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Thinking outside the box and inside the mind

Bloom-Foster-jessica.jpgMany people have found the practice of mindfulness, a form of meditation, to be a helpful tool in managing everything from stress to chronic pain. Now, a family physician at Northern Light Health Family Medicine and Residency is exploring whether mindfulness can be effective for people in recovery from opioid use disorder.
 
“Most simply, mindfulness is purposefully paying attention to the present moment,” said Jessica Bloom-Foster, MD, clinical faculty and research director at the residency program. “It’s a more formal practice of being aware of what you’re experiencing in your body and mind and observing that without judgment.”
 
For the past two years, Dr. Bloom-Foster has been leading a research study, funded by a grant from the American Academy of Family Physicians, that has been teaching patients in recovery from opioid use disorder to use a brief mindfulness intervention as a complementary therapy to their treatment.
 
For the study, Dr. Bloom-Foster’s team enrolled 40 participants in a pilot program that provided them with an introduction to the concept of mindfulness and how it’s practiced. 
 
“We teach mindfulness by introducing the idea of paying attention to your breathing,” Dr. Bloom-Foster said. “When you pay attention to your breathing, it tends to become slower and deeper. This has a calming effect and, ultimately, many participants feel more relaxed.”
 
After participants were introduced to the practice, they received MP3 players loaded with six mindfulness exercises that ranged from five to 20 minutes in length. Dr. Bloom-Foster followed up with the participants enrolled in the study two, four, and six months after receiving the MP3 player and audio recorded interviews at the end of the pilot.
 
The results were encouraging. Of the 40 people who participated in the study, 27 completed the six-month follow-up, and approximately two-thirds of subjects who completed surveys at every follow up reported having practiced mindfulness meditation within the past five days.”
 
“We found the average number of mindfulness practices per week increased over six months, and most participants are still practicing at least some of the time,” Dr. Bloom-Foster said.
 
More important than the adoption of the mindfulness practice was the effect the meditation had on the participants’ everyday lives.
 
“Mindfulness doesn’t necessarily curb cravings or prevent relapse in a direct way, but it does help the patients manage stressful situations that would have been triggers for them to use,” Dr. Bloom-Foster said. “One study subject said he was in a situation that could have escalated to a violent altercation, but he stopped and remembered his breathing exercises and was able to calm down.”
 
It’s just one of many stories Dr. Bloom-Foster has heard throughout the study.

“It’s very compelling to see the ways this does help,” she said. “For a lot of participants, it has helped them be more patient with their families and children, manage their emotions in arguments with a partner, and even avoid doing things that would send them back to jail. It has been very powerful.”
 
Dr. Bloom-Foster also worked in collaboration with a team at the University of Maine to expand access to mindfulness meditations by developing an app for people in recovery.
 
“The MP3 player was helpful, but a lot of the participants asked if they could have something to use on their phone that would allow them to work on exercises,” she said.  
 
While Dr. Bloom-Foster acknowledges that meditation isn’t for everyone, most participants have seen a benefit from consistent practice.

“Even if you start with five minutes a day, there’s a benefit,” she said. “There’s no risk or potential harm to giving it a try. Mindfulness allows you to be little more in control and you’re able to anchor yourself in the moment. It’s really valuable.”