Using Mind-Body Practices to Treat Substance Use Disorder

Substance use disorder is a mental health condition that makes it difficult for a person to control their use of substances, such as drugs or alcohol, due to changes that occur in the brain after prolonged, repeated substance use [1, 2]. The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) reported that as of 2020, more than 35 million people suffer from drug or substance use disorders, and that nearly 13% of people who use illegal drugs will at some point in their lifetime develop a substance use disorder [3].

For many who live with it, substance use disorder is an incredibly debilitating illness, impacting a person’s ability to be successful in school or work settings, maintain social relationships, and have true autonomy over their lives. In previous pieces in our series on substance use disorder, we have discussed several important topics, such as how stigma impacts access to resources [4], support options for family members of a person struggling with substance use disorder [5], and the value of using an interdisciplinary approach for treatment [6]. A key takeaway from our interdisciplinary approaches article,was the importance of individuals seeking treatment and intervention options that arebest suited for their specific symptoms and needs. One of these options that should be discussed further is mind-body approaches.

Mind-body approaches, such as meditation and yoga, have been shown to be very beneficial for people struggling with substance use issues [7-10]. Some scientific studies suggest that practices focused on mind-body connections can help individuals with relapse prevention [8-13], through improving emotion regulation, managing withdrawal symptoms, and having a better sense of self by reducing internalisednegative beliefs.

Mind-Body Practices as Rehabilitation Interventions

Mind-body practices and mindfulness are powerful tools for stress management and emotion regulation that have the ability to promote overall well-being and establish a state of inner peace [14, 15]

Specifically, these tools can help an individual with different aspects of their rehabilitation, including:

• Improving self-awareness • Increased self-efficiency • Heightened motivation • Development and use of healthy coping strategies  

Mindfulness Practices

Mindfulness is a practice based on the idea of being present in a given moment [14]. A primary goal of mindfulness is to teach an individual to refocus their mind on the present moment rather than thoughts or experiences that are causing stress.

Rather than fixating on stressors, practicing mindfulness techniques helps individuals focus on what is happening in their bodies instead of what is happening in their environment; through doing so, a person can learn more about themselves and what they need in order to achieve and maintain emotional balance. These practices involve strong mind-body connections [14, 15].

Mindfulness techniques are an especially effective method for promoting healthy mental health states. Meditation and yoga, two mindfulness-based, mind-body interventions are some of the best tools available for rehabilitation.


Meditation is a mindfulness technique commonly used to relieve stress [15]. Importantly, meditation is also a useful tool for maintaining and strengthening mind-body connections. Meditative practices have been shown to be particularly useful for maintaining recovery after treatment for patients with a substance use disorder [14-16].


Commonly recommended meditative practices include:

Meditative Deep Breathing Exercises:

Deep breathing exercises, also referred to as breathing meditation, are very effective for stress relief and relaxation [17,18]. They are also relatively quick to perform, making them an efficient stress relief tool. These types of exercises rely on mind-body connections in order to calm the nervous system and help an individual become centered. This results in a state of emotional stability and the ability to remain stable in a stressful environment.  


Focusing on What is in Your Control:

Stress, uncertainty, and general feelings of being out of control are common triggers for drug use and relapse. Finding ways to focus on what we can actually control can be beneficial for reducing these feelings and thus reducing relapses. In times of uncertainty or during stressful experiences, a recommended practice is to use meditation to focus on what is in our control and mindfully attend to the calm that focus provides [14, 17].


Full Body Scans:

Full body scan meditation is a meditative method used to establish a mind-body connection and is commonly used for promoting relaxation and well-being during times when an individual may feel stressed or overwhelmed [14, 17]. This type of meditation reinforces mind-body connections and helps build stress resilience. It can also allow an individual to become aware of how their mental state influences their physical state, which may help identify triggers for substance use [18].


Reducing stress through using these types of coping strategies can be very beneficial for rehabilitation.


The muscle relaxing movements and stretches used in yoga release tension and tightness from the body, resulting in stress relief and relaxation from head-to-toe [7, 8, 10, 17, 18]. When performing yoga, an individual gives themselves a moment to focus on calming their body and mind.


This can provide several benefits, including:

Reduced Experiences of Anxiety and Depression

Many people who struggle with a substance use disorder also struggle with a co-occurring mental health condition [1], also referred to as a comorbidity. Some of these comorbidities include anxiety and depression. Scientific research into this topic has revealed that regularly practicing yoga can help with symptom relief and reduce levels of anxiety as well as feelings of depression [19-23].

Improved Mood and Stress Resilience

In addition to improving symptoms related to comorbid mental illnesses, regularly practicing yoga has also been shown to improve overall mood [19-23] and other health

aspects that affect mood, such as reducing stress [24, 25] and improving quality of sleep through reducing fatigue [26]. In this way, yoga is also a good coping strategy for building stress resilience, a very important tool for combating cravings and relapse [18].  

Substance use disorders can greatly impact a person’s ability to lead a productive and fulfilling life and for many, eventually becomes all-consuming. Mindfulness-based mind-body practices provide tools for coping with stress, negative emotions, and other triggers. Ultimately, they help an individual struggling with a substance use disorder with what is most important—preventing relapse and maintaining sobriety so they can live the life they desire.




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