Mindfulness is not a trend. The technique, which encourages people to focus on thoughts, sounds, and sensations, is recommended by the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence as a means of warding off depression, anxiety and now addiction.
Taking time out of the day to focus intensely can preemptively acknowledge signs of unrest and concern. But what if its usefulness could extend to other serious and common ailments?
Psychologists from University College London have been investigating various methods for battling potentially harmful, addictive behaviors, including drug and alcohol dependency. It’s most recent experiment has not only proven the benefits of mindfulness in this area but shown that just 11 minutes of daily meditation can reduce alcohol consumption in chronic drinkers.
“People can learn the techniques quite easily and it doesn’t require a lot of input from a trained instructor and ongoing practice to show – in the short term – changes in behavior,” explains Sunjeev Kamboj, lead author on the study, from UCL’s clinical psychopharmacology unit. “This could kick-start a change process.”
The study invited 68 heavy drinkers who typically indulge in more than the recommended 14 units a week and score above a certain threshold on the Alcohol Use Disorders Identification Test to participate. Most volunteers drank an average of 26 units per week.
Half the candidates underwent mindfulness training, which focuses on teaching a heightened awareness of physical sensations and one’s own feelings; the other half were taught relaxation techniques. Both received the training through 11-minute-long audio recordings and meditation. The team was careful to ensure no mention of “mindfulness” was included in the demonstrations, so as not to bias the volunteers, given the popularity of the therapy.
“We wanted to avoid any expectation effect,” Kamboj says. “In the relaxation group one mention of relaxation slipped in, but otherwise it was about calming the mind and body, tensing muscles and so on. For the mindfulness group, we talked about noticing and paying attention to sensations, not pushing them away. They are quite different techniques but the language we used quite closely matched, the recordings had the same number of words, the same length, and similar mentions of cravings.”
The study was also double-blind, meaning neither the volunteers nor the team knew which treatment was being administered to which participant. All participants were sent home with a credit card-sized flash card reminder of the techniques and advised to deploy them whenever they felt the urge to drink. One week later, those that used mindfulness techniques drank 9.3 fewer units of alcohol than the week before the experiment. There was no significant difference among those using the relaxation techniques. On average, the participants used the strategies three or four times a week, for a period of five to ten minutes.
Although there have been other experiments looking at whether mindfulness can reduce drink or drug taking, Kamboj says most look at the impact of regular, long-term, intensive treatments. The only study that comes close to replicating the success of the UCL experiment was a Washington State study that saw a reduction in light smokers. “These were not dependent smokers, whereas we intentionally recruited hazardous drinkers,” Kamboj says.
The success of the experiment, though small in scale, is impressive. It demonstrates that mindfulness could be used to instigate long-term health improvements. It provides an opportunity to break a habitual cycle, and show the individual that a relatively low-effort, simple technique can have a dramatic impact, potentially encouraging them to keep it up and replace one habit with another. The study’s authors explain that by being more aware of cravings, participants in the study were able to stop themselves from automatically reaching for a drink when they felt a craving.
It’s unclear, at this stage, whether the treatment would have the same impact on someone suffering from alcoholism, but it could potentially prevent a heavy drinker from becoming an alcoholic. The team is already working on follow-up experiments: one with cannabis users, and a similar experiment with drinkers where they are more strongly encouraged to use the techniques for a month or longer. “We want to know if people use it more often, whether they might benefit more,” Kamboj says. The team is also looking into other strategies for reducing the addictive behavior, including ‘reconsolidation’, where researchers reactivate, then alter, a longterm memory.
“Once you encode a memory and it’s transferred from long to short-term memory, it doesn’t change so can’t be erased,” Kamboj says. “But recent animal research shows that behaviors can reactivate old memories and ignite them, and you can pharmacologically erase them. Since anxiety and addiction are disorders of learning and memory, the idea is to tap into those memories and overwrite them either with new learning – associating beer with disgusting outcomes, for example – or blocking that memory.”
via Awareness Act http://awarenessact.com
March 5, 2018 at 04:19PM