For those who have never experienced it, addiction can be a difficult concept to grasp. Surrounded by stigma and misunderstanding, addiction isn’t an issue with a simple solution. However, an increasing amount of evidence suggests that yoga and mindfulness can be an accessible and effective part of recovery.
People who find themselves in the grip of addiction will often sacrifice their wellbeing, financial security, health and relationships in pursuit of their particular drug – this can vary from gambling, to cocaine use, to alcohol. Even the addictions we consider less serious (usually because they are legal and don’t affect our everyday functioning) such as smoking, involve the sacrifice of long-term health in favour of a short-term dopamine hit. Issues such as food addiction are harder to quantify and easier to hide, but can be similarly profound – and all addictions can have both personal and societal ramifications.
Worryingly, the Centre for Social Justice determined that the level of addiction in the UK made it the “addiction capital of Europe.” The UK spends £36 billion each year on treatment relating to drug and alcohol abuse, a figure that doesn’t touch on the wider cost of addiction in the families affected, lost productivity, criminal activity and other related issues. This issue isn’t confined to the adult population, either – there were 15,583 young people (under 18) in specialist substance misuse services in 2017-18.
Britain also has the highest rate of addiction to opioids across Europe, while benzodiazepines such as Xanax are being sold in very large quantities via the dark web – an issue directly related to anxiety in young people.
With all this in mind, it is clear that addiction is a pressing and complicated health concern, and one that affects people across every level of society. By building self-awareness, strength, clarity of mind, and resilience, yoga can be tailored to support people suffering with addiction and help prevent relapse.
Yoga and addiction
Addiction is an extremely complicated issue that involves many intersections between psychological, physiological, genetic and social circumstances. Studies indicate that people earning a lower income (and those who live in more deprived areas) are more at risk of falling victims to drug abuse, but poverty is far from the only risk factor for addictive behaviour. Environmental influences such as exposure to physical, sexual, or emotional abuse or trauma increases our risk, as does having family or peers who are addicts. Early exposure to drugs and alcohol is also a dominant risk factor.
While yoga can’t negate the socio-political reasons behind addiction, it can be a helpful part of addiction prevention and recovery. Mindfulness-based interventions, some of which include yoga, have sound conceptual underpinnings and growing empirical support for enhancing addiction treatment, prevention, and recovery in addiction.
American Addiction Centers advises that yoga is often beneficial when used in tandem with other traditional substance abuse treatment methods.
Anyone who has abused drugs or alcohol regularly for a period of time will exhibit physical changes in their brain, with pathways associated with emotional regulation, decision making, impulse control and pleasure all unfavourably altered. Addiction also affects homeostatic balance, with chronic overstimulation of the brain (like that which occurs in addiction) forcing the brain to make adjustments and create a new balance point, known as allostasis.
Transitioning back from this abnormal functioning of the brain – which contributes to the obsessive nature of addiction, and the need to seek out drugs or repeat behaviours despite the harm to ourselves and others – is an uncomfortable and even painful process that greatly contributes to the difficulty in quitting. However, after a duration of not consuming addictive substances or avoiding negative behaviours, the brain can begin to heal itself – something which yoga may be able to help with.
While not every drug or behaviour is physically addictive, every addict will experience some degree of psychological addiction – and will therefore experience psychological side effects when attempting to quit. Some of the side effects of emotional withdrawal include anxiety, fatigue, insomnia, stress and depression. Yoga can assist people experiencing these symptoms through the modulation of the stress response.
Sat Bir Khalsa (assistant professor of Medicine at Harvard Medical School and Yoga in Healthcare Conference speaker) wrote a study on a small pilot program in India that featured yoga as the main intervention in its substance-abuse treatment, and told Yoga Journal: “Yoga is very effective at regulating the stress hormones cortisol and adrenaline… It makes sense that if you’re less stressed, you may not be so quick to seek substances to cope.”
“Yoga is an alternative, a positive way to generate a change in consciousness that, instead of providing an escape, empowers people with the ability to access a peaceful, restorative inner state that integrates mind, body, and spirit.”
Some evidence that points to yoga’s effectiveness at regulating our stress response includes:
- The Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine reported on a study that showed an increase in the levels of gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA) – which is produced by the brain to help manage anxiety and stress response – with the practice of yoga techniques.
- There is larger brain volume in areas of the brain associated with regulating stress and self-awareness in those who practice yoga.
- In this study, women who participated in yoga-training demonstrated pronounced and significant improvements in perceived stress. Another revealed a significant decrease in both state and trait anxiety levels and positive change in the subjective wellbeing of the students.
Aside from making life after addiction less stressful and allaying some of the emotional ramifications of withdrawal, yoga can be a healthy coping mechanism and mood-booster for those in danger of addiction or relapse. Yoga offers a mind-and-body approach which takes into account physical as well as mental considerations in regards to helping people move on from addiction. In some instances, it’s physical pain that’s the driver for addiction and relapse, especially in the case of opioid misuse.
Yoga can give people living with addiction the skills they need to learn in order to tolerate the uncomfortable feelings and sensations that can lead to relapses. An advantage of practicing yoga is that we become more attuned to our bodies, learn to regulate our breathing and become more self-aware – becoming more able to observe our thoughts, reactions and sensations in a non-judgmental way. We can also find community in yoga classes, with the support and understanding of others strengthening recovery.
As an emotionally and economically expensive public health issue, the potential of yoga and mindfulness to relieve the burden of addiction is a compelling argument for including these practices in healthcare. Yoga therapists can also develop their practice and do great work in assisting some of the most vulnerable people in our society by completing our The Minded Addiction Recovery Kit (MARK) training, which combines uses an integrative yogic-based approach that explores body, breath and mind to empower the individual with the tools to regulate their nervous systems.
Addiction is a profound, complicated problem that can be very hard for people to face and overcome. By bringing yoga into their recovery, we can give them another tool to protect their health and happiness, and move on into a brighter future.