A meta-analysis in the Journal of Substance Abuse Treatment reveals the many benefits of practicing mindfulness during addiction recovery
In a matter of years mindfulness has gone from niche trend to mainstream lifestyle. The National Institutes of Health estimate that as many as 18 million adults now practice it regularly. It’s not without good reason, though, because a ton of research suggests that the practice can reduce stress, improve concentration, and increase overall life satisfaction. One of its key ingredients is that it improves self-regulation: it helps people ride out their emotions better and in general feel more even-keeled. So it’s no surprise that more and more research is looking at not only the general benefits of mindfulness, but also how the practice may help different mental health disorders, like anxiety, depression, and addiction. In 2015 alone, there were 216 randomized controlled trials (RCTs) done in this area—more than any year before (Creswell, 2017).
In fact, there’s so much research on mindfulness being done that sometimes it’s hard to know what’s true and what’s not. One study might show it works for depression, another doesn’t. Luckily for us, there’s a fancy research method for comparing a bunch of similar studies to one another to see what’s really going on—a meta-analysis—and one recently published looks especially promising for the benefits of mindfulness on addiction.
A meta-analysis in the Journal of Substance Abuse Treatment gathered over 40 studies that looked at various forms of mindfulness-based treatment for addiction, including MBRP, MBSR, and MORE, just to name a few (Li, 2017). Every study compared a mindfulness approach to a “control” approach, like a relaxation technique or AA meetings. Next, the researchers parsed out the common outcome measures from all studies, such as stress levels, so that the effects of mindfulness on something like stress could be compared across the studies, even if they used different approaches or measured stress differently. This allowed them to see how mindfulness on the whole stacked up against other forms of treatment.
Overall the findings reflected really well on all forms of mindfulness in treating addiction, as the differences between the mindfulness approaches and the controls—the “effect size”—were pretty strong across the board. In particular they found that the practice had a significant:
- Small effect on reduced substance use
- Medium effect on reduced cravings
- Large effect on reduced stress
Perhaps what’s most intriguing about these findings is the impact that mindfulness can have on stress for someone struggling with addiction. If we look at the underlying drivers of addictive behavior, we know that stress is a really common one that pushes people to use substances in order to get relief. So if practicing mindful awareness can reduce stress, it’s possible that it can dull one of the triggers that leads to unhealthy substance use.
Another impressive takeaway is that in all the studies the participants were randomly assigned to either the mindfulness or the “control” group. This means that this practice could potentially be beneficial for anyone regardless of whether they thought it would work. Finally, the drop-out rates were the same, meaning people who did mindfulness were just as likely as people in the many other programs to see it all the way through.
The Alternatives Approach
One of the main components of our Bio-Affective Management System includes mindfulness and self-regulation techniques based on Mindfulness-Based Relapse Prevention (MBRP). Clients learn how to develop a mindfulness practice, recognize their triggers, work with difficult emotions, and ultimately find more compassion for themselves and others. Overall, clients report that this practice helps them deal a lot better with stress and find a sense of balance that had been missing in their lives. Perhaps best of all, once a mindfulness technique has been learned it can be done independently with coaching only as needed, kind of like a cardio workout. And it’s just yet another tool we teach our clients so they can build the self-efficacy needed to take back control of their lives and chart their own path to recovery.
Creswell, J. D. (2017). Mindfulness Interventions. Annual Review of Psychology,68(1), 491-516. doi:10.1146/annurev-psych-042716-051139
Li, W., et al., Mindfulness treatment for substance misuse: A systematic review and meta-analysis, Journal of Substance Abuse Treatment (2017), http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.jsat.2017.01.008