015.

6 Davidson, RJ, et al.Alterations in Brain and Immune Function Produced by Mindfulness Meditation.” Psychosomatic Medicine, July–August 2003.

7 Zautra, Alex J., et al.Comparison of cognitive behavioral and mindfulness meditation interventions on adaptation to rheumatoid arthritis for patients with and without history of recurrent depression.” Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, June 2008.

8 Muller, Robert T. “Using Mindfulness With Opioid Addicted Chronic Pain Patients.” Psychology Today, August 24, 2017.

9 Zeidan, Fadel, et al. “Mindfulness Meditation-Based Pain Relief Employs Different Neural Mechanisms Than Placebo and Sham Mindfulness Meditation-Induced Analgesia.Journal of Neuroscience, November 18, 2015.

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