Relapse is common in early recovery from drug or alcohol abuse. Many long-term alcoholics and drug addicts fail the first time they attempt to quit. This is because the intense cravings experienced by substance abusers are actually due to changes in brain chemistry. In turn, these changes promote feelings of anxiety and depression. The success rate following participation in recovery programs is only around 40-60 percent, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) (1). Meditation and mindfulness can bolster the capacity to cope with the psychological effects of withdrawal, and thereby improve the likelihood of success!
The Quagmire of Opioid Use for Pain Relief
Progression to opioid addiction among people first prescribed these pills to relieve chronic pain is well known. Who wouldn’t want to stop a painful condition that prevents normal daily activities? Over 2.1 million Americans in 2012 developed an opioid addiction following the use of prescribed opioid pain relievers (2). For this reason, the Centers for Disease Control issued a guideline in 2016 to reduce the high level of opioid-prescribing among doctors throughout the United States (3).
Alcohol Abuse and Serotonin
Serotonin is a neurotransmitter in the brain that is activated in excessive alcohol intake, and it increases feelings of relaxation and well-being. In alcoholics who cease drinking, the chemically-heightened serotonin level suddenly drops (4). The result is that alcoholics in recovery often experience nightly insomnia and depression. Meanwhile, not getting a good night’s sleep has also been linked to depression. In contrast, meditation practices have been linked by numerous researchers to decreased insomnia, per the Harvard Health Letter in 2015 (5).
Drug Abuse and Dopamine
The neurotransmitter most affected by drug abuse is dopamine. Abusing drugs and alcohol in combination is typical in people with a longstanding addiction to heroin— which can make the withdrawal symptoms especially difficult to endure. This is one reason that relapse among heroin addicts is more common than among other substance abusers.
Drug Addiction Research and Meditation
Hundreds of medical researchers have engaged in studies of addicts that have demonstrated the benefits of mindfulness in treating drug-addicted patients, as compared to solely using other treatments. More recently, the results of a randomized trial of meditation was published in 2016 in an article titled Mindfulness Meditation Improves Emotional Regulation and Reduces Drug Abuse (6).
Meanwhile, Khanna and Greeson in 2013 presented the positive effects of an eight-week program termed Mindfulness-Based Relapse Prevention (MBRP), as conducted by different research teams in numerous clinical studies (7). Their systemic review article demonstrated the beneficial effects of mindfulness and meditation not only in alcoholics and drug addicts, but also in people addicted to cigarette-smoking!
Cognitive Behavior Therapy and Mindfulness
The primary therapy utilized to treat alcohol and drug addicts in inpatient and outpatient programs is Cognitive Behavior Therapy (CBT) (8). Unlike mental health counseling, the focus by practitioners of this form of therapy is on recognizing and changing addictive behaviors. Incorporating mindfulness—such as a sitting or walking meditation practice— can enable the person engaged in CBT to experience greater self-awareness and cope with the negative behavior patterns
Barriers to developing a Mindfulness Meditation Practice
Mindfulness meditation is the practice of placing one’s attention on the breath. One cannot experience breathing in the future or the past, so in paying attention to the breath, they are anchored in the present. Eventually awareness of the breath can be extended into awareness of thoughts, feelings and actions. When one is able to “be with what is,” non-judgmentally, they are better able to make choices that enable positive change in their lives. Beginner meditators in the Western world often attempt to try meditation on their own. This can be tough to do, and the practice difficult to sustain if one does not know what it is that they are supposed to be feeling. In fact, studies have shown that individuals get the most benefit when they have a formal mindfulness meditation practice. Formal practice options include 8-week, physician-supervised group mindfulness meditation programs that require a doctor’s referral and for which there are waiting lists. There are also non-clinical mindfulness meditation programs intended for individuals who are generally healthy, and who would like to learn to manage their stress more skillfully. The cost for the latter range from $600-900. There are also free informal online programs of varying efficacy. A new tool that is widely being used across America, Australia and Canada is the meditation headband Muse. Used with an app, Muse functions as an EEG device that provides real-time feedback on one’s brain activity. In real-time, it lets the individual know when their brain is calm and focused so that they understand what it feels like and how to obtain the state. It can be considered like a form of “training wheels” for meditation. The feedback is provided in the form of auditory cues that mimic the sound of the sea and wind (as well as other soundscapes – virtual auditory environments). The soundscape changes from stormy to calm as your brainwaves show signs of focus. Bird sounds might also be heard if you are sustain a state of focused attention for an extended period of time. Muse is extremely supportive in helping people to develop the habit of a mindfulness based focused attention meditation practice.
The Muse Meditation Headband is just one inspiring example of how the fields of neuroscience, technology and contemplative practice are, for the first time working in tandem to help elevate techniques like meditation to aid in addiction rehabilitation.
For resources and research on the benefits of meditation with Muse please visit: www.choosemuse.com. Muse was a supporter and exhibitor at She Recovers in NYC in May, 2017.
- National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA). Drugs, Brains, and Behavior: The Science of Addiction. Webpage: https://www.drugabuse.gov/publications/drugs-brains-behavior-science-addiction/treatment-recovery
- National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA). (May 14, 2014). Testimony to Congress – America’s Addiction to Opioids: Heroin and Prescription Drug Abuse. Webpage: https://www.drugabuse.gov/about-nida/legislative-activities/testimony-to-congress/2016/americas-addiction-to-opioids-heroin-prescription-drug-abuse
- Centers for Disease Control. (March 16, 2016). CDC Guideline for Prescribing Opioids for Chronic Pain — United States, 2016. Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report 65(1): 1-49. Webpage: https://www.cdc.gov/mmwr/volumes/65/rr/rr6501e1.htm
- Lovinger DM. (1997). Serotonin’s Role in Alcohol’s Effects on the Brain. Alcohol Health and Research World 21(2): 114. Webpage: https://pubs.niaaa.nih.gov/publications/arh21-2/114.pdf
- Corliss, Julie. (February 18, 2015). Mindfulness Meditation Helps Fight Insomnia, Improves Sleep. Harvard Health Letter Webpage: http://www.health.harvard.edu/blog/mindfulness-meditation-helps-fight-insomnia-improves-sleep-201502187726
- Tang Yi-Yuan, et al. (2016). Mindfulness meditation improves emotion regulation and reduces drug abuse. Drug and Alcohol Dependence 163(Suppl 1): S13-S18. Webpage: http://www.drugandalcoholdependence.com/article/S0376-8716(16)00117-4/abstract
- Khanna S, Greeson JM. (2013). A Narrative Review of Yoga and Mindfulness as Complementary Therapies for Addiction. Complementary Therapies in Medicine 21(3):244-252. Webpage: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3646290/
- National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA). Principles of Drug Addiction Treatment: A Research-Based Guide (Third Edition) – Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy (Alcohol, Marijuana, Cocaine, Methamphetamine, Nicotine). Webpage: https://www.drugabuse.gov/publications/principles-drug-addiction-treatment-research-based-guide-third-edition/evidence-based-approaches-to-drug-addiction-treatment/behavioral