Meditation as a path to understand addictive behavior
Mindfulness is a centuries-old contemplative practice that can help you develop awareness, clarity and focus in your daily life. Today, therapies based on mindfulness are used effectively to treat addiction. In the context of addiction recovery, mindfulness can be considered a form of mental training. Here, the training is designed to get parts of the brain that have been impaired by persistent drug or alcohol abuse back in shape.
How does mindfulness work? It’s a process that starts with a decision: during x many minutes x many times a week, I’m going to pay attention, quietly and purposefully, to a meditation anchor such as my breath, a phrase or sensations in the body. When thoughts arise, I’m going to acknowledge them and let them pass on by, then return to paying attention to my anchor.
When you train in this way, you discover that it’s actually possible to be aware of what’s going on in your mind. Only if you’re aware of your thoughts and emotions can you choose whether or not to let them dictate your actions. Training in meditation is how awareness takes root, sprouts and blossoms – and this can be applied to addictive behaviors with effect.
How Can Mindfulness Help Addiction?
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.
Is There Any Evidence that Mindfulness Works when Battling Addiction?
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.
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-based stress reduction
- mindfulness-based cognitive therapy
- mindfulness-based relapse prevention
- mindfulness-oriented recovery enhancement
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