March 05, 2015
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Putting Meditation to the Test
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Putting Meditation to the Test

Studying The Effectiveness of Mindfulness

Does mindfulness meditation work in the real world? That is, does it really help people who are battling serious life stresses? And is it possible to teach people who are addicted to cigarettes, alcohol, or cocaine to use mindfulness to recover from their additions?

Mindfulness training targets your “relationship” with your thoughts, whereas the focus of cognitive behavioral therapy is to examine and change what those thoughts are in the first place.

Some studies(1) have compared mindfulness training to what is considered the “gold standard” in substance abuse disorders, cognitive behavior therapy (CBT). Briefly, the goal of CBT, which is a blend of cognitive therapy and behavioral therapy(2), is to identify the specific thought-processes that are creating problems for the individual, and to teach the person to figure out better ways to think about and react to his or her stressors. (See Stressed Out: Part II, for more information on CBT.)

A central difference in the two therapies is that mindfulness training targets your “relationship” with your thoughts, whereas the focus of CBT is to examine and change what those thoughts are in the first place.(1) For example, suppose you are trying to lose weight and have started going to the gym to exercise. This may not be the most pleasant activity to you at first (it may be downright miserable), but you know it has to get done. With CBT you might be trained to think, “Exercise is not unpleasant, it’s fun. I know I have to do it. It will make me feel better.” With mindfulness training, you would simply note the thoughts and feelings that the idea of exercising brings about (perhaps it’s mental stress, anxiety, feelings of dread, and so on), and in so doing reduce the emotional power of those thoughts and feelings.

One study(1) looked at how each method helped addicts deal with stress – and stress is a big part of addiction. In fact, it is a common reason that people start using again after they have quit doing a certain drug or stopped a certain behavior (just think of how an ex-smoker might reach for a cigarette when a stressful situation hits, or even how many of us tend to reach for the ice cream when we’ve had a stressful day).(1) It also plays a key role in people using a drug in the first place – rather than seeking help to learn to deal with the stressors or unhappiness in one’s life, it may seem “easier” to self-medicate. And acute stressors definitely tend to increase drug use.(1)

In the study people who were addicted to alcohol and/or cocaine had cognitive-behavioral or mindfulness therapy for a period of 12 or 9 weeks, respectively. Afterwards, stress was “provoked” in the lab, to see how the former addicts were able to cope. There were no differences between the two groups in drug use or how much the patients liked their respective programs. But patients in the MT group had much healthier responses to stress: they responded better physiologically (their heart rates were lower) and psychologically (they rated themselves as being less angry, anxious, sad, and fearful, than people in the CBT group).

Mindfulness therapy seems to affect activity in the part of the nervous system that governs the fight-or-flight response. It actually reduces the sort of revved-up body response you might get if car cut into your lane or your neighbor started mowing his lawn at 7 am. The authors say that their findings illustrate how MT helps people deal with stressors without being overcome by being in the middle of it . “[A]s individuals are able to engage but are not “caught up” in thoughts or emotions, they are more able to adapt to changing internal and external environmental cues and conditions.” (1) In other words, and MT helps us step back and see the situation more clearly, seeing the forest rather than being focused on the trees.

So we know that MT helps addicts respond better to stress, but the obvious question is: did it help them with their drug use? Yes, it did. People in the CBT and the MT group reduced their drug or alcohol use by about the same amount in both treatments, which is good news for MT. If mindfulness therapy can stand up to the “gold-standard”, CBT, in terms of helping people reduce their stress and conquer their habits, then this is an approach to coping with stress that may actually help people overcome addiction—a very tangible benefit

Brewer is continuing to work on how MT works both in practice and in the brain, particularly how it can help smokers quit smoking, and how they respond to stress. Though these studies are still underway, the techniques are promising.

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