Addiction: Using Mindfulness to Reduce Drug and Alcohol Cravings
One of the key indicators of addiction is persistent cravings for the substance. Indeed, cravings are a main cause of relapse, often due to their intensity. Drug and alcohol cravings occur because the brain’s chemistry has been altered through process of reinforcement and reward.
To gain a better understanding of the complicated, multi-causal nature of cravings, view this 2001 publication from the the National Institute of Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. While every substance of abuse is a little different, keep in mind that many of the same mechanisms that cause alcohol cravings are associated with drug cravings, as well.
While it is beneficial to understand why cravings occur, it is more important to learn how to deal with them effectively. More or less, cravings occur because of the association made by the brain between the addictive substance and reward.
Cravings may feel very intense, but they are usually “wants” and not “needs”. That is, if you are extremely dehydrated and crave water, yes, that is a need. But most of our cravings – whether for drugs, alcohol, sugar, sex, etc. – are indicators of things we desire. We don’t actually NEED them.
What is mindfulness?
Mindfulness is a non-judgmental form of observing. During mindfulness practices, one must deliberately and fully focus on the present moment. Keeping thoughts and feelings in the present is critical – in essence, the past and future do not exist.
In terms of therapeutic function, mindfulness can best be defined as “a mental state achieved by focusing one’s awareness on the present moment, while calmly acknowledging and accepting one’s feelings, thoughts, and bodily sensations.”
By being mindful, one can gain insight into their feelings and emotions at any given time, without judging those emotions as either good or bad. Also, those emotions can exist in a vacuum, so to speak, without past or future causal relationships. Isolating emotions is the best way to examine them objectively.
Benefits of Mindfulness Practice
There are many benefits of practicing mindfulness, which extend far beyond addiction treatment.
- Being mindful allows one to be less judgmental of him or herself, and therefore, promotes self-acceptance.
- Practicing mindfulness allows one to become apt at living in the present moment.
- Negative emotions or thoughts can be experienced objectively and safely.
- Persons who are mindful often experience increased compassion and connection with other people and living things.
- Mindfulness promotes calmness and reduces anxiety, because negative emotions are treated equally and not indulged.
- Mindfulness gives us insight into the reasons why we avoid certain persons, circumstances, or events.
- Mindful people are more self-aware of their thoughts, feelings, and behaviors.
- Mindful people are less disturbed by negative thoughts and emotions, and are therefore more in control of them.
- Being mindful allows persons to see changes as they occur.
- And finally, addicts can objectively view their cravings for what they are, and are thereforer more equipped to overcome them.
Romanticizing the Drug
One of the most harmful phenomenons that exist in addiction is our brain’s incredible ability to the remember positive associations to substance abuse, and not negative ones.
Anyone who has gone through addiction and has hit “rock bottom”, so to speak, understands this. Over time, we forget about the hangovers, the pains of withdrawals, and the embarrassment we’ve incurred because of our substance abuse. Instead, we remember the euphoria, the social aspects, and the general good feelings of well-being sometimes wrought through drug and alcohol use.
Being mindful can hep you identify moments when you are romanticizing about your substance use. Once you are able to recognize these moments transparently, you will be better equipped to halt those thoughts and feelings.
Mindfulness and Cravings
One of the key components to mindfulness is objective observation. By looking at yourself non-judgmentally, you learn that you are not at fault for your feelings – including drug and alcohol cravings.
Not only are you not responsible, but you are not under any obligation to respond to them, other than to pay them special mind. That is, you don’t have to give in to what your cravings are asking you to do.
If you notice cravings enter the mind, withhold action, and watch them eventually disappear. Doing this repetitively will reassure you that they are not permanent, and can be controlled. In fact, learning to deal with cravings effectively in a new way may lead to their extinction.
Eventually, the meditator trains him or herself to deal with the cravings in a new, more positive way. That is, watch them subside rather than submitting to their demands.
Once you realize that cravings are impermanent, can be controlled, do not have to be obeyed, and will not result in catastrophic consequences, they have little to no power over you any longer.
Some people can master the art of craving prevention. Others may still experience them from time to time, perhaps throughout their life. However, you can learn to live with them, and let them serve as a reminder that addiction is a disease that just doesn’t disappear. Mindfulness can, however, help you deal with it in a highly-empowered state of being.
Simply put, it’s about regaining control.
Techniques for Minding Drug and Alcohol Cravings
Keeping mind mind what we’ve examined here, use simple mindful practices such as breathing, awareness, listening, and immersion. These practices can be explained in greater depth here.
The following are other techniques that can be used to deal with substance cravings.
- Change your environment. Once you recognize you are experiencing a craving, you may also discover that it may be related to the persons or circumstances around you.
- Alternately, use distraction. Engage in another activity that you enjoy, such as reading a book or going for a walk.
- Talk to someone. Turn to a friend or someone who knows what you are going through. This will help you collect your thoughts and possiblyu get another perspective on them.
- Remember the acronym HALT – hunger, anger, loneliness, and tiredness. All of these conditions can be associated with cravings, or outright mistaken for them. Pay attention to other feelings you are having.
If you find yourself romanticizing, stop. Instead, challenge these feelings and memories. Take note of what these thoughts may lead to, and that using the substance will not result in the positive effects you are seeking.
~ G. Nathalee Serrels, M.A., Psychology