A Powerful Way To Beat Addiction

A recent study in Drug and Alcohol Dependence shows the efficacy of mindfulness meditation in overcoming addiction through emotional regulation. 

Addiction is one of the most prevalent problems facing our species today. Part of the challenge in combating addictive behavior is recognizing exactly what our addictions are and whether or not they’re harmful. As a species we’re wired to engage in habitual patterns—it frees our cognitive resources to partake in many diverse endeavors. When one particular behavior overrules all others, especially when at the expense of our health and the health of those around us, there is a problem.

The most problematic addictive behaviors today are popular in recovery circles: alcohol, opioids, pornography. Technology is another. Smoking cigarettes remains a tragic habit. Sugar is under-discussed, but that’s changing. Then there are relatively benign addictions, such as caffeine and marijuana, which for the most part do not destroy lives. But they can, and for many remain an issue.

A recent study in the journal Drug and Alcohol Dependence found that mindfulness meditation helps improve emotional regulation, and is therefore an effective means of addiction prevention and treatment. Researchers investigated the “core clinical symptoms” of addiction, including craving, impulsivity and compulsivity, negative moods, and increased stress reactivity. Testing cortisol levels in saliva before and after Integrative Body-Mind Training, they found smokers and nonsmokers greatly benefited from meditation (relaxation training was the control); activity in the neural regions responsible for the above symptoms was greatly reduced.

This is good news during a time when researchers are better understanding what brain regions are implicated in addictive behaviors. A few years ago, Vince Clark, the director of the University of New Mexico Psychology Clinical Neuroscience Center, discovered through fMRI scans that he could guess which addicts were likely to relapse within six months. By using transcranial direct-current stimulation (tDCS), he reduced activity in their brains so that they displayed tendencies of non-relapser’s.

Activating the right neurochemistry is the key to overcoming deadly habits. Addiction expert Tommy Rosen, founder of the Recovery 2.0 Online Conference (along with a book and podcast by the same name), recently told me that getting high in a prosperous way involves targeting the right neurotransmitters and hormones.

Your endocrine system and nervous system interact in such a way that the right drugs, in the form of hormones, are being delivered to the right places in the right amounts at the right times. And that translates into feeling well—feeling good to be alive.

Of course, our minds do not notice chemical interactions; we are instead driven by physical sensations we call feelings, which is how those chemicals manifest themselves in our consciousness. Feelings induce emotional responses. When we don’t like an emotion, we seek refuge through a variety of means. If one of those means—alcohol, sex, prescription pain relief—triggers a flood of dopamine in our brain’s reward center, for example, we associate that substance with that feeling. We keep returning to it, again and again and again. A pattern becomes an addiction.

Rosen uses different language to describe it: we’ve gotten off-track. The track that we were on, which also makes sense evolutionarily, is survival. That is, we are engaged in behavior that is limiting our chances of surviving. This is especially true with opioid and alcohol addiction. Once our survival necessities are taken care of, however, Rosen adds another layer: thriving. He believes that once the basics of food, shelter, and sex are in place, humans have the potential to thrive.

He recalls the days when, addicted to drugs and alcohol twenty-seven years ago, he was not thriving; in fact, he was barely surviving.

The hardest days of my life have been the days where I woke up feeling like I had no purpose, like I had no mission. I didn’t understand why I was here or how I could expend energy toward something that would bring a sense of peace and value to my life.

A Kundalini yoga and meditation teacher, Rosen knows well the effects of mindfulness meditation—the recent study above has been anecdotally true for him for decades. His mission involves helping others recover from their addictions, something he looks forward to every day. In this vocation he has both survived and thrived, offering people keys for doing the same.

There is no silver bullet for addiction recovery, and each person’s threshold is different. Defining personal boundaries is no easy task. We often overshoot what we can actually handle. This makes mindfulness an even more valuable tool for pattern recognition, regardless of whether you’re addicted to anything. We all have habitual patterns; recognizing them in an unbiased and honest manner increases our reservoir of self-knowledge. In an age when addiction is rampant globally, that is a power we can all use more of. 


Derek Beres is working on his new book, Whole Motion: Training Your Brain and Body For Optimal Health (Carrel/Skyhorse, Spring 2017). He is based in Los Angeles. Stay in touch on Facebook and Twitter.

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