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These days, there are many options for treating substance abuse and addiction and preventing relapse, through results vary widely. A growing body of research suggests that, for many, meditation, which automatically influences many different levels of mental, physical and spiritual well-being, can be a safe, effective solution for recovery and relapse prevention.

Highlights of mechanisms of action through which Sahaja meditation may help substance abuse include:

  • relieves stress and stress-induced cravings
  • reduces the mind-body stress response, which reduces levels of stress hormones such as norepinephrine, epinephrine, and cortisol
  • enhances overall emotional self-regulation and restores balance and a sense of control
  • reduces emotional reactivity, decreases impulsivity and compulsive, conditioned substance-seeking and substance-taking behaviors
  • relieves symptoms of depression and anxiety, which often co-occur with substance abuse and addiction
  • increases moment-to-moment awareness and mindfulness of cues that trigger drug or alcohol use
  • increases craving tolerance, dampens the influence of cravings
  • dampens or extinguishes the emotional influence of drug cues or triggers
  • enhances resilience and coping skills
  • promotes acceptance, tolerance and forgiveness for self and others
  • improves self-esteem, self-respect and quality of life
  • instills a sense of purposefulness and meaningfulness
  • promotes brain plasticity, allowing us to wire new, healthy neural connections to displace unhealthy brain circuits, and produces a more orderly, more coherent brain, which enhances executive function and promotes healthy decision-making
  • influences neurotransmitters and neurohormones that regulate mental health
  • offers a positive lifestyle alternative and enhances the capacity for resilient and healthy adaptation to a new lifestyle without drugs or alcohol

Improved Mental Health Reduces Substance Use & Prevents Relapse

Generally, mental health problems lie at the root of substance use disorders. For example, factors such as low self-esteem, a sense of meaninglessness, and poor coping skills contribute to establishing and maintaining substance abuse and addiction. Sahaja meditation can reduce or extinguish substance use by improving many different aspects of mental health. Here are a few of them…

Stress Relief

Acute stress is widely known to increase drug and alcohol use and trigger relapse; in fact, stress can play a critical role in establishing addiction and keeping it chronic. Many researchers believe that exposure to stressors can produce an increased emotional arousal state similar to that induced by drug cues. Exposure to substance-related cues or triggers evokes conditioned responses, which in turn, can trigger subsequent drug- or alcohol-seeking behavior (Zgierska et al, 2009; Marlatt & Chawla, 2007; Kabat-Zinn, 1990). Meditation helps diminish cravings, in part, by increasing resilience and reducing the stress response, which reduces the body’s levels of stress hormones (such as norepinephrine, epinephrine, and cortisol), as well as helping to prevent stress-induced cravings and increase the ability to tolerate cravings.

Another way that meditation may help reduce our vulnerability to substance use is by helping reset the body’s regulatory set-points and returning the mind-body to homeostasis or balance after experiencing a stress response. Healthy adaptation to stressors, after all, requires the ability to return all systems and functions to “normal.” Meditation involves, generally, parasympathetic nervous system dominance, a state that can serve an adaptive function (similar to hibernation) by decreasing compulsive drug- or alcohol-seeking behaviors and restoring our capacity for resilience and plasticity (Dakwar, Levin, 2009).

Sahaja meditation’s state of thoughtless awareness has been found to evoke unique patterns of neurophysiological activity in brain regions associated with emotional regulation, heightened attentional skills, and enhanced brain plasticity (Aftanas, Golosheikin, 2003). The result is a more robust long-term mind-body resilience, a hardiness that equips us to weather whatever stressors come our way.

The process of focusing inward and focusing on the present with a nonreactive, nonjudgmental attitude through meditation triggers a shift in perspective, both intellectually and emotionally, allowing us to shed the effects of negative stress and understand the true nature of our stressors. We can view problems clearly and without attaching negative thoughts or feelings, which lowers our defenses and improves self-esteem and self-respect. This, in turn, leads to making better choices and improved overall cognitive functioning, including our ability to make decisions and manage adverse events. When we respect ourselves, we have no need to impress others. So we don’t need drugs or alcohol, for example, to boost confidence in social settings.

Relapse is often triggered by stress and feelings of hopelessness, but the emotional regulation effects of meditation help keep us from getting caught up in a spiral of distress and despair. Meditation elevates mood, promotes optimism and positive emotions, and restores a sense of control.

For a comprehensive look, see how Sahaja meditation helps relieve stressdepression, and anxiety.

Self-Awareness and Mindfulness

Sahaja meditation greatly increases self-awareness and mindfulness, which deepens our understanding of how our thoughts and emotions arise in response to stressors and how we tend to react to them.

Coping skills improve and we’re able to frame problems in the proper perspective, perceive them realistically, and solve them effectively, rather than falling back on old coping mechanisms, such as alcohol or drugs.

Through meditation, we become better able to delink action from impulse, which helps rewire those old reward-motivation neural circuits that have been driving our surrender to unhealthy impulses and cravings for drugs or alcohol.

Delinking allows us to recognize and understand our automatic, reflexive, and unconscious thought and behavior patterns. We’re better able to recognize triggers and extinguish the associated desire to use drugs or alcohol. In time, we begin to generalize and consciously apply healthy, appropriate concepts of delinking to other aspects of our daily lives.

Mindfulness impairments are common in people with substance disorders (Dakwar et al, 2011). Greater self-awareness and mindfulness can help us catch early behavioral, emotional, or cognitive precursors of problem behavior, such as emotional triggers that cause us to drink or use drugs. Mindfulness can be characterized as the ability to control one’s attention to focus on the present moment with curiosity, openness and acceptance, and without the stress of judging it. (For more, see Mindfulness and Sahaja meditation.)

Meditation’s ability to cultivate “moment-to-moment attention,” which aligns with the “one day at a time” maxim, helps protect against relapse. An increased ability to attend to and monitor your thoughts and internal states, for example, may allow you to more effectively navigate drug cravings and cues.

By increasing awareness, emotional and physiological self-regulation, and tolerance of potential relapse triggers, mindfulness enhances our ability to cope with relapse triggers, interrupting those old automatic patterns of substance use behavior. It becomes easier to mobilize the motivation to make healthier choices.

We also become more mindful of the consequences of our behavior, no matter how irrelevant to drug or alcohol use they may seem.

The decreased emotional reactivity brought about by mindfulness increases our capacity for acceptance and allows us to shift from reacting to skillful responding. And in the event of relapse, awareness and acceptance — fostered by mindfulness — can help us recognize and minimize blame, guilt, and negative thinking that only increase the risk of relapse.

Several neuroimaging studies have shown that the regular practice of Sahaja meditation increases traits such as self-awareness, mindfulness and emotional intelligence by increasing gray matter volume in the brain (Hernández et al, 2016) and by exerting top-down emotional regulation, improving our ability to appraise the emotional-motivational significance of events without overreacting or surrendering to impulse (Reva et al, 2014). With the regular practice of meditation, this ability may gradually become automatic.

People with dual diagnoses (e.g., depression and substance use disorders) often share common neurobiological and behavioral problems. Ruminative thought patterns, for example, which are heavily linked to depression, have also been linked to substance disorders. Mindfulness through meditation can address both disorders simultaneously, for example, by helping dually-diagnosed people decrease avoidance, tolerate unpleasant withdrawal and stress-related emotional states, and “unlearn” maladaptive behaviors such as rumination (Brewer et al, 2010). Rumination involves intrusive negative thought patterns, such as rehashing past mistakes again and again, which repeatedly triggers self-damaging, negative feelings such as guilt, blame or resentment.

The attentional regulation benefits produced by Sahaja meditation help substance users choose what they pay attention to. Present-centered attentional focus moves a meditator away from the habitual default-mode thought process, which ultimately manifests in behavior.

Acceptance

An increased capacity for acceptance can reduce alcohol or drug-taking behaviors. Often, substance abuse is just a destructive adaptation to painful feelings or thoughts that we are attempting to avoid. The ability to accept distressing thoughts lessens emotional reactivity and our attempts to avoid or suppress experiences, both of which are heavily linked to worsened outcomes in people with substance use disorders (Brewer et al, 2010). It becomes easier to extricate ourselves from self-damaging thought patterns when, through meditation, we are able to accept the thought or emotion at its source without judgment.

Meditation teaches us purposeful control of attention. The “observe and accept” aspect of meditation refers to being fully present and attentive to current experience without being pre-occupied by it.

Sahaja meditation allows us to appraise distressing situations with detachment and objective, nonjudgmental awareness, which reduces the associated stress. The stressor is recast in a more neutral light, which eliminates its negative emotional significance; thus, subsequently, our emotional reactivity.

Non-attached observation allows us to let go of, or disengage from, an automatic cascade of negative thoughts by shifting our perspective of uncomfortable or unpleasant thoughts as a “real” or “true” reflection of the self to viewing them simply as “transient mental events.” Cultivating this ability can also be helpful in extinguishing drug or alcohol cues and reducing emotional reactivity in the face of craving states.

One study of alcohol- and cocaine-dependent individuals found that meditation decreases anxiety and drug cravings during stress, while allowing meditators to remain fully engaged with their experiences (Drummond, Glautier, 1994).

Researchers found that, ultimately, through acceptance of both mood- and substance-related ruminative thought patterns, meditation may offer greater efficacy for people with co-occurring depressive and substance use disorders, where other treatments fail.

Forgiveness and Recovery

Forgiveness has often been correlated with successful recovery. Many psychologists believe that forgiveness progresses through three phases: from emotional to cognitive to behavioral (Gordon et al, 2003; Webb, Toussaint, 2003). In other words, forgiving feelings may lead to forgiving thoughts and ultimately to forgiving behaviors.

One study examined the correlation between alcoholism recovery and three aspects of forgiveness: forgiveness For Others, For Self, By God (Webb et al, 2006). While acknowledging that different people have different understandings of — and histories with — the term forgiveness that might complicate generalizations, the study found that the ability to forgive and feel forgiven was heavily correlated with successful recovery for people entering substance abuse treatment programs. In the study, forgiveness was defined as “an internal process undertaken by the victim that does not require retribution, restitution, reconciliation or a return to vulnerability, and reserves the right to hold an offender accountable.”

Successful recovery was more significantly correlated with forgiveness By Self and By Others than for forgiveness By God. Forgiveness By God was the easiest of the three for alcoholics to experience, followed by forgiving others. Forgiveness for others was found to increase moderately over time. Older, more mature alcoholics experienced forgiveness by God more easily than younger people. While forgiveness is commonly associated with religion and spirituality, findings in this study suggested that this is not necessarily always the case.

For Self scores for alcoholics entering treatment were significantly lower than For Others and By God scores. Both before and after treatment, self-forgiveness was found to be the most critical of the three types for successful recovery, but also the most difficult to achieve. Researchers found that self-forgiveness was, in fact, be required for full recovery, since it was heavily associated with relapses in those who required long recovery periods.

Self-forgiveness is often one of the culprits behind rumination. Sahaja meditation teaches us to objectively acknowledge and release those intrusive negative thoughts and feelings that commonly accompany both depression and substance use.

Neurobiological Perspectives of Meditation and Substance Addiction

Neurotransmitters and neurohormones

Substance use stimulates the release of serotonin, dopamine, and other opioid peptides that produce pleasurable feelings such as euphoria, a sensation of being rewarded, and a sense of well-being. But over time, heavy substance use can deplete our stores of dopamine, which regulates our pleasure-reward-motivation circuitry (including addiction-related circuits), and serotonin, the feel-good neurotransmitter that regulates mood, happiness and sense of well-being and is associated with behaviors such as eating, sleep, information processing, appetite and satiety. Thus, persistent alcohol or drug use eventually fails to boost mood and it takes more and more to achieve “reward,” to duplicate the last high. The brain responds with depression or anxiety, the emotional equivalents of physical pain. By then, the substance abuser has been conditioned to believe that the substance will improve his spirits, even though it doesn’t, or at least, not for long. Negative moods and the psychological component of addiction continue to tempt users to use, even after physical withdrawal symptoms have abated. So they keep using, despite the futility and their knowledge of the damage being done.

Long-term abuse of alcohol and drugs has widespread negative effects on the brain, brain chemistry and blood flow. Abuse produces brain chemical imbalances and negatively affects neurotransmission, or communication between cells. For example, high tolerance for alcohol is often associated with abnormal levels of serotonin.

When someone who has become chemically dependent on alcohol or drugs stops drinking or using drugs, the brain seeks to restore what it perceives to be equilibrium. The chemical response creates an agitated, overexcited nervous system by adjusting the level of neurochemicals that inhibit impulsivity, stress and excitation. When substance use is stopped, the brain produces more norepinephrine. High norepinephrine levels can trigger withdrawal symptoms, such as increased blood pressure and heart rate. This autonomic nervous system hyperactivity produces an intense desire to use more drugs or alcohol to “calm down.”

Meditation has a positive influence on the neurotransmitters and neurohormones responsible for regulating health and well-being, both during meditation and after. Meditation restores a sense of general well-being and positive emotions that are likely mediated, at least in part, by its ability to regulate mood-stabilizing neurohormones and neurotransmitters (e.g., dopamine, serotonin, and melatonin) in limbic (emotional) brain regions (Newberg, A., Iverson, J., 2003).

(For an in-depth look at the specific effects of meditation on brain chemistry, see Evidence of Meditation’s Impact on Neurotransmitters & Neurohormones.)

Re-wiring Neural Circuitry

One study revealed neurophysiological evidence that long-term practitioners of Sahaja meditation have reduced emotional reactivity to stressful events, increased resilience and better coping skills than non-practitioners, which would help prevent stress-induced substance use and/or relapse.

Sahaja meditation was found to promote brain plasticity. Meditation allows us to wire new, healthy reward-motivation neural connections and displace unhealthy ones and build a more orderly, more coherent brain, which enhances executive function and promotes healthy decision-making (Aftanas, Golocheikine, 2005).

EEG studies of coherence (“orderliness”) and “long-distance” connectivity between disparate brain regions during Sahaja meditation show that Sahaja’s state of thoughtless awareness produces better balanced, better integrated functioning of the left and right cerebral hemispheres. Not only does hemispheric balance ultimately enhance executive brain function by producing more holistic, whole-brain, synchronized thinking, which increases our ability to act consciously and rationally, rather than simply reacting. Balance also helps reduce emotional reactivity and dampens the emotional salience (prominence or awareness) of drug cues, which helps prevent relapse. And in experienced Sahaja meditators, these changes in brain activity have been found to persist beyond the state of meditation, remaining in effect at followup several months later (Aftanas, Golocheikine, 2005). Meditation may actually alter the fundamental electrical balance between the brain’s cerebral hemispheres, altering emotional processing on an ongoing basis (Cahn and Polich, 2006).

Meditation influences functioning of the default mode network (DMN), the brain’s “standby” mode that kicks in when we’re at rest, idling, daydreaming, or our attention lapses. The DMN has also been associated with ruminative and obsessive thinking. In fact, overactivation of the DMN has been associated with mental health disorders, such as Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder,  depression, anxiety, autism, schizophrenia and Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. The DMN is located in the medial prefrontal and posterior cingulate cortex), brain regions that play a role in linking our personal experiences across time, holding our memories of self-traits, our reflected self- knowledge, and our aspirations for the future — in other words, our past, present, and future selves.

This narrative self reference helps create our sense of identity and gives us psychological continuity over time, which is what keeps us sane. But it also makes stress reactivity and rumination possible (Brewer et al, 2010).

Several studies have found that regular Sahaja Meditators can switch off irrelevant neural circuitry in order to maintain focused, internalized attention and to inhibit negative, intrusive or distracting information (Aftanas, Golocheikine, 2001, 2002, 2005). The fact that experienced meditators may be able to regulate the DMN and brain regions associated with self-monitoring and cognitive control both during meditation and while resting, suggests that they are ultimately able to develop a new default mode, which can reduce or eliminate cravings, alter motivations, and modify what their brains are wired to view as “reward.”

Meditation disrupts the patterns of motivational toxicity found in addiction in which the ability of normal rewards to govern behavior has deteriorated. Purer motivational drives are restored and the mind is freed to pursue higher motivational needs.

Clinical Evidence of Meditation’s Impact on Substance Abuse & Addiction

Following are a few studies that demonstrate how meditation helps relieve substance abuse and addiction.

  • A study of 501 drug abusing college students in Vienna who practiced Sahaja Yoga Meditation for one year found that 97 percent stopped using drugs — 42 percent after the first week of meditation, and 32 percent after the first month. Participants were divided into three groups: 1) Sahaja meditation practice; 2) listening to the music of Mozart; 3) no-treatment control group. Both the music and meditation groups also showed improvement in anxiety at 8 weeks (as assessed by the State-Trait Anxiety Inventory). However, the Sahaja group reduced state anxiety by 40 percent, compared to the Mozart group’s 20 percent reduction. A similar but significantly smaller reduction occurred with trait or background anxiety (Hackyl, 1995).
  • A 12-week study examining the effect of Sahaja meditation on nutritional assessment of 60 university students found that Sahaja had a significant effect on the alcohol and drug assessment component, compared to the assessments of non-meditating controls (Choudhary, 2010).
  • A meta-analysis of 198 substance abuse studies examining the impact of Transcendental Meditation found that TM produced a significantly larger reduction in tobacco, alcohol, and drug use than standard substance abuse treatments and prevention programs. A few studies showed a gradual decrease in the use of drugs and alcohol up to 90 percent for participants who practiced TM for two years. While the effects of traditional programs often “wear off” within 3-6 months, the effects of meditation were found to increase with time, with total abstinence from tobacco, alcohol, and non-prescribed drugs ranging from 51 to 89 percent over an 18 – 22 month period. The success of the meditation program was thought to result primarily from naturally occurring improvements in participants’ psychophysiological functioning (Gelderloos et al, 1991; Alexander et al, 1994).
  • A clinical study examining the role of Transcendental, Buddhist and Mindfulness meditation in treating substance abuse disorders identified several mechanisms through which meditation may work: extinguishing cues or the influence of triggers, reducing cravings and compulsive behaviors, and promoting healthier and more resilient choices. The spiritual and religious dimensions of meditation were found to help promote abstinence and better, overall health. Researchers suggested that meditation’s ability to provide a metaphysical framework and a transcendent sense of self may add meaning and coherence to a person’s life, as well as spiritually mediated self-efficacy that is, the ability to produce the desired result.

Preventing Alcohol and Drug Relapse Through Meditation

Meditation has been shown to increase self-awareness and increase coping skills when it comes to recognizing triggers and overcoming the desire to return to a lifestyle of misusing drugs or alcohol. Several studies have demonstrated that meditation can help prevent relapse, both as a standalone therapy or in conjunction with standard treatment programs…

  • A study of 168 adults with substance use disorders who had recently completed intensive treatment found that an 8-week outpatient Mindfulness Meditation program, incorporated into an established relapse prevention program, produced lower relapse rates in the four months following treatment than traditional treatment alone. Meditation participants also demonstrated greater decreases in craving and increases in acceptance and acting with awareness. Meditation was also shown to help addicts cope with mental health issues, including trauma, anxiety and depression (Bowen et al, 2009).
  • A study of substance abusers found that a Buddhist form of meditation called Vipassana reduced rates of alcohol, marijuana and crack cocaine abuse in released prisoners who had not succeeded in traditional addiction treatment programs (Bowen et al, 2006).
  • A small study of alcohol-dependent adults showed that Mindfulness Meditation, following treatment, helped prevent relapse with no side effects. Participants meditated for an average of 4.6 days per week for 8 weeks. In the 8-week period, 47 percent reported complete abstinence; 47 percent reported 1 or more heavy drinking days. Overall, participants were abstinent on 94.5 percent of meditation days. As the degree of mindfulness increased, anxiety, negative stress and depression severity decreased, along with the number of relapse triggers. Levels of stress biomarkers decreased: slight decrease in cortisol and significant decrease in interleukin-6, which is an indicator of oxidative stress, inflammation and “frailty syndrome” or increased vulnerability for diseases and mortality. Meditation’s ability to reduce stress and increase the capacity to cope with cravings were found to be the most critical factors (Zgierska et al, 2008).

Meditation as an Alternative Lifestyle Choice

As a lifestyle choice, meditation is a positive alternative to alcohol or drug usage. Ultimately, following the path to self-growth and building a meaningful life eliminates the desire for the temporary rush or heightened stimulation offered by alcohol and drugs.

Most people find that the length of time practicing meditation tends to be proportional to the decrease in drug or alcohol use, thus regular meditators are likely to experience greater decreases in substance use and cravings. For those who meditate regularly, entering the meditative state may become a highly reinforced alternative to using drugs or alcohol. And because relapse often occurs with 3 to 6 months after treatment, adopting meditation as a lifestyle choice can be a safe, effective solution that not only aids recovery but provides a buffer against relapse.

For meditation strategies for dealing with Addiction, see our blog posts on Addiction:

  • Meditation strategies for dealing with Addiction – Part 1

    Cognitive and other strategies for dealing with Addiction – Part 2

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