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Meditation as self-medication: Can mindfulness be addictive?

(Please note, the following blog is an extended version of an article by my research colleagues Dr. Edo Shonin and William Van Gordon (that was first published hereand to which I have added some further text. If citing this article, we recommend: Shonin, E., Van Gordon, W. & Griffiths, M.D. (2016). Meditation as self-medication: Can mindfulness be addictive? Located at: https://drmarkgriffiths.wordpress.com/2016/10/24/meditation-as-self-medication-can-mindfulness-be-addictive/).

Mindfulness is growing in popularity and is increasingly being used by healthcare professionals for treating mental health problems. There has also been a gradual uptake of mindfulness by a range of organisations including schools, universities, large corporations, and the armed forces. However, the rate at which mindfulness has been assimilated by Western society has – in our opinion – meant that there has been a lack of research exploring the circumstances where mindfulness may actually cause a person harm. An example of a potentially harmful consequence of mindfulness that we have identified in our own research is that of a person developing an addiction to mindfulness.

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In a previous blog, the issue of whether meditation more generally can be addictive was examined. In a 2010 article by Michael Sigman in the Huffington Post entitled “Meditation and Addiction: A Two-Way Street?”, Sigman recounted the story about how one of his friends spent over two hours every day engaging in meditation while sat in the lotus position. He then claimed:

“There are those few for whom meditation can become compulsive, even addictive. The irony here is that an increasing body of research shows that meditation – in particular Buddhist Vipassana meditation – is an effective tool in treating addiction. One category of meditation addiction is related to the so-called ‘spiritual bypass’. Those who experience bliss when they meditate may practice relentlessly to recreate that experience, at the expense of authentic self-awareness. A close friend who’s done Transcendental Meditation for decades feels so addicted to it, she has a hard time functioning when she hasn’t ‘transcended’”.

Obviously, this is purely anecdotal but at least raises the issue that maybe for a very small minority, meditation might be addictive. In addition, empirical studies have shown that meditation can increase pain tolerance, and that the body produces its own morphine-like substances (i.e., endorphins). Therefore, the addictive qualities of meditation may be due to increased endorphin production that creates a semi-dissociative blissful state.

Being addicted to meditation – and more specifically mindfulness – would constitute a form of behavioural addiction (i.e., as opposed to chemical addiction). Examples of better known forms of behavioural addiction are gambling disorder, internet gaming disorder, problematic internet use, sex addiction, and workaholism. According to the components model of addiction, a person would suffer from an addiction to mindfulness if they satisfied the following six criteria:

  • Salience: Mindfulness has become the single most important activity in their life.
  • Mood modification: Mindfulness is used in order to alleviate emotional stress (i.e., escape) or to experience euphoria (i.e., a ‘high’).
  • Tolerance: Practising mindfulness for longer durations in order to derive the same mood-modifying effects.
  • Withdrawal: Experiencing emotional and physical distress (e.g., painful bodily sensations) when not practising mindfulness.
  • Conflict: The individual’s routine of mindfulness practice causes (i) interpersonal conflict with family members and friends, (ii) conflict with activities such as work, socialising, and exercising, and (iii) psychological and emotional conflict (also known as intra-psychic conflict).
  • Relapse: Reverting to earlier patterns of excessive mindfulness practice following periods of control or abstinence.

In modern society, the word ‘addiction’ has negative connotations but it should be remembered that addictions have been described by some as both positive and negative (for instance, Dr. Bill Glasser has spent his whole career talking about ‘positive’ addictions). For example, in separate clinical case studies that we conducted with individuals suffering from pathological gambling, sex addiction, and workaholism, it was observed that the participants substituted their addiction to gambling, work, or sex with mindfulness (and maybe even developed an addiction to it, depending upon the definition of addiction). In the beginning phases of psychotherapy, this process of addiction substitution represented a move forward in terms of the individual’s therapeutic recovery. However, as the therapy progressed and the individual’s dependency on gambling, work, or sex began to weaken, their “addiction” to mindfulness was restricting their personal and spiritual growth, and was starting to cause conflict in other areas of their life. Therefore, it became necessary to help them change the way they practiced and related to mindfulness.

Mindfulness is a technique or behaviour that an individual can choose to practice. However, the idea is that the individual doesn’t separate mindfulness from the rest of their lives. If an individual sees mindfulness as a practice or something that they need to do in order to find calm and escape from their problems, there is a risk that they will become addicted to it. It is for this reason that we always exercise caution before recommending that people follow a strict daily routine of mindfulness practice. In fact, in the mindfulness intervention that we (Shonin and Van Gordon) developed called Meditation Awareness Training, we don’t encourage participants to practice at set times of day or to adhere to a rigid routine. Rather, we guide participants to follow a dynamic routine of mindfulness practice that is flexible and that can be adapted according to the demands of daily living. For example, if a baby decides to wake up earlier than usual one morning, the mother can’t tell it to wait and be quite because it’s interfering with her time for practising mindfulness meditation. Rather, she has to tend to the baby and find another time to sit in meditation. Or better still, she can tend to the baby with love and awareness, and turn the encounter with her child into a form of mindfulness practice. We live in a very uncertain world and so it is valuable if we can learn to be accommodating and work mindfully with situations as they unfold around us.

One of the components in the components model of addiction is ‘salience’ (put more simply, importance). In general, if an individual prioritises a behaviour (such as gambling) or a substance (such as cannabis) above all other aspects of their life, then it’s probably fair to say that their perspective on life is misguided and that they are in need of help and support. However, as far as mindfulness is concerned, we would argue that it’s good if it becomes the most important thing in a person’s life. Human beings don’t live very long and there can be no guarantee that a person will survive the next week, let alone the next year. Therefore, it’s our view that it is a wise move to dedicate oneself to some form of authentic spiritual practice. However, there is a big difference between understanding the importance of mindfulness and correctly assimilating it into one’s life, and becoming dependent upon it.

If a person becomes dependent upon mindfulness, it means that it has remained external to their being. It means that they don’t live and breathe mindfulness, and that they see it as a method of coping with (or even avoiding) the rest of their life. Under these circumstances, it’s easy to see how a person can develop an addiction to mindfulness, and how they can become irritable with both themselves and others when they don’t receive their normal ‘fix’ of mindfulness on a given day.

Mindfulness is a relatively simple practice but it’s also very subtle. It takes a highly skilled and experienced meditation teacher to correctly and safely instruct people in how to practise mindfulness. It’s our view that because the rate of uptake of mindfulness in the West has been relatively fast, in the future there will be more and more people who experience problems – including mental health problems such as being addicted to mindfulness – as a result of practising mindfulness. Of course, it’s not mindfulness itself that will cause their problems to arise. Rather, problems will arise because people have been taught how to practice mindfulness by instructors who are not teaching from an experiential perspective and who don’t really know what they are talking about. From personal experience, we know that mindfulness works and that it is good for a person’s physical, mental, and spiritual health. However, we also know that teaching mindfulness and meditation incorrectly can give rise to harmful consequences, including developing an addiction to mindfulness.

Dr. Mark Griffiths, Professor of Behavioural Addiction, International Gaming Research Unit, Nottingham Trent University, Nottingham, UK

Further Reading

Glasser, W. (1976). Positive addictions. Harper & Row, New York, NY.

Griffiths, M.D. (1996). Behavioural addictions: An issue for everybody? Journal of Workplace Learning, 8(3), 19-25.

Griffiths, M.D. (2005). A ‘components’ model of addiction within a biopsychosocial framework. Journal of Substance Use, 10, 191-197.

Griffiths, M.D. (2011). Behavioural addiction: The case for a biopsychosocial approach. Trangressive Culture, 1, 7-28.

Larkin, M., Wood, R.T.A. & Griffiths, M.D. (2006). Towards addiction as relationship. Addiction Research and Theory, 14, 207-215.

Shonin, E., Van Gordon, W., & Griffiths, M. D. (2013). Buddhist philosophy for the treatment of problem gambling. Journal of Behavioral Addictions, 2, 63-71.

Shonin, E., Van Gordon, W., & Griffiths, M.D. (2014). The treatment of workaholism with Meditation Awareness Training: A case study. Explore: The Journal of Science and Healing, 10, 193-195.

Shonin, E., Van Gordon W., & Griffiths, M.D. (2014). Mindfulness as a treatment for behavioral addiction. Journal of Addiction Research and Therapy, 5, e122. doi: 10.4172/2155- 6105.1000e122.

Shonin, E., Van Gordon W., & Griffiths, M.D. (2015). Are there risks associated with using mindfulness for the treatment of psychopathology? Clinical Practice, 11, 389-382.

Shonin, E., Van Gordon, W., & Griffiths, M.D. (2016). Mindfulness and Buddhist-derived Approaches in Mental Health and Addiction. New York: Springer.

Sigman, M. (2010). Meditation and addiction: A two-way street? Huffington Post, November 15. Located at: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/michael-sigman/meditation-and-addiction_b_783552.htm

Sussman, S., Lisha, N., Griffiths, M.D. (2011). Prevalence of the addictions: A problem of the majority or the minority? Evaluation and the Health Professionals, 34, 3-56.

Van Gordon, W., Shonin, E., & Griffiths, M.D. (2015). Mindfulness in mental health: A critical reflection. Journal of Psychology, Neuropsychiatric Disorders and Brain Stimulation, 1(1), 102.

Van Gordon, W., Shonin, E., & Griffiths, M.D. (2016). Meditation Awareness Training for the treatment of sex addiction: A case study. Journal of Behavioral Addiction, 5, 363-372.

Van Gordon, W., Shonin, E., & Griffiths, M.D. (2016). Ontological addiction: Classification, etiology, and treatment. Mindfulness, 7, 660-671.

Horticulture clash: Can gardening be addictive?

Back in November 2000, I appeared in numerous tabloid newspapers around the world in a story about ‘gardening addiction’ (such as one in the Daily Mail – ‘Professor says gardening is addictive’). It all began after I was interviewed by a journalist from the New Scientist magazine (Andy Coghlan). Coghlan wanted my reaction to a study published in the journal Biological Psychology led by my friend and colleague, Dr. Gerhard Meyer (with who I later co-edited the book Problem Gambling in Europe in 2009). Meyer and his colleagues had carried out a study on blackjack players and showed that they increased their heart rates while gambling (something that I also found in an earlier study I published on arousal in slot machine gamblers in a 1993 issue of the journal Addictive Behaviors). Meyer’s study also found that blackjack gamblers playing for money also had increased levels of salivary cortisol compared to blackjack gamblers playing for points.

I was asked by Coghlan whether I thought gambling could be a genuine addiction, even though it didn’t involve the ingestion of a psychoactive substance. I systematically went through my addiction components model (salience, mood modification, tolerance, withdrawal symptoms, conflict, and relapse) and spent about 15 minutes talking about my research on various behavioural addictions. When the New Scientist article was published, the only quote attributed to me was the following:

“Some people say you can’t have addiction unless you take a substance, but I would argue that gambling taken to excess is an addiction. If you accept that, you then accept that sex, computer games, even gardening, can be addictive. It opens up the floodgates to everything else”.

I had quite deliberately used the example of gardening to make the point that addiction should be assessed by standard addiction criteria and that if any behaviour fulfils all the criteria for addiction it should be classed as such irrespective of what the behaviour is. I also said in my interview with the New Scientist that I had never come across a case of gardening addiction but that it was theoretically possible. The New Scientist story was re-written by many different news outlets around the world. My comments were included in all of these stories. Some of these stories were reported with the focus being on the gambling study (such as the one reported by the BBC which you can read here). Others such as the Daily Mail and the New York Post (NYP) made my comments as the focus of the story. Here is what the NYP reported under the headline ‘Garden-variety junkies hooked on hobby’:

“Before you stop to smell the roses, you might want to think twice. People who enjoy gardening are as physically addicted as junkies and alcoholics, researchers claim. The findings by scientists at Bremen University in Germany are controversial because many experts refuse to believe that behavior can be addictive…The scientists also found the same is true of sex and gambling. They studied gamblers and measured the amounts of a stress hormone linked to addiction. Dr. Gerhard Meyer asked 10 gamblers in a casino to play blackjack, staking their own money. While the volunteers played, Meyer measured changes in their heart rates and levels of the stress hormone cortisol in their saliva. He then asked them to play for points rather than money, as a ‘control’ situation. Both heart rates and cortisol concentrations were markedly higher when the gamblers played for money…People who use addictive narcotics also have increased cortisol levels, which, in turn, can trigger the ‘addiction chemicals’ dopamine and seretonin in the brain. ‘Some people say you can’t have addiction unless you take a substance, but I would argue that gambling taken to excess is an addiction’, psychologist Mark Griffiths said. ‘If you accept that, you then accept that sex, computer games, even gardening, can be addictive. It opens up the floodgates to everything else’. If the new research is correct, gardening, gambling and sex, which involve pleasurable rewards for effort expended, could set up an addictive chemical pathway in the brain…Meyer says his findings might reduce the culpability of people who have committed crimes. If lawyers can attribute their clients’ crimes to physiological cravings rather than acts of free will, they may receive lighter sentences, he says”.

I spent much of the week in the media trying to get what I had actually said into context (and even appeared on Channel 4’s Big Breakfast television show defending what I had said). The Daily Mail article had sought comment from TV’s most high profile gardening expert Alan Titchmarsh who said: “[Gardening] is a very addictive pursuit. Once you’ve discovered the thrill of making things grow, you can’t stop. I get very twitchy if I can’t get outside and garden for a few days. It is an addiction – but a positive, useful addiction”. While I have no doubt Titchmarsh believed gardening to be a positive addiction (and would fulfil Dr. Bill Glasser’s criteria for positive addiction that I examined in a previous blog), it wouldn’t be an addiction using my own criteria. I wrote a letter to the New Scientist that they published on November 22 (2000) under the title ‘All kinds of addiction’. In that letter I wrote:

“My alleged comments about gardening addiction have been taken totally out of context and I would like to set the record straight, particularly as many of the national media appeared to have had a laugh at my expense following your press release on this story. My comments were made in reaction to the research by Meyer on gambling addiction, and whether I thought gambling was a true addiction because it didn’t involve a drug. I replied that any behaviour, be it gambling, sex, eating, Internet use, playing computer games or even, theoretically, gardening, that features all the core components of addiction, that is to say, mood-modifying effects, withdrawal symptoms, build-up of tolerance, total preoccupation with the activity, loss of control, neglect of everything else in their lives and relapse can be classed as an addiction. This was not reported in your article, leaving me wide open to misinterpretation. For the record, I have never said that gardening is addictive. What I have said is that any behaviour that fulfils the criteria for addiction can be operationally defined as addiction”.

On the same day (November 22), the Daily Mail also published an edited version of the letter I sent to the New Scientist buried away on page 73 (which you can read here) under the title ‘Eh, not quite’. In retrospect, I can smile about the whole incident, but I wasn’t smiling at the time. In a 2005 paper in the Journal of Substance Use, I subtly included a reference to the ‘gardening addiction’ story (or rather the lack of it) in a paper examining the nature of addiction:

It is also important to acknowledge that the meanings of ‘addiction’, as the word is understood in both daily and academic usage, are contextual, and socially constructed (Howitt, 1991; Irvine, 1995; Truan, 1993). We must ask whether the term ‘addiction’ actually identifies a distinct phenomenon – something beyond problematic behaviour – whether socially constructed or physiologically based. If so, what are the principal features of this phenomenon? If we argue that it is hypothetically possible to be addicted to anything, it is still necessary to account for the fact that many people become addicted to alcohol but very few to gardening. Implicit within our understanding of the term ‘addiction’ is some measure of the negative consequences that must be experienced in order to justify the use of this word in its academic or clinical context. It seems reasonable at this stage to suggest that a combination of the kinds of rewards (physiological and psychological) and environment (physical, social and cultural) associated with any particular behaviour will have a major effect on determining the likelihood of an excessive level of involvement in any particular activity”.

I have still to come across anyone that I would say is genuinely addicted to gardening. However, I did come across an interesting paper on unusual compulsive behaviours caused by individuals receiving medication for Parkinson’s disease. The paper was published in a 2007 issue of the journal Parkinsonism and Related Disorders by Dr. Andrew McKeon and his colleagues. They reported seven case studies of unusual compulsive behaviours after treating their patients with dopamine agonist therapy (i.e., treatment that activates dopamine receptors in the body). One of the cases involved a man who developed a gardening compulsion:

“A 53-year-old male with [Parkinson’s disease] for 13 years became intensely interested in lawn care. He would use a machine to blow leaves for 6 [hours] without rest, finding it difficult to disengage from the activity, as he found the repetitive behavior soothing. He also developed compulsive gambling”.

This case study at least suggests that someone can develop addictive and/or compulsive like behaviour towards gardening but is obviously isolated and very rare (and in this case brought on by the medication taken). I am not aware of any empirical research on gardening addiction since my comments on the topic back in 2000. However, I still stick to my assertion that if the rewards are present (i.e., psychological, social, physiological, and/or financial), it is theoretically possible for people to become addicted to almost anything – even gardening.

Dr. Mark Griffiths, Professor of Gambling Studies, International Gaming Research Unit, Nottingham Trent University, Nottingham, UK

Further reading

Glasser, W. (1976). Positive Addictions. New York, NY: Harper & Row.

Griffiths, M.D. (1996). Behavioural addictions: An issue for everybody? Journal of Workplace Learning, 8(3), 19-25.

Griffiths, M.D. (1993). Tolerance in gambling: An objective measure using the psychophysiological analysis of male fruit machine gamblers. Addictive Behaviors, 18, 365-372.

Griffiths, M.D. (2000). All kinds of addiction New Scientist, November 22, p 58.

Griffiths, M.D. (2005). A ‘components’ model of addiction within a biopsychosocial framework. Journal of Substance Use, 10, 191-197.

Hoffmann, B. (2000). Garden-variety junkies ‘hooked’ on hobby: Study. New York Post, November 10. Located at: http://nypost.com/2000/11/10/garden-variety-junkies-hooked-on-hobby-study/

Howitt, D. (1991). Concerning Psychology. Milton Keynes: Open University Press.

Irvine, J. M. (1995). Reinventing perversion: Sex addiction and cultural anxieties. Journal of the History of Sexuality, 5, 429–450.

Meyer, G., Hauffa, B. P., Schedlowski, M., Pawlak, C., Stadler, M. A., & Exton, M. S. (2000). Casino gambling increases heart rate and salivary cortisol in regular gamblers. Biological Psychiatry, 48(9), 948-953.

Meyer, G., Hayer, T. & Griffiths, M.D. (2009). Problem Gaming in Europe: Challenges, Prevention, and Interventions. New York: Springer.

McKeon, A., Josephs, K. A., Klos, K. J., Hecksel, K., Bower, J. H., Michael Bostwick, J., & Eric Ahlskog, J. (2007). Unusual compulsive behaviors primarily related to dopamine agonist therapy in Parkinson’s disease and multiple system atrophy. Parkinsonism & Related Disorders, 13(8), 516-519.

Truan, F. (1993). Addiction as a social construction: A postempirical view. Journal of Psychology, 127, 489-499.