Meditation for Addiction

A small but growing body of research is lending support to meditation’s effectiveness in treating addiction, either alone or in combination with other more conventional treatments.

Medical studies have shown meditation’s effectiveness at decreasing substance use and relapse in several settings. The changes in thought processes and brain function that accompanies meditation also have contributed to scientists understanding of the biological addiction process.

Why use Meditation to Treat Addiction?

Conventional treatment for drug addiction can take place through groups such as Alcoholics Anonymous or Narcotics Anonymous, on an outpatient basis, or by entering a rehabilitation treatment facility for a period of time. Treatment programs typically use a combination of talk therapy and behavioral modification approaches. There may also be a religious or spiritual component to treatment. Medications such as methadone or buproprion also have a role in reducing withdrawal effects and cravings for some individuals, but may also cause unwanted, unpleasant and sometimes significant side effects.

Depending upon a person’s individual needs and personality, conventional treatments might be limited in their short- and long-term effectiveness, beyond one’s available financial resources, inconvenient or inaccessible, in opposition to personal beliefs or values, or otherwise dissatisfying. For these individuals, meditation may offer either an alternative or complementary approach to improve the odds of success in treating addiction.

How Can Meditation Help Treat Addiction?

The spiritual and self-directed aspects of meditation may be appealing to certain individuals, increasing the effectiveness of this approach to addiction treatment. One 2003 study of drug users noted that meditation and other complementary therapies were used more often and considered effective by individuals with higher education, lower self-perceptions of their health, and access to a regular doctor.

In addition, the mindfulness that accompanies meditation has shown to be more effective than behavioral strategies that encouraged avoiding thoughts of substance use. Such thoughts inevitably surface in recovery, and meditation may offer a method for awareness and acceptance of these thoughts. This, in turn, may limit the transformation of these thoughts into the action of substance use.

Studies on meditation use in the prison population support this idea. Decreased alcohol use was demonstrated in inmates who incorporated Vipassana meditation, a mindfulness form of meditation that focuses on acceptance of unwanted thoughts.

How to Meditate to Treat Addiction

The literature on using meditation for addiction most often describes the Vipassana type of meditation. In Vipassana meditation, one does not try to deny or ignore thoughts related to addiction. Rather, when a thought or craving to use arises, Vipassana meditation teaches one to observe and accept the presence of the thought while not over-identifying with it. In this way, one can acknowledge the reality of such thoughts while learning to refocus energy and intention elsewhere. This type of meditation is appealing to some because it avoids blame and stigmatization related to the addictive thought process, while also acknowledging its reality.

Vipassana meditation for addiction would begin with finding a quiet place without distractions and at least 20-30 minutes of dedicated time. While sitting in a chair or on the floor, one would hold the head and back straight, in a comfortable position with eyes closed. This is a mindful form of meditation, with a focus on being aware of body sensations and thoughts. Therefore, if shifting or moving becomes necessary, it should be done with an awareness of the sensation and action of the movement. Vipassana meditation is the act of watching what your body and mind are experiencing without over identifying or reacting to that experience. This is facilitated by paying attention to one’s breath, without trying to control or judge it. The period of meditation is an exercise in watching in this way, without judging or reacting to the breath, or thoughts or feelings. Through this practice, one comes to accept that thoughts and feelings related to addictive cravings will arise. Through watching, they can be acknowledged and released, removing their power. Your ability to successfully maintain a mindful state will increase with daily meditation practice.

Before You Begin Meditating for Addiction Treatment

If you or someone you care about is seeking treatment for addiction, meditation might be a helpful approach alone or in combination with conventional treatment. It is always a good idea to talk to your doctor before beginning a meditation or other complementary medicine program. This is especially important if you are receiving allopathic addiction treatment, or if you have a respiratory, heart or other health condition.

In addition, prior to beginning meditation, discuss the benefits, limitations and any possible risks with your psychologist or other mental health care provider. When you are ready, there are many meditation instructors and schools, books, videos, and online resources available to assist you.

What is Addiction?

Addiction describes a physical and/or psychological dependency on a substance or behavior. While often referring to alcohol or drug abuse, addiction can take the form of a compulsion to smoke, engage in sexual acts, gamble, or shop. Almost any behavior can become an addiction, even internet, phone, or other technology use in today’s world.

Addiction can take many forms and lead to profound consequences in nearly every area of life. Treatment usually involves some combination of psychological support, behavioral therapies and medications.

What Causes Addiction?

The American Psychological Association describes addiction as a brain disorder, and research has identified characteristic changes in brain structure and function among people with addiction. Specific changes in thought patterns often are present, particularly in drug and alcohol addiction and among those who have other risk factors, such as psychiatric illness or head injury.

Changes in decision-making, attention, impulse control, and the ability to maintain perspective in highly emotional states are common. These may be the root of compulsion and the sense of loss of control in addiction. Like many behaviors and conditions, there is evidence that genetics plays a role for some people. Individuals with a family history of addiction may have an inherited predisposition to addiction themselves. This is not to say that addiction is purely biological, genetic or inevitable. Addiction begins with a choice to use substances or engage in a particular behavior, and treatment is dependent upon an individual’s willingness to participate. Additionally, there are many known environmental risk factors, such as being raised by a parent with addictive behaviors, access to substances, limited availability of coping skills and support, traumatic events, or stressful life circumstances. For most people, it is probably the combination of environmental risk factors and a genetic tendency that leads up to addiction.

What is Meditation?

Meditation is a practice often associated with Eastern traditions, but is present in almost every world culture in some form. Traditionally a part of spiritual practices is India, China, Japan, and other Eastern cultures, Western versions of meditation are often more focused on relaxation and stress reduction.

There are thousands of specific meditation practices. Some focus on a quieting and clearing of the mind to experience a deep sense of presence in silence and connection to the spiritual world. Others bring the mind’s focus to a single, specific thought or intention. The practice is self-guided and can involve the use of music, chant, breathing techniques, specific postures, or focus on a visualization or external image.

The state of consciousness in meditation is often confused with but quite different from hypnosis. While hypnosis leads to an active process of thought and is usually guided by another, meditation is a self-directed state of focus on stillness or a single thought or goal.

Additional Resources
Marlatt, G. Alan. Mindfulness for Addiction Problems. Spirituality APA Psychotherapy Video Series. ISBN 13: 978-1-59147-221-6.

References
Beitel, Mark; Genova, Marla; Schuman-Olivier, Zev; Arnold, Ruth; Avants, S. Kelly; Margolin, Arthur. Reflections by Inner-City Drug Users on a Buddhist-Based Spirituality-Focused Therapy: A Qualitative Study. American Journal of Orthopsychiatry. 2007 Jan. Vol. 77(1) 1-9.

Bowen S, Witkiewitz K, Dillworth TM, Chawla N, Simpson TL, Ostafin BD, Larimer ME, Blume AW, Parks GA, Marlatt GA. Mindfulness Meditation and Substance Use in an Incarcerated Population. Psychol Addict Behav. 2006 Sep. Vol. 20(3):343-7.

Hoppes, K. The Application of Mindfulness-based Cognitive Interventions in the Treatment of Co-occurring Addictive and Mood Disorders. CNS Spectr. 2006 Nov. Vol. 11(11):829-51

Bowen S, Witkiewitz K, Dillworth TM, Marlatt GA. The Role of Thought Suppression in the Relationship Between Mindfulness Meditation and Alcohol Use. Addict Behav. 2007 Oct. Vol. 32(10):2324-8.

Manheimer E, Anderson BJ, Stein MD. Use and Assessment of Complementary and Alternative Therapies by Intravenous Drug Users. Am J Drug Alcohol Abuse. 2003 May. Vol. 29(2):401-13.

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