Dec. 23, 2010— -- 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."
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."
D'Cruz has been meditating since her teenage years, and it's helped her deal with the pressures of the music business and constant travel. She offered to teach the residents at Phoenix House, and since she started, she said she believes it's really been working.
"I know it's working, because more people are coming and telling each other. They ask more and more detailed questions," said D'Cruz. "A young man came to me and said he's very angry, and wanted to learn how to meditate just for his anger."
She said meditation is a wonderful tool whenever a person is feeling stressed, but it's especially helpful this time of year.
"Holidays are very difficult. Some clients can't leave and some have no family to go home to," she said. "They have another tool they can use to deal with that."
"Meditation teaches you not to take your thoughts so seriously," said Raison. "If you're thinking, 'Oh, I can't be with my family', you'll learn that's just a thought. See it, recognize it, and let it go."
Thanks to meditation, Demitrius can do that. He's going to help other residents and staff put on a holiday show and make the best of things. He's looking forward to the summer when he can be back with his family.
He plans to make meditation a lasting part of his life.
"When I get out of here, it will definitely be helpful to continue on. I'll be dealing with a lot of stress and trying to keep myself in line. Meditation will help keep me calm so I can make better decisions."