Addicts Overcome Holiday Stress with Meditation

VIDEO: Dealing With Holiday Stress
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It's going to be a difficult holiday season for a man named Demitrius, who didn't want to use his full name to protect his privacy.

Demitrius, now 28, won't be able to open gifts or ring in the new year with his family. Instead, he'll spend the holidays and the next several months serving out a court-mandated sentence at New York's Phoenix House, a residential and outpatient drug rehabilitation center. After he was arrested for selling drugs this past spring, his punishment was set at 15 months in residential treatment.

He's coping with his sadness in a way he never dreamed he would growing up in the tough neighborhood of Bedford-Stuyvesant in Brooklyn: through meditation.

"I was skeptical. I never thought I would do it. Where I'm from, people don't do a lot of meditation classes," said Demitrius.

Now, he can't imagine making it through rehab -- and the stress of the holiday season -- without it.

"I can cope better with the fact that I'll be away from my family," he said. "I kind of use the exercises, like the simple breathing exercises, and it relaxes me and makes me more peaceful, and things don't bother me as much."

Triggers Are Stress-Related

Mental health experts say meditation is a great tool for helping people overcome their addictions, and there's a growing body of research that backs up that assertion. It's quickly becoming another treatment tool clinicians can use to help people like Demitrius win their personal wars against addiction.

"Many of the triggers of addiction are somewhat stress-related, so in that sense, anything that's going to reduce stress is going to improve the behavior associated with addiction," said Dr. Vatsal Thakkar, clinical assistant professor of psychiatry at NYU Langone Medical Center in New York.

The relaxed state brought on by meditation lowers the levels of stress hormones in the body.

"You learn to relax and learn to concentrate, which puts the brain in a state where it instinctively perceives the world as being less threatening," said Dr. Charles Raison, associate professor in the Department of Psychiatry and Behaviorial Science at Emory University School of Medicine at Atlanta. "When the brain is in that state, it signals the body that it doesn't have to release all those stress hormones."

Meditation A Valuable Clinical Tool

"There's more and more research being done on exercise, meditation and yoga as primary treatments for addiction," said Thakkar. "That's important, because the track record is bleak in terms of successful, universal treatments that work across the board."

"The use of meditation in clinical studies is moving ahead," said Raison. "It's much more mainstream and very common now."

Phoenix House holds meditation classes every Wednesday, and Demitrius has been in attendance for the past eight weeks. The experience has been life-changing, and he's learned he doesn't need to depend on marijuana, his drug of choice.

"It's a natural way to balance yourself and go mentally without using the drug," he said. "It helps me relax my nerves and feel at ease."

Donna D'Cruz teaches the classes at Phoenix House. She's a music producer and deejay who works with some of the world's biggest stars, but volunteers Wednesdays to teach Demitrius and his fellow residents.

"I was asked to deejay at the Phoenix House charity event in the summer," said D'Cruz. "Two clients got up and spoke, and I was astonished by their stories and the situations they were in."

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