Meditation and Addiction
Step 11, of the 12 step programme encourages us to meditate, but what does it mean to meditate and what changes take place in our brains when we engage in meditation? How can meditation assist us as addicts?
Meditation is a practice where an individual uses various techniques in order to achieve focused attention and awareness, with the aim of achieving mental clarity, emotional calmness and general stability. One purpose of meditation is to observe ones own mind.
There are many different forms of meditation : mindfulness meditation, body scan meditation, breath awareness, guided meditation, visualization, loving kindness meditations, Mantra meditation, Kundalini yoga, Zen meditation, Transcendental meditation….there are hundreds of different types of meditations from a variety of cultures and religions around the world. There is no “best type” of meditation, what works for you may not work for someone else and what works for you today, may not work for you on another day. If you are new to meditation, then it is best to try a few different types and learn what works best for you.
What actually happens in our brains and bodies when we meditate ?
Associate Researcher in the Psychiatry Department at Massachusetts General Hospital, Sara Lazar, has spent time researching the impact of regular meditation on our brains. One of her studies involving brain scans taken pre and post an 8 week course in meditation, showed an increase in the size of the hippocampus. The hippocampus plays a role in learning as well in the consolidation of information from short-term memory to long-term memory. People who have experienced trauma or who are prone to depression have smaller hippocampi – studies showed that there was a correlation between regular meditation and an increase in the size of the hippocampus in these people. It was not the only part of the brain which demonstrated changes – the amygdala which is associated with how we experience stress, fear and anger also showed changes after 8 weeks of mindfulness training. When subjects were shown images containing emotional content -there was a decrease in the activity of the amygdala. Subjects for this study had MRI’s before an 8 week mindfulness course and after the course. A “relaxed” amygdala is successfully able to counteract an anxiety response by engaging the parasympathetic nervous system thereby slowing down our heart rates, deepening and slowing our breathing. When the amygdala is overactive, it releases cortisol and adrenaline into the bloodstream. These are stress hormones which provide us with necessary energy in times of danger but have damaging effects on the body in the long term if they are too often available in the body.
Other studies show differences in the temporoparietal junction, where people who meditate frequently and consistently are better able to see things from multiple points of view which is an important aspect when it comes to showing empathy and compassion. Meditators have also demonstrated higher levels of alpha waves which reduces feelings of negativity which also helps to combat against depression.
Increasingly, we are able to verify, scientifically, brain changes in subjects who employ meditation techniques. The effectiveness of meditation, in long-term changes in both behaviour and the brain, is influenced by how often one meditates and how long the sessions are. By retraining your mind through mindfulness practice, you create new neural networks. You can retrain your brain.
Meditation and Relapse Prevention.
In 2018, researchers looked at using mindfulness meditation in the treatment of substance use disorders and the prevention of future relapses. Mindfulness is the concept of being present in our own lives and is characterised by “a non-judgemental, non-reactive, present-centred attention and metacognitive awareness of cognition”. With relapse rates being as high as 60 % within the first year of intervention (e.g., cognitive-behavioral therapy, motivational interviewing, and 12-step programmes ), therapists began to look towards mindfulness-based interventions (MBI’s) and Mindfulness-Based Relapse Prevention (MBRP). Addiction wreaks havoc on our neurocognitive capacities. Chronic drug and alcohol use disrupts and usurps some normal brain circuitry. One of those is the reward processes in our brains. Mindfulness training can increase our natural reward responsiveness – such as our enjoyment of food. This in turn can reduce cravings. There is also no doubt that there is a link between stress and substance use disorders. Meditation teaches us to self-regulate stress and our own stress reactions. There is definitely preliminary evidence for the efficacy of mindfulness based interventions in the area of relapse prevention although more rigorous research designs with longer follow-up periods are required.
Meditation alone, will not be sufficient. There is little doubt that further research needs to be done in this field but there is now, thanks to technology, clear evidence that regular, consistent engagement with meditation can have a positive effect on our brains and can be a highly beneficial tool in our arsenal against the disease of addiction.
Sara Lazar – How Meditation Changes the Brain https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GOIwtTmpc-I
The Scientific Power of Meditation : https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Aw71zanwMnY
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