Despite all the evidence and warnings, the “smoking gun” (literally) of cigarette addiction bedevils about 18% of adults in the U.S. Especially troubling: each day, more than 2,000 youths and young adults who had smoked occasionally become daily smokers.
While many with this dangerous habit want to break free, attempts to quit are often a losing enterprise. According to the American Cancer Society, a mere 4% to 7% of smokers are able to stop smoking without anti-addiction medicines or other help. And only about 25% of those who take these medicines manage to avoid smoking for more than six months.
A new therapy may help smokers clear the air. Well, actually it’s not new. It’s been around for thousands of years…
Meditation Keeps More Cigarettes Unlit
Using meditation to reduce stress and improve attention is well known, but its potential for eliminating specific undesirable habits has been less clear. The fact that meditation can rewire the brain at any age—as confirmed by eminent scientists such as Richard Davidson—makes it worthy of consideration for changing unwanted, habitual behaviors.
A study published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) showed that a meditation regimen designed to reduce stress may also reduce craving for cigarettes. Participants, including smokers, were randomized into two groups and treated for two weeks with either relaxation therapy or integrative body-mind training (a form of meditation designed for short-term training that focuses primarily on body-mind awareness). After the training period, cigarette consumption among smokers in the meditation group was reduced by 60% (as confirmed by changes in carbon monoxide level in the bloodstream, an objective measure of smoke intake). Smokers in the relaxation therapy group, however, experienced no reduction. All five smokers in the meditation group who agreed to follow-up review had maintained their reduced smoking four weeks after training was over.
Brain scans in the study revealed key changes associated with a reduced craving for cigarettes. Compared to nonsmokers at the start of the study, smokers had less activity in the anterior cingulate cortex and prefrontal cortex—brain regions that play key roles in self-control. After the training, this activity increased and smoking decreased only in the meditation group.
Smoking Reduced Even in Those Not Seeking to Quit
Attempts to quit smoking may often fail because trying to avoid thinking about the habit makes a smoker think about it more. It has been theorized that success is thwarted because the intention to quit activates brain pathways related to craving.
A compelling finding in the PNAS study is that the intention to quit had no significant effect on smoking reduction. This strongly implies that changes in the brain activity itself reduced the craving impulse. What remains to be seen is whether continued training could effect permanent changes in brain wiring, thus serving as a sort of inoculation against relapses into addiction.
Other research has shown that meditation may overcome more serious addictions when traditional rehab programs fail. In a study of addicts recently released from prison reported in Psychology of Addictive Behaviors, use of Vipassana meditation—a Buddhist mindfulness-based practice—resulted in significant reductions in alcohol, marijuana, and crack cocaine use. Improvements in alcohol-related problems, psychiatric symptoms, and social behavior were also reported.
Replacing the Urge to Escape with Presence of Mind
Meditation also has potential for overcoming nonsubstance addiction, including gambling. Some drugs that have been designed to stop craving for alcohol have also curbed gambling activity, demonstrating that both desires may have a common pathway in the brain. Since meditation helps us stay in the present moment without judgment, it can help quell the urge to escape into a euphoric state that provides short-term, and often unhealthy, satisfaction.
As more studies are conducted, the credibility of meditation as a treatment modality for a range of addictive disorders will most likely continue to rise. Rewire Me will keep you posted on research showing how age-old meditation practices can help liberate us from compulsive, destructive behaviors.
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