Mindfulness and how it can help against addiction
‘What’s the purpose of life?’
‘Who am I really?’
‘Do I matter?’
‘Am I good enough?’
These questions are at the core of our existence and for many of us can cause a deeply uncomfortable emptiness, which we increasingly attempt to fill with ever-growing addictions. In today’s ‘quick-fix’ fear-based society, which is offset by being pleasure-based, our answer to these questions is often to ‘numb-out’; to create A-void-dance. When we feel that void through discomfort or anxiety, we reach for a cigarette, alcohol, drugs, food etc. to fill or numb it, which can lead to addictions.
‘Alcohol is not the answer…it just makes us forget the question’
When we are being honest with ourselves, we all know as individuals what we use as our ‘crutch’ – our way to avoid feeling the void – and this is just part of being human. But this becomes an addiction when our lives, relationships and personal self-growth are being disrupted or destroyed. We feel the void, but how do we stop just continually dancing around it and instead learn to sit with it and grow from what we learn? Mindfulness has consistently proven to be enormously helpful in beating addiction, by giving us the ability to change how we perceive and react to our cravings, thus allowing us to stop our a-void-dance. Mindfulness shows us how to increase our recognition of, and the ability to tolerate, negative emotional states, by giving us the psychological and neurological strength to sit in discomfort and lean into the void – instead of trying to avoid it and giving into our addiction.
So why is it that a young mother will use her last few pounds to buy that pack of cigarettes instead of using it to buy nutritious food for her children? Why will a man continue to drink that bottle of alcohol during his lunchtime even though his job is in jeopardy? Why ARE addictions so hard to overcome?
Evolution has taught our brains to remember when we find a good source of food or water and also when something is dangerous we remember this too. This reward-based learning goes all the way back to the most primitive of nervous systems; trigger, behaviour, reward. Unfortunately, humans have now found substances that quite literally hijack this reward-based learning system, whereby every substance of abuse from tobacco up to crack cocaine affects the same brain pathways, so that for example, each time we smoke a cigarette when we are stressed and feel better afterwards, we reinforce the ‘habit loop’.
Cognitive behavioural therapy treatment is thought to act on our prefrontal cortex – our ‘thinking/reasoning’ part of the brain – and when we know that we shouldn’t smoke that cigarette or eat the second piece of cake, this is the part of our brain which helps us control that urge. However, it is recognised that when we are in a state of HALT – Hungry, Angry, Lonely or Tired – we are more likely to succumb to our urges and unfortunately, as the youngest part of our brain (evolutionary-wise), it can easily go ‘offline’ and be subject to fatigue – just like the rest of our body – when we are stressed or otherwise drained. So if we can’t rely on our prefrontal cortex, what can we do to help change our behaviour?
Practising mindfulness has been shown to help us become more aware of our cravings so that we can understand they are merely thoughts and body sensations. This awareness helps us to notice cravings as they arise; to understand that they change from moment to moment; and to just ‘ride them out’ instead of giving into them. We can see more clearly what we are getting from our habit in that ‘present’ moment – as an example, a woman in a smoking programme has said: ‘Mindful smoking…smells worse than stinky cheese and tastes like chemicals…yuck!’ She recognised that smoking wasn’t as great as she had previously thought and this is an important start to becoming disenchanted with what we are doing – just by paying careful attention. Mindfulness practise has been found to be extremely effective in helping addicts quit and importantly, not to relapse. Mindfulness is so effective because it dismantles the core addictive loop by helping addicts ‘ride out’ the cravings instead of acting upon them.
Mindfulness gives us the ability to see exactly what we’re attracted to, which enables us to ‘let go’ of our constant ‘wanting’ and stop the suffering.
Addiction has many emotional causes, including fear, depression, anxiety or pessimism. Very often, we may think that we would only feel happier if we had more money; that job we want; the ‘perfect’ relationship to which we aspire; or the power we desire – we are always wanting bigger and better things. But we often end up suffering when we don’t achieve what we want, causing us un-necessary anger, sadness or jealousy when we contemplate how we think things should be, or should’ve been.
Part of being human is our desire to want more and so we can never totally avoid this – and indeed, should not look to do so. It helps us to improve our lives – and through all the amazing discoveries and inventions we have been given a better world – and yet despite this, we often insist that we will only be happy if we can achieve/acquire more. This can make us feel resentful or envious of those who seem to live an easier life.
Some of us who suffer these emotions will turn to drugs or alcohol, or even food or sex, in an attempt to improve our moods and practising mindfulness meditation, yoga and regular exercise, can greatly help to improve our emotions and therefore help to break the pattern of addiction.
The fear that we can’t break this pattern can push us into denial and prevent us from acknowledging the consequences of our behaviour, but research into mindfulness meditation shows that our temperament and characters can be significantly altered, therefore allowing us to understand that whatever we discover about ourself, we CAN gain dramatic breakthroughs. Mindfulness can retrain our mind, creating new neural pathways, whereby for example, an aggressive person can learn to temper that feeling by recognising how to be assertive, without succumbing to a hostile mind-set, which would cause problems to arise. It is only recently that new research has shown that we can alter the structure of our brain and reap the benefits well into adulthood and the more we practise mindfulness, the thicker our brain becomes in the mid-prefrontal cortex and mid-insular region, (the area responsible for optimism and a sense of well-being, along with the ability to be reflective) proving that changing ‘our mind’ can actually cause changes in our brain. It has been shown that even those of us who only practise mindfulness meditation for as little as four hours a week can achieve and sustain advanced states of concentration and insight – intention and attention of focus being the key.
How we become addicted and suffer relapses
At the start of any addiction we experience stimuli which make us feel good. We then remember this feeling and want to ‘recreate’ that same feeling. This behaviour is then reinforced overtime by either a positive or negative effect to where ultimately, cravings arise – we feel urges for the positive feelings to be repeated.
Others of us can experience negative thoughts in various situations, which leads to negative emotions such as anxiety, anger and depression and in an attempt to block this anxiety, we turn to drugs or alcohol. This can lead to substance abuse and various learned situational and emotional cues acting as ‘addiction triggers’, which can trap us into believing we ‘need’ that drink or cigarette etc and thus, the addiction takes control. Addiction comes from the basic human desire to seek out pleasure and avoid pain.
‘You know when you’re an alcoholic when you misplace things…like a decade’ Paul Williams
The main cause of relapse are these negative emotional states. Standard medications used to reduce cravings for drugs and alcohol are only effective for some of us – with the effectiveness influenced by our genetics. Traditional cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) is also used, by teaching us to avoid the identified ‘triggers’ of addiction or to use substitutes such as chewing gum rather than smoking. CBT also looks to alter belief systems and unhealthy ‘automatic thoughts’ that encourage addiction, but these are not particularly effective – 70% of smokers want to quit, but only 5% manage it with CBT.
Alternatively, Mindfulness looks to break the link between cravings and drug and alcohol abuse – stopping the craving from happening at the start – instead promoting self-regulation of increased awareness of our mental state in the ‘present’ moment. Mindfulness does not ask us to avoid or substitute addictive behaviours – instead, it draws a line between cravings and the subsequent abusive behaviour.
When addicts first give up their substance abuse it is easy to remember the circumstances and pain of their personal ‘rock bottom’, but overtime this memory fades and they can begin to remember how they once enjoyed the addictive substance, which can consequently lead to cravings – or the cravings can alternatively create the ‘good’ memories. This combination can often lead to relapse and addicts need to remind themselves at this stage why they gave up in the first place by remembering what they left behind. A recovery journal can often be of great help with this.
With mindfulness we can become aware that we are not responsible for the arising of these cravings, but merely understand that they are just thoughts in our mind – we do not have to obey them – and we can see them appear and then disappear, like clouds in the sky. Sometimes we will find that just by simply acknowledging the craving we can make it disappear and learn that there is no substance to it and instead of being fearful of the cravings we can mindfully observe them, watch them subside and never act on them. It’s not always possible to totally escape the cravings, but we can learn through mindfulness to live with them.
‘The mind is a wonderful servant, but a terrible master’
How mindfulness works as an addiction therapy
Using mindfulness in the fight against addiction was first studied in the 1980’s, whereby a number of alcohol and drug addicts were taught to meditate over an eight week period. Their mental outlook all improved and there was a decrease in substance abuse, however it was noted that unless mindfulness continued to be practised, there was a notable level of relapse. Since then, mindfulness has developed into various treatments including Mindfulness-based Stress Reduction (MBSR), Mindfulness-based Relapse Prevention (MBRP) and Mindfulness-based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT).
Whatever our addiction – be it alcohol, drugs, food, sex or even shopping – our mind is focused on how to get more of our specific substance of abuse; how to acquire it; how to use it; and how to recover from the effects. There is little time spent noticing the ‘present’ moment, except in trying to change our experience, and thus the ‘present’ becomes just a state of constant agitation.
Mindfulness is about becoming aware of our feelings and emotions in the ‘present’ moment in a non-judgmental way, so that in the case of strong emotions like cravings, it can refocus our mind to the ‘present’ moment. We can become more able to make the necessary changes to our life, by increasing our ability to accept and tolerate the ‘present’ moment. We can do this by learning to accept the uncomfortable feelings that can accompany our behaviours, instead of acting on ‘auto pilot’. When we achieve more balanced emotional responses we reduce our stress levels, which are often the triggers for the substance abuse and addictive behaviour. Choosing a neutral, instead of judgmental, response to our thoughts and feelings, allows us to increase our sense of self-compassion, preventing us from being self-critical, which again is often connected to addictive behaviours.
Mindfulness encourages us to let go of our desires and objects, which cause us to suffer. We naturally hold on to these attachments, such as objects, people, substances and behaviours; and addiction and cravings are behaviours that harm our physical and mental health. Mindfulness allows us to increase our awareness of these desires and compulsions, giving us the freedom and motivation to stop these harmful activities. By focusing our awareness in a non-judgmental way we no longer have to ‘fight’ cravings, which breaks the pattern of negativity surrounding us. This raised awareness helps us to gain better understanding of our addiction ‘triggers’, including the automatic behaviours that can lead to addictive tendencies.
Bringing our attention to the ‘present’ moment increases our awareness of habitual habits and cravings and so breaks the cycle of cravings and addictive behaviours. For example, for smokers who want to quit, mindfulness allows us to recognise the vile nature of inhaling harmful chemicals and so motivates us to quit. Mindfulness brings disenchantment with the addictive behaviour, replacing our automatic response to our craving. Mindfulness treatment for smoking addiction can give increased awareness of our habit and make us realise that cigarettes taste like chemicals! Mindfulness teaches us how we feel, what we are thinking and how our body feels before, during and after addictive behaviours occur, which gives us a better understanding of the inner mechanisms that happen between feeling the cravings and then succumbing to the addictive behaviours. This awareness allows us to move towards change. Mindfulness teaches us to be aware of our automatic addictive behaviours and react differently to them, giving addicts empowerment through self-awareness of the automatic thought patterns.
‘You cannot travel back in time to fix your mistakes, but you can learn from them and forgive yourself for not knowing better’ Leon Brown
Mindfulness can also help us to react differently to discomfort, so that when a craving or anxiety occurs, we can recognise the discomfort, look at it non-judgmentally and then disengage from the addictive behaviour. Mindfulness also helps us to admit when we have a problem, overcoming our denial, which gives us a life in recovery.
10 ways that mindfulness can help beat addiction are:
- It helps us to become less judgmental and increases our self-acceptance and level of self-awareness
- It helps develop increased compassion and makes us feel more connected with others
- It increases our feeling of calmness and peacefulness in our lives
- It gives increased awareness of addiction ‘triggers’ and the things we have been trying to avoid
- It interrupts the automatic habitual reactive behaviours
- It shifts the addict’s thoughts from ‘automatic pilot’ to mindful observer, bringing emotions more under control
- It increases the addict’s tolerance for discomfort, so that when unpleasant thoughts arise they can be experienced safely, with understanding that they are not their thoughts, therefore decreasing the need to alleviate the problem with drugs and alcohol etc
- It encourages acceptance of the ‘present’ moment instead of focusing on the next ‘fix’, giving awareness that everything changes and even uncomfortable emotions will fade away
- It allows us to deal much better with stress, reducing the risk of stress related illness and allow us to experience far less anxiety in our lives
- It allows addicts to see their cravings for what they are and helps overcome them
How to bring mindfulness to the treatment of addiction
We first need to be in an environment of ‘unconditional acceptance and implement a number of meditation techniques. During meditation we should focus on our breath as we breathe in and out and as our mind wanders, we gently bring our attention back to our breath. There are various techniques we can use such as:
- Body scanning
- Sitting meditations
- Walking meditation
All of these techniques, as well as others are explained fully on our Mindfulness and Meditation page.
Another positive technique to learn is ‘urge surfing’. Urges are an uncomfortable feeling caused by a build up of cortisol and addicts can learn that cravings are like waves. The ‘urge wave’ can merely be observed as it rises and passes, instead of trying to fight or control the craving, giving us an alternative nonreactive response to our cravings, which weakens the intensity of urges. Every time the urge is ‘surfed’, the weaker it becomes, until the urge will eventually disappear.
7 other techniques for dealing with cravings and addiction are:
- It’s always best if possible to help to change our current state of mind by changing our environment – sometimes even just going for a walk can be enough to reduce the cravings
- It is important to remember that the cravings are not in charge – we do not have to respond to them
- Distraction can be an effective way to beat cravings – activities such as reading, listening to music, watching TV or exercising
- We can directly challenge the cravings by deliberately remembering all the times these cravings caused us suffering
- Talking with others can help beat cravings – if we have a sponsor we can speak to them or any trusted non-addicted friend will help
- As mentioned above, sometimes cravings can be caused by HALT; hunger, anger, loneliness and or tiredness, so it helps to mindfully check for any of these feelings and alleviate them
- When the memories begin of how we previously enjoyed the addictive behaviour we should fight this immediately by focusing on our reasons for originally giving up
Constantly trying to avoid our feelings and emotions concerning our relationships, our jobs, our self-perspective etc., by numbing ourself throughout our life, will make it extremely difficult to find peace of mind. Society conditions us to turn to alcohol, drugs etc., to help us in this a-void-dance, but this just creates more deeper, uncomfortable feelings in addiction. If however, we can learn through mindfulness to lean into our anxieties, sit quietly with them, and observe the deeper layers, we will build an emotional strength that enables our self-growth. Developing mindfulness will build connections in our brain that are critical for mental self-exploration and emotional control, helping to be more mindful of our thought patterns, behaviours and emotions, so whatever addiction we are dealing with, it becomes an invaluable tool to beat these addictions.
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