Extinguish Addiction With Mindfulness

Addiction. It’s baffling, mysterious, and powerful.

We are all exposed to addiction directly or indirectly, one way or the other. Your brother, cousin, wife’s father, co-worker… perhaps even you suffer yourself from some form of addiction. Some experts say we can even be addicted to anger, fighting, chaos, and unhealthy relationships because we can get a high from it. The reality is that not all addictions are equally harmful. Although there are a lot of opposing views on this topic, we can all agree on is that all addictions weaken the human experience. Some even kill.

One idea that I will invite you to consider is that humans are varied in nature and deeply nuanced creatures, and therefore we posses the capacity for varied and nuanced expressions of addictions. At the same time, not everything that is done in a compulsive or obsessive fashion is an addiction.

In the latest version of the DSM (the book that classifies mental disorders) there was a lot of debate over what to include as an addiction or not. The discussion was productive in that it prevented us from pathologizing every habitual behavior as an addiction, such as constantly checking our smartphones etc. But that doesn’t mean that addictions are limited to the widely discussed ones such as alcohol, tobacco, substances etc.

In today’s world it would be unwise to limit “addictions” to the commonly studied ones, but it demands a more personal, introspective approach. As physician and Professor of the History of Medicine at the University of Michigan Howard Markel recently said in a New York Times article on the DSM changes:

The conclusion to draw here is that though substances like cocaine are very effective at triggering changes in the brain that lead to addictive behavior and urges, they are not the only possible triggers: just about any deeply pleasurable activity — sex, eating, Internet use — has the potential to become addictive and destructive.” Howard Markel, M.D., University of Michigan [7]

Marc Gafni, author and spiritual teacher from the mystical/Kabbalistic tradition of Judaism offers what I think is a very fitting analogy for our “everyday addictions.” Avoidance. A-void-dance. For every one of us, at the core of our existence there is a mystery when it comes to answering the questions:

  • “Who am I really?”
  • “What’s the purpose of life?”
  • “Do I matter?”
  • “Am I good enough?”

Those questions can be a terrifying proposition for many of us, even if we don’t like to admit to it. This is that uncomfortable emptiness that philosophers and thinkers across the ages have referred to as the void. Those in a 12-step program would relate to this sense of a void as part of their fundamental problem.

So, the quick fix in our fear-based society (which is offset by being pleasure-based) is to numb out. And, we have and 1001 ways to make that happen, which creates a fertile environment for ever-growing addictions.

Addictions can be born out of a series of moments when we sense that void in the form of discomfort or anxiety and quickly reach for something to fill or numb it. That something could be a cigarette, a drink, sex, anger, food, energy drinks, pain pills, the Internet etc. Again, our behavior cannot always be generalized to pathology.

Each of us as an individual knows (when we look at ourselves honestly) what we turn to for a crutch, our way to avoid feeling the void. It is nothing to be ashamed of, it just makes us human.

Another theory about how addictions are born (in part) involve what’s known as the emotional painbody:

There is such a thing as old emotional pain living inside you. It is an accumulation of painful life experience that was not fully faced and accepted in the moment it arose. It leaves behind an energy form of emotional pain. It comes together with other energy forms from other instances, and so after some years you have a “painbody,” an energy entity consisting of old emotion.

It lives in human beings, and it is the emotional aspect of egoic consciousness. When the ego is amplified by the emotion of the painbody, the ego has enormous strength still — particularly at those times. It requires very great presence so that you can be there as the space also for your painbody, when it arises. [8]

Unfortunately, our addictions can often disrupt or destroy our lives, relationships, and personal self-growth. The void isn’t going anywhere. So how can we make sure we don’t continually dance around it, and instead gradually begin to sit with it and grow from what we learn?

So far, modern medicine hasn’t found a cure for the disease of addiction as it pertains to substance abuse. But mindfulness has been consistently proving to increase our chances of extinguishing and overcoming addiction. How? Through increasing our brain’s plasticity and ability to adapt the way we perceive and react to triggers/cravings in life. [3, 6]

One population that has been targeted for these studies are former prisoners dealing with addiction-normally to alcohol, marijuana, or cocaine who are re-entering society. Much of the time, this population is the fringe that shows us what can happen when addiction begins to take over our lives. A recent study split a number of re-entering individuals into one control group, which received standard addiction treatment after release from prison, and a second group who instead were enrolled in a 6-week Vipassana meditation course (Buddhist mindfulness training). Those who completed the mindfulness course showed significantly decreased alcohol, marijuana, and cocaine use in comparison to those who completed the treatment as usual. Furthermore, the mindfulness group ended up with far lower occurrence of long-term psychiatric issues and had a more positive psycho-social outcome. [1]

So mindfulness seems to have a positive effect, but what exactly is going on?

Luckily, there has been a recent surge in neuroimaging studies that are exploring how mindfulness manifests on our neurological pathways. Mindful Muscle and the world of science have already espoused the positive physiological effects of meditation: increasing focus/attention, greater body awareness, and regulation of our emotions. Now, neuroimaging is allowing us to see the impact this is physically having on the structures in our brain. [3]

A main region of the brain that has shown repeated measurable change through mindfulness in the insular region of the cortex. The insular region plays a major role in our own self-awareness, conscious emotional states, and autonomic functions such as heart rate, breath, and other autonomic functions. Through mindfulness meditation, our awareness of body functions rises and causes a physical change in the brain by increasing the connections and thickness in the insular cortex. The implication is that through prolonged mindfulness practice, our brain is rewiring in a way that leads to an increased self-awareness and well-being [4]. Furthermore, the insula’s role in emotional regulation is strengthened. This emotional regulation is synergistic with the emotional reduction of anxiety by the amygdala through mindfulness-based practices. [3, 4]

In an fMRI study exploring mindfulness-based interventions in smoking cessation, a literal mind-body interaction was observed between mindful attention and functional connectivity in the brain. The study split into a control group and a mindfulness group. Each group was shown typical triggers for smoking, such as images of others smoking, and the fMRI focused on areas of the brain associated with craving. The area of the cortex in the brain related to cravings (abbreviated sgACC), showed reduced functional connectivity for participants in a mindfulness-based group when compared with the control group who were shown these cues. This coupled with their decrease in self-reported cravings as well. Again, mindfulness is not just psychologically making people stronger, it is rewiring their brains to be able to tolerate discomfort and reduce cravings over time. [5]

What does all this science mean for our own addictions and how mindfulness can help?

It all comes back to stopping our a-void-dance. In a literature review published in the Journal of Clinical Outcomes Management, relapse prevention in conjunction with mindfulness was explored. Mindfulness was found to increase recognition of, and the ability to tolerate negative emotional states [2]. Notice, it is not saying that uncomfortable situations go away, or our anxiety magically disappears. In short, mindfulness gives us the strength psychologically and neurologically to sit in discomfort, to lean into the void, as opposed to avoid it and jump to our addiction.


mindfulness and addiction

If we constantly try to avoid feeling uncomfortable with issues concerning our career, relationships, or the way we view ourselves, it is highly unlikely to find peace of mind through numbing ourselves to life.

And unfortunately, our culture conditions us to turn to alcohol, cigarettes, or other substances, which can lead to a much more severe form of uncomfortable feelings. Addiction. If instead, we can learn to lean into our anxiety, sit quietly with it, and be patient enough to observe the deeper layers, we can build an emotional strength that serves us well.

Mindfulness is the vehicle we can use to achieve this.

Developing a mindfulness disposition through routine practice that expresses itself as an everyday state of being mindful, can intrinsically impact connections in our brain that are critical for mental self-exploration and emotional control. [6]

Can we overcome addiction without becoming more mindful of our thought patterns, behaviors, and emotions?

Not likely. So whatever addiction we may be dealing with, whether it is a major substance abuse issue, alcoholism, or an annoying habit of being hooked on social media, mindfulness is an invaluable tool to deal with these deficiencies.

If you, or someone you know is suffering from any form of addiction, I highly recommend practicing meditation or yoga. Mindful Strength is another great mindfulness practice that creates energetic and spiritual alignment, which serves as a powerful force in helping us cleanse the mind and body of “root causes” for our addictions.