#6 of 10 Good Reasons to Meditate (according to science): Addiction
#6 Reduced addiction
We all naturally lean towards pleasure. This was a highly adaptive trait. High fat and high sugar foods, for example, were in scarce supply over the eons that humans evolved, so gorging on them in those rare moments when they were available was advantageous. Sex feels great. Being part of a community and being liked and admired by them feels even better. All these experiences generate brain states that we all like. So not surprisingly we are all programmed to pursue those pleasures.
In today's world, we have easy access to drugs that stimulate these pleasurable brain states whenever we want. Sadly, this availability of mind-altering substances has coincided with a decrease in the natural settings (stable families, widespread prosperity and equality, healthy diets, cultural recognition of the importance of sufficient sleep, exercise incorporated into a daily routine, etc.) that would stimulate them naturally. The product of this environment are grave: to give one example, the World Health Organization estimates that 450 million people suffer from a mental health disorder.
In this modern world of ours, we increasingly experience lack or distraction and seek to fill the emptiness and unease that accompanies those states with other substances, especially drugs. The consequence? The leading cause of death in the US for people under 50 is now a drug overdose (with 2/3s of those coming from opioids), leading to 2016 to be the second year in a row of American's life expectancy shortening.
Addiction is everywhere, not just with drugs. People can also become addicted to food, gambling, shopping, sex or porn, and even highly charged emotions like anger are addictive. (Though a topic of another blogpost, emotions aren't the only addiction most people don't know about. Thinking is actually the most powerful and dangerous addiction of all.) And all of these activities damage people's health. So when we talk about addiction, a broad spectrum is included, with the difference from what most of us would perceive as normal use and addictive use being one of degree. The problem with there being this spectrum is that addiction can only be dealt with when the person notices it and there is always someone doing more than you. We can think of addictions being like an exaggerated habit that starts to take over ones life. And we tend not to notice habits, even when they have started to dramatically change who we spend time with and how we spend that time. That is why addictions are so difficult to stop – we have relegated the behavior to the unconscious.
This is why meditation can be so helpful. One of the functions of meditation is that it slows things down and creates a space for us to notice our habits and reflect on whether we want them in our life or not. It also creates a sense of ease and well-being that means we won't need our addictive substance to achieve those brain states. And practices like mindfulness strengthen the habit of observing ones thoughts and feelings and cravings without acting on them. And we can go even deeper using some of the more advanced meditation techniques for emotion regulation. Using these ancient methods, we can discover or uncover not just the habits themselves but the root cause of why those habits formed in the first place. And through the meditative practices of acceptance and letting go, those unconscious habits and causes can be released.
Not surprisingly, meditation has repeatedly been shown to help addicts manage their addiction. For example, a 2006 study by University of Washington researchers (Bowen et al) studied 78 prison inmates/addicts for three months. This group was taught meditation for 10 days and then were given questionnaires asking them about their drug use at day 0 and again at day 90. The results? Amazingly, the study found that inmates who practiced meditation for 3 months drank 87% less alcohol, and used 89% less marijuana. Furthermore, meditation was found to be almost 6 times more effective than the control group’s more traditional chemical dependency treatment plan!
There is even a whole program called Mindfulness Based Relapse Prevention (MBRP) that is based on the success of this technique. Much more work remains to be done to demonstrate to the medical community and the public at large the extraordinary power of meditation to heal addiction disorders. With over 20,000 results on a recent Google Scholar search on meditation and addiction, hopefully word is getting out on the power of this ancient practice.