Meditate to medicate: Mindfulness as a treatment for behavioural addiction
Mindfulness is a form of meditation that derives from Buddhist practice and is one of the fastest growing areas of psychological research. We have defined mindfulness as the process of engaging a full, direct, and active awareness of experienced phenomena that is spiritual in aspect and that is maintained from one moment to the next. As part of the practice of mindfulness, a ‘meditative anchor’, such as observing the breath, is typically used to aid concentration and to help maintain an open-awareness of present moment sensory and cognitive-affective experience.
Throughout the last two decades, Buddhist principles have increasingly been employed in the treatment of a wide range of psychological disorders including mood and anxiety disorders, substance use disorders, bipolar disorder, and schizophrenia-spectrum disorders. The emerging role of Buddhism in clinical settings appears to mirror a growth in research examining the potential effects of Buddhist meditation on brain neurophysiology. Such research forms part of a wider dialogue concerned with the evidence-based applications of specific forms of spiritual practice for improved psychological health.
Within mental health and addiction treatment settings, mindfulness-based interventions (MBIs) are generally delivered in a secular eight-week format and often comprise the following: (i) weekly sessions of 90-180 minutes duration, (ii) a taught psycho-education component, (iii) guided mindfulness exercises, (iv) a CD of guided meditation to facilitate daily self-practice, and (v) varying degrees of one-to-one discussion-based therapy with the program instructor. Examples of MBIs used in behavioural addiction treatment studies include Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy, Mindfulness-Enhanced Cognitive Behaviour Therapy, Mindfulness-Based Relapse Prevention, Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction, and Meditation Awareness Training.
Studies investigating the role of mindfulness in the treatment of behavioural addictions have – to date – primarily focused on problem and/or pathological gambling. These studies have shown that levels of dispositional mindfulness in problem gamblers are inversely associated with gambling severity, thought suppression, and psychological distress. Recent clinical case studies have demonstrated that weekly mindfulness therapy sessions can lead to clinically significant change in problem gambling individuals. Published case studies include: (i) a male in his sixties addicted to offline roulette playing, (ii) a 61-year old female (with comorbid anxiety and depression) addicted to slot machine gambling (treated with a modified version of Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy), and (iii) a 32-year old female (with co-occurring schizophrenia) addicted to online slot-machine playing (treated with a modified version of Meditation Awareness Training). Also, a recent study showed that problem gamblers that received Mindfulness-Enhanced Cognitive Behaviour Therapy demonstrated significant improvements compared to a control group in levels of gambling severity, gambling urges, and emotional distress.
Outside of gambling addiction, case studies have investigated the applications of mindfulness for treating addiction to work (i.e., workaholism) and sex. In the case of the workaholic, a director of a blue-chip technology company in his late thirties was successfully treated for his workaholism utilizing Meditation Awareness Training. Significant pre-post improvements were also observed for sleep quality, psychological distress, work duration, work involvement during non-work hours, and employer-rated job performance. However, as with any case study, the single-participant nature of the study significantly restricts the generalizability of such findings.
Key treatment mechanisms that have been identified and/or proposed in this respect (several of which overlap with mechanisms identified as part of the mindfulness-based treatment of chemical addictions) include:
- A perceptual shift in the mode of responding and relating to sensory and cognitive-affective stimuli that permits individuals to objectify their cognitive processes and to apprehend them as passing phenomena.
- Reductions in relapse and withdrawal symptoms via substituting maladaptive addictive behaviours with a ‘positive addiction’ to mindfulness/meditation (particularly the ‘blissful’ and/or tranquil states associated with certain meditative practices).
- Transferring the locus of control for stress from external conditions to internal metacognitive and attentional resources.
- The modulation of dysphoric mood states and addiction-related shameful and self-disparaging schemas via the cultivation of compassion and self-compassion.
- Reductions in salience and myopic focus on reward (i.e., by undermining the intrinsic value and ‘authenticity’ that individuals assign to the object of addiction) due to a better understanding of the ‘impermanent’ nature of existence (e.g., all that is won must ultimately be lost, an attractive body will age and wither, a senior/lucrative occupational role must one day be relinquished, etc.).
- Growth in spiritual awareness that broadens perspective and induces a re-evaluation of life priorities.
- ‘Urge surfing’ (the meditative process of adopting an observatory, non-judgemental, and non-reactive attentional-set towards mental urges) that aids in the regulation of habitual compulsive responses.
- Reduced autonomic and psychological arousal via conscious-breathing-induced increases in prefrontal functioning and vagal nerve output (breath awareness is a central feature of mindfulness practice).
- Increased capacity to defer gratitude due to improvements in levels of patience.
- A greater ability to label and therefore modulate mental urges and faulty thinking patterns.
Although preliminary findings indicate that there are applications for MBIs in the treatment of behavioural addictions, further empirical and clinical research utilizing larger-sample controlled study designs is clearly needed. Despite this, both the classical Buddhist meditation literature and recent scientific findings appear to agree that when correctly practised and administered, mindfulness meditation is a safe, non-invasive, and cost-effective tool for treating behavioural addictions and for improving psychological health more generally.
Dr Mark Griffiths, Professor of Gambling Studies, International Gaming Research Unit, Nottingham Trent University, Nottingham, UK
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Posted on June 8, 2015, in Addiction, Case Studies, Compulsion, Gambling, Gambling addiction, Obsession, Problem gamblng, Psychiatry, Psychological disorders, Psychology, Work, Workaholism and tagged Addiction treatment, Behavioural addiction, Meditation, Meditative practices, Mindfulness, Mindfulness addiction, Problem gambling, Sex addiction, Workaholism. Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.