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Staying Sober by Being Mindful: Four Simple Techniques to Try

What if we told you there was an activity that could lower your blood pressure, improve insomnia, help quell post-traumatic stress disorder, reduce symptoms of depression and anxiety, and reduce chronic pain – and that activity requires no equipment, takes only a few minutes each day, and is absolutely free?

Too good to be true? Nope. The practice of mindful meditation ticks all those boxes, and then some.

Before you start imagining blissed-out hippies sitting in a sunny meadow to contemplate their navels, take a look at five mindfulness practices that recovering addicts can turn to again and again as they strive for sobriety.

#1 It All Comes Back to the Breath

You already know how your mental and emotional state feeds into your breathing patterns, and vice-versa. When you’re fearful or angry, you may find yourself taking rapid, shallow breaths. Taking some slow, deep, measured breaths can do wonders for calming your nervous system.

Not only do deep breaths have a physiological effect on your heart rate, the time-out and focus they require may curb impulsive decisions — an angry or hurtful retort, a door slammed — that might otherwise make matters worse.

Many people find it useful to bookmark an animation for help regulating their inhalations and exhalations.

#2 Be Here Now

young man meditating


How often do you ask someone to repeat what they’ve just said because you were “a million miles away”? It’s easy for your mind to wander and your attention to lapse. The human brain is like a puppy that alerts on every squirrel, every sound, every scent. Before you know it, you’re tearing off in a direction that’s far different from your original destination.

Luckily, just like a puppy can be taught to walk on a leash and obey your commands, your brain is also trainable. The more you rein it in and ask it to concentrate only on what’s happening in the here and now, the better you’ll be able to resist cravings and refrain from rash decisions.

A simple exercise you can perform to ground yourself is to tune into all of your senses: name five things you can see (a blue sky, your spouse, the clock, your hand, your computer screen), four things you can feel (a fuzzy pillow, your cat’s fur, a cold drink, the carpet), three you can hear (a radio, the fan, birds chirping outdoors), two you can smell (a coworker’s cologne, the bacon you made for breakfast) and one you can taste. (Keep a tin of mints or a few hard candies handy in case you need something taste-able.)

Naming these things can help your overactive, excitable mind to settle down.

#3 Your Thoughts Are Just That

Serene meditative young woman


As your puppy-brain races from one stimulus to another, it can be difficult to observe your thought process objectively. All too often, we mistake our thoughts for reality. That’s not to say that our thoughts can’t describe the truth about a situation, but often they are simply the stories we tell ourselves. And thoughts aren’t written in stone; there’s no reason we cannot change them.

Let’s say you drop a glass jar, breaking it. What’s your first thought: damn, I’m such a klutz or now look at the mess I’ve made or this is why I can’t have nice things? What thoughts come next? Maybe what a crappy day this is turning into or it was so stupid of me to pick up that jar with wet hands or I can’t even manage to put the jam away without screwing up.

As you can imagine, it’s not a big leap from these thoughts to I need a drink or why did I even bother quitting if this is what happens when I’m sober.

A helpful technique for changing your self-talk is to imagine what you’d say to a good friend or a child in the same situation. Would you scold a toddler for dropping the jar? Would you tell your BFF that they’re stupid? Of course not; you’d reassure them that it was an accident, that it was no big deal, that they shouldn’t beat themselves up for such a minor thing. Start standing up for yourself when your brain tries to bully you. Before long, that negative self-talk won’t be your knee-jerk reaction.

#4 Meditation Is the Perfect Practice for Sobriety

Meditation is at once one of the easiest and one of the hardest things to do. It’s easy because it doesn’t require any particular tools, equipment, space, or extended time commitment. It’s difficult because – well, because your mind doesn’t want to stay still.

One of the myths about meditation is that it’s “not thinking about anything” or “having a perfectly blank mind.” That’s virtually impossible, as you know if you’ve ever tried it. Rather, meditation is about gently returning your attention to your breath or your mantra or a visual focus point. When your mind wanders, you guide it back. It wanders. You guide it back. Rinse, repeat.

In that way, it’s a lot like staying clean. As a recovering addict, you will likely never reach a state of being effortlessly sober 24/7. What’s important is that when you stray from the path – whether that means feeling the pull, taking a step toward relapse, or actually using again – you gently guide yourself back on track. You do this over, and over, and over, and eventually all those repetitions add up; lo and behold, you’ve been sober for a week or 11 months or 15 years.

Practicing meditation is the perfect practice for practicing sobriety.

More and more addiction treatment programs are recognizing the value of meditation and mindfulness. The best part about this approach is that is compatible with all treatment modalities, whether you opt for a 12-step program, SMART recovery, LifeRing, or any other path to a sober lifestyle.

Far from being a new-age or fringe practice, meditation is mainstream, and it’s gaining ground even in the scientific community. That’s because it’s remarkably effective for so many facets of life. Integrating mindfulness into your daily routine is going to serve you well for the remainder of your days.

Have you ever tried meditating? What was your experience like? Let us know in the comment section!

Featured image credit – Boiarkina Marina/Shutterstock