Practicing mindfulness has been shown to improve self-control in test subjects, and new research is now focusing on how this ancient approach to non-judgmental focus on the present moment could in fact help people facing addiction, specifically cigarette smokers.
Recent neuroimaging studies have shown that smokers tend to exhibit less activity in the brain regions associated with self-control. This has led scientists to wonder if targeting these neurobiological circuits could be the key to treating addiction.
According to a new review published in the journal Trends in Cognitive Sciences, researchers have found that behavioral training such as mindfulness meditation can increase the function of control networks and therefore could be a promising approach for the treatment of addiction, even among those without intention to quit. That’s right, the desire to quit smoking might not even be necessary to reduce cigarette cravings through mindfulness training.
“We are starting to work through how drugs affect areas of the brain that normally enable us to self-regulate, to create goals and to be able to achieve them, and how those changes influence the behavior of the person addicted,” said senior study author Dr. Nora Volkow, director of the U.S. National Institute on Drug Abuse.
One of the key studies in the review was conducted by Texas Tech University and University of Oregon researchers in order to demonstrate the specific impact of the mindfulness approach. Researchers recruited 60 undergraduate students (27 existing smokers and 33 self-reported nonsmokers) to participate in a mindfulness and relaxation training program. Participants were divided into two groups so half received mindfulness meditation training and half received plain relaxation technique training.
For two weeks students participated in their assigned groups, divided into 30-minute sessions, for a total of five hours of training. They received brain scans before and at the end of the study period. They also filled out self-report questionnaires, and received objective measurements of carbon monoxide in their lungs.
Although many of the students reported not seeing any difference in their smoking habits, for those in the mindfulness meditation group, the objective measure of carbon dioxide percentage in their lungs showed a 60 percent reduction in smoking over 2 weeks after the study. The students in the mindfulness group were changing their smoking behavior without even being aware of it.
“When we showed the data to a participant who said they had smoked 20 cigarettes, this person checked their pocket immediately and was shocked to find 10 left,” said lead study author Dr. Yi-Yuan Tang, a professor of psychological sciences at Texas Tech.
“We then measured intention to see if it correlated with smoking changes and found there was no correlation,” he said. “But if you improve the self-control network in the brain and moderate stress-reactivity, then it’s possible to reduce smoking.”
More research needs to be done in order to determine how often mindfulness therapy should be practiced, how long the benefits last, and whether some individuals might benefit more than others. Researchers are also curious as to whether mindfulness training has the same impact on other forms of addiction, such as over-eating or drinking.
“Even though one therapy works on something, you cannot say this therapy is better than others,” Tang said. “We can only get a full picture through systematic research and practice but I think this is a field with a lot of promise and that we should be open minded.”
John Kaweske, Colorado resident, has been meditating for years. He finds that the practice helps him with his focus and ability to lead his entrepreneurial ventures. To learn more about his career in renewable energy, please visit his main website.