A new expert’s definition

After four years of work with eighty experts, the American Society of Addiction has released a new definition of addiction, as a ‘chronic brain disorder and not simply a behavioural problem’, they also came to the conclusion that these outward behaviours are ‘manifestations of an underlying disease’.

There are many different forms of addiction, from substance misuse and gambling to the more recent problem of computer game and social networking addiction to mention just a few.  A recent study by the Kaiser Family Foundation showed that kids between the ages of 8 and 18 now spend an average of 7 hours and 38 minutes per day on some sort of computer games or social networking. With these statistics in mind, it is no surprise that child and teen obesity is on the rise and is one of the many problems which are created or intensified by this form of addiction.

The most recent British Gambling Prevalence Survey published in 2011 reported that just under 1% of UK adults meet the diagnostic criteria for problem gambling. This was an increase of 50% since the previous BGPS study published in 2007.

An empty hole

One of the characteristics of addiction, is the feeling of a lack, a hole that needs to be filled, or a feeling of imbalance and that the only thing that will fill that hole or make a person feel right again, is the thing that they crave. Through mindfulness and meditation you can start to feel more of a sense of balance and wholeness.

Observe the feelings

This initially occurs by taking a step back and observing your cravings, as if you were a visitor inhabiting your physical body. Observe these habitual feelings of craving and whichever feelings are associated with the craving. The feeling of lack as if a part of you were missing, perhaps also anger, nervousness, tension, depression or feeling out of control. Look at your feelings, as if they belonged to someone else, not judging them, just watching them arise and then gently redirecting your attention to something else such as your breathing.

Sometimes this process can help a person to understand their feelings a bit better and with the sense of separation from the feelings of craving, with time comes a growing feeling of control.

Mindfulness practice may positively affect activity in the Amygdala, the walnut sized area in the centre of the brain, responsible for regulating the emotions. When the Amygdala is relaxed, the parasympathetic nervous system switches back on, which counteracts the anxiety response.

Clinical Trials

A recently developed programme for addicts called Mindfulness-based relapse prevention (MBRP) showed impressive results. It found that those randomised to MBRP demonstrated significantly lower rates of substance use and greater decreases in craving following treatment, as compared with the control group. Neuro- imaging showed that MBRP might be changing neural responses to the experiences of craving. They came to the conclusion that ‘MBRP may affect numerous brain systems and may reverse, repair, or compensate for the neuro-adaptive changes associated with addiction and addictive behaviour relapse.’

Research on retraining the addicted brain

Results from my NIH-funded clinical trial of Mindfulness-Oriented Recovery Enhancement (MORE) as a treatment for chronic pain and opiate misuse showed positive outcomes of this programme, these were linked with the development of mindfulness skills that are specifically strengthened by MORE, like the ability to ‘step back and objectively observe negative thoughts and feelings in a non-reactive manner’, the ability to ‘reinterpret pain sensations as harmless sensory information’ and the ability to ‘reappraise adverse life events as opportunities for personal growth and meaning.’

Clinical trials on chronic pain and prescription opiate addiction

Article about trials on addiction, including gambling

Filling the hole with stillness

Mindfulness and meditation practice creates a feeling of stillness and a willingness to be in the present moment, which develops as the practice deepens.

This stillness and sense of control together with an increased sense of connection to and respect for the body, can really help to create distance from the intense and uncomfortable feelings associated with addiction. So that one can slowly regain a sense of control and of wholeness.

As a result, the ‘hole’ of addiction is filled with instead with a sense of calm and of control. The person’s happiness will no longer be so attached to something outside of themselves and they will more easily be able to find it through the stillness within themselves.