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A healthy brain rewards healthy behaviours like exercising, eating, or bonding with loved ones. It does this by switching on brain circuits that make you feel wonderful, which then motivates you to repeat those behaviours. In contrast, when you’re in danger, a healthy brain pushes your body to react quickly with fear or alarm, so you’ll get out of harm’s way. If you’re tempted by something questionable like eating ice cream before dinner or buying things you can’t afford the front regions of your brain can help you decide if the consequences are worth the actions.
But when you’re becoming addicted to a substance, that normal hardwiring of helpful brain processes can begin to work against you. Drugs or alcohol can hijack the pleasure/reward circuits in your brain and hook you into wanting more and more. Addiction can also send your emotional danger-sensing circuits into overdrive, making you feel anxious and stressed when you’re not using drugs or alcohol. At this stage, people often use drugs or alcohol to keep from feeling bad rather than for their pleasurable effects.
We all have desires, but what takes desire that extra step into addiction? Addiction can be described as a disease of the brain that is defined by cycles of compulsive substance use. An addict’s behavior is characterized by limited control over their actions, intense cravings, and continued destructive conduct despite harmful consequences.
Regular mindful practices like meditation or yoga can help cultivate a sense of clarity. This clarity facilitates informed decision-making and serves as the basis for noticeable changes in everyday life. Training in mindfulness increases attention and clarity and makes it possible to actively monitor thoughts, emotions, and sensations without allowing them to develop into uncontrollable cravings.
Because mindfulness fosters non-judgmental awareness of habits that are usually given free rein–like cracking open a beer after a day’s work, heading for that poker game, or seeing a doctor for an unnecessary prescription–it teaches us that we have choices. What’s more, for people in recovery, mindfulness directly exercises the underlying neurological functioning associated with resisting addiction and can help prevent relapse. In addition, mindfulness has been shown to refine executive functioning by providing a higher degree of cognitive control. What this all adds up to is that mindfulness-based practices improve memory, attention, response inhibition, and decision-making.
Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy or MBCT in particular has been shown to help prevent relapse. When a person who has struggled with addiction finds the right therapeutic path, the recovery that once seemed like a pipe dream finally becomes attainable.
The short answer is yes. For example, a study funded by the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) in 2018 found that following a mindful awareness training program led to increased positive outcomes for women in addiction treatment. During the study, women learned to identify and perceive internal signals related to their emotions. This helped them regulate their reactions to the emotions and also be kinder to themselves in a healthy way when emotions were triggered.
Mindfulness involves cultivating moment-to-moment, nonjudgmental awareness of thoughts, feelings, and surroundings. Mindfulness-Based Relapse Prevention (MBRP), is a program that combines practices like sitting meditation with standard relapse prevention skills, such as identifying events that trigger a relapse. Rather than fighting or avoiding the difficult states of mind that arise when withdrawing from a substance, this combination tries to help participants to name and tolerate craving and negative emotions. MBRP helps people to relate differently to their thoughts, and use tools to disengage from automatic, addictive behaviors. The success of MBRP is not just anecdotal. Bowen and her colleagues recently published a study in JAMA Psychiatry investigating how effective the Mindfulness-Based Relapse Prevention program is in comparison to a standard relapse-prevention program as well as a conventional 12-step program.
Six months following the intervention, the mindfulness-based program, and the standard relapse-prevention program were both more successful at reducing relapse than the 12-step program. One year later, the mindfulness-based program proved better than the other two in reducing drinking and drug use.
Bowen says that when people cultivate mindfulness, they’re developing a tool to become aware of that inclination to want only pleasurable things and escape uncomfortable things.
Mindfulness also helps people learn to relate to discomfort differently. When an uncomfortable feeling like a craving or anxiety arises, people like Sophia are able to recognize their discomfort and observe it with presence and compassion, instead of automatically reaching for a drug to make it go away.
Bowen says that awareness of our experience and the ability to relate to our experience with compassion gives us more freedom to choose how we respond to discomfort, rather than defaulting to automatic behaviours.
Mindfulness is likely an effective tool in helping people with addiction because it is a single, simple skill that a person can practice multiple times throughout their day, every day, regardless of the life challenges that arise. With so much opportunity for practice rather than, say, only practicing when someone offers them a cigarette people can learn that skill deeply.
According to a recent study, Individuals with substance use disorder come to experience “increased reactivity to stress and negative emotion.” Gradually, a person may become dependent on substances as a means of regulating the dysphoria and anxiety stemming from increased stress reactivity, ensnaring them deeper into the cycle of addiction. These neurocognitive processes contribute to craving and elicit substance use behavior long after an individual has stopped using substances. Even when total abstinence is achieved, substance-related cues and negative emotional states can continue to trigger a relapse. Thus, interventions are needed to target the manifold processes undergirding substance use disorder and relapse. MBIs (mindfulness-based interventions) hold special promise in that regard.
Mounting evidence suggests that mindfulness can increase addiction recovery odds by strengthening basic positive cognitive processes. Mindfulness-based interventions may be clinically beneficial for treating a variety of substance use disorders, including addictions to alcohol, nicotine, cocaine, and prescription opioids.
With the help of addiction neuroscience, many treatment providers and medical practitioners are turning to the ancient practice of mindfulness to address unhealthy behaviors associated with substance abuse. Some mindfulness-based practices that have recently been integrated into recovery programs include:
Mindfulness training is a promising intervention option for SUDs (substance use disorders) and relapse prevention. Mindfulness can be conceptualized as a state, trait, and practice. The state of mindfulness is cultivated during mindfulness practice and is characterized by non-judgmental, non-reactive, present-centered attention and metacognitive awareness of cognition, emotion, sensation, and perception. Two primary mindfulness practices are focused attention and open monitoring. The focused attention meditation practice involves attending to an object (eg, the sensation of breathing or walking, parts of the body, or visual stimuli) while acknowledging and letting go of distractions. The open monitoring meditation practice involves maintaining a metacognitive stance in which the practitioner remains cognizant of both the field of awareness and the flux of internal and external stimuli (e.g., thoughts, sensations, emotions, perceptions) arising within that field, without fixating on any specific object of attention. These practices are often combined during a single meditation session
As repeated mindfulness practice evokes the state of mindfulness, MBI participants exhibit increases in trait mindfulness over time. Trait mindfulness may be defined as the tendency to exhibit mind-full qualities in daily life, including non-reactivity to distressing thoughts and emotions, as well as the tendency to observe and accept one’s momentary thoughts, feelings, perceptions, and sensations. So, beyond the context of acute mindful states, mindful traits may decrease cognitive, emotional, and behavioural tendencies that help sustain substance misuse. Indeed, trait mindfulness has been found to be positively associated with heightened executive control functioning, and small but statistically significant negative correlations have been found between trait mindfulness and craving as well as substance use. As individuals with SUDs engage in mindfulness practices within MBIs, they learn to cultivate trait mindfulness, providing a bulwark against substance use and relapse.
For many people who are tackling the arduous, life-changing process of addiction recovery, combining the ancient practice of meditation with modern therapies may be the best course of action. By learning about and practicing mindfulness-based exercises, cognitive control can be restored and healthier behaviors can lead to durable recovery.
American Psychological Association— What are the benefits of mindfulness
RehabCenter.net – Inpatient drug and alcohol treatment programs
National Institute on Drug Abuse— Mindfulness training and substance use treatment
US National Library of Medicine: National Institute of Health— Mindfulness-based Treatment of Addiction
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