Mindfulness teaches a willingness to be with one’s experience without judging what is arising. This approach brings a freedom to people recovering from addiction, who as well as the cravings associated with their addiction may also have self-judgemental thoughts about themselves relating to the addiction, possibly arising from low self worth and a tendency to blame and judge themselves. If a lapse is seen as a failure this will add to the negative spiral of self deprecating thoughts, the belief that one can never get it right and that there is something essentially flawed about one’s character. The arising of addictive thoughts or feelings may be perceived as a failure if there is a goal orientated mindset of having to be totally free from such desires.
This black and white thinking that sees things in terms of success or failure, praise and blame, being good or bad is brought in to question with mindfulness based interventions for addiction. Instead it is replaced with an invitation to become curious about what is arising: what are the thoughts, the feelings in the body and the emotions? This gentle and compassionate observing creates a space where one starts to have a different way of relating to the urges. No longer is it a question of succumbing or fighting them off. Instead there is a gentle enquiry. Over time it becomes possible to notice that there is a pattern to this: the arising of the craving, during which the thoughts and urges are saying one has to act on it, followed by the desire ebbing away. The craving may arise again but one can start to see the experience as waves that wash up and leave rather than an all engulfing and unrelenting tidal wave.
A study published in Drug and Alcohol Dependence in 2011, 88 adults who smoked at least half a pack a day were randomly assigned to either eight sessions mindfulness training or a standard quit-smoking program. At the end of the course the mindfulness group showed a greater reduction rate in smoking. The benefits of the mindfulness course versus the standard smoking cessation session also continued after the end of the course. Four months later 31% of those in the mindfulness group were smoke-free, compared to only 6% in the standard treatment group. This was the first randomized clinical trial to look at mindfulness training as a stand-alone approach for quitting smoking. More research is needed to confirm the results, but they certainly seem encouraging.
How Does mindfulness help with cravings?
Lead researcher Judson Brewer, MD, PhD, medical director of the Yale Therapeutic Neuroscience Clinic, observed that mindfulness training helps to break nicotine craving through strengthening the ability to:
- Recognize the craving that is arising, and relax into it.
- Accept this moment. Don’t ignore it, distract yourself, or try to do something about it.
- Investigate the experience as it builds. Ask yourself, “What is happening in my body right now?”
- Note what is happening. As you note pressure, dullness, tightness, or whatever, it becomes clear that these are nothing more than body sensations. You don’t have to act on them. You can simply ride out the sensations until they subside.
Mindfulness training enables people to ‘ride the wave’ of a craving. Alan Marlatt, a leading practitioner in developing a program of relapse prevention for people recovering from addictions to alcohol and other drugs in has termed this ‘urge surfing’. A craving will normally last no longer than 30 minutes, so with mindfulness it becomes possible to observe what is happening in the body and mind, accept it and hold it with compassion rather than fight it or try to distract yourself from it. When we resist something we give it power, but with mindfulness we dive into the centre of the craving and observe its effects on our body and mind and see that however stong it may seem eventually it fades away.