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Mindfulness therapy works to rewire the brain during addiction recovery

Posted on 09-25-14 in Addiction Treatment

Mindfulness therapy works to rewire the brain during addiction recovery

After habitual substance abuse, studies have shown that the brain actually rewires itself to accommodate the addiction, relying less on normal “rewards” in life and more on the drug. This is why many addicts tend to value nothing else in life other than the drug they are dependent on.

However, a recent article published in the journal Neuroscience and Biobehavioral Reviews revealed that not only the substance itself, but addictive behaviors can rewire the brain over time. Just like an addictive substance teaches the mind how to become dependent on it, the experience of the drug itself and the behaviors associated with it also impacts habitual cognitive patterns in the brain.

Addictive substances do not only rewrite the brain to make them more sensitive to the rewards from their addiction, but decrease their sensitivity to natural rewards such as validation, love, etc. Even when the use of a substance is discontinued, the rewired structures of the brain force the person into thinking like an addict still, craving the drug and triggering thoughts of relapse.

Although detox drugs can mask these cravings temporarily, the brain needs more time to rewire itself and end the addictive thought processes. Cognitive behavioral therapy seeks to increase the awareness of the cues that trigger cravings and equip the person with healthier thought processes and behavioral patterns.

Although cognitive behavioral therapy is effective in its own right, it is limited in the sense that it only addresses the conscious thoughts and behaviors prolonging addiction. Mindfulness-based CBT encourages patients to become more aware of their subconscious cues triggering their addiction by increasing awareness of their bodily and emotional signals. By practicing mindfulness, the person is trained to become aware of normally subconscious processes such as breathing and heart rate. In time, they can develop the ability to notice thought processes and behavioral patterns that were normally not perceived on a conscious level.

Many triggers exist in addicts’ brains that they are not consciously aware of. For example, a person’s alcohol addiction may have developed due to the loss of a loved one. Seeing people with the same hair color or that look similar to them can subconsciously trigger their addiction without them even realizing it. Mindfulness meditation provides a way of focusing on the present moment in a non-judgmental and non-reactive way, reducing the clutter of the conscious mind and allowing the more subtle subconscious processes to surface. Mindfulness-based CBT would allow the person to identify the negative conditioned response, equipping them with the tools to alter their behavior and rewrite the brain’s neural networks.

Mindfulness and addiction

Mindfulness in addiction is more prevalent than ever considering recent studies from the National Institutes of Health, or NIH, have shown a lack of mindfulness to be associated with substance abuse. The study surveyed 107 adults undergoing addiction treatment for substance abuse, looking at two components of mindfulness: decentering and curiosity. Decentering refers to the process of stepping back and observing one’s surroundings while curiosity refers to the introspection that meditation affords oneself.

The survey measured levels of mindfulness in non-addicted people as well, scoring an 11.93 on the decentering portion of the scale versus a 6.78 for the people undergoing treatment. Non-addicted people also scored higher in the curiosity section with an average of 13.72 versus 5.58 for the substance dependent group. The study suggests that addicted people being half as mindful as “normal” people have a lower stress tolerance – the practice of distancing themselves from their issues with substance use could have resulted in a tendency of being willfully unaware of their own thoughts and actions.

This tendency in addicts to push away their problems is greatly benefitted by mindfulness. Mindfulness CBT forces people to introspectively explore and examine their thoughts, teaching them ways to cope with their issues versus simply avoiding them. With this in mind, a lack of mindfulness in itself can be considered a prerequisite for the development of an addiction.

At Sovereign Health Group, we employ a litany of therapies, including traditional CBT and mindfulness-based CBT. We also employ alternative therapies such as yoga and meditation, allowing the patient to explore their conscious and subconscious thought processes and develop their mind-body connection. If you would like to learn more about mindfulness-based therapy, feel free to contact us today at 888-530-4614.