Healing the Addict Brain with Mindfulness Meditation
I’m always looking to up my wellness game in some form or another and for a long time I have been playing with the idea of integrating a mindfulness meditation routine. However, true to form, I have been subconsciously waiting for things to get just bad enough before deciding to develop a new habit or utilize a certain tool that I consciously know has helped millions to improve their health and wellbeing.
My justifications for procrastinating in matters that can have a dramatic impact on my recovery generally goes something like, “I’ve already got some much to accomplish in a given day – work, study, write, exercise, cook and clean, on top of prioritizing sleep and spending time with my fiancé and pup – that there is absolutely no way I can afford to allocate 30 minutes to meditation.” I have been reciting this and similar excuses for years now. Ironically, I have come to the realization on several occasions that when I do take the time to develop my practice, my ability to complete these “everyday” tasks dramatically improves and I can complete them more efficiently and effectively than I would be able to otherwise.
Today is the day that I listen to the universe and my intuition, get out of my comfort zone a little and take the steps necessary to launch my health, wellness and recovery into the next dimension. But, similarly true to form, before I commit myself to anything I am compelled to do a little bit of research to find out if there is any weight to the supposed benefits of a mindfulness meditation routine.
Meditation and the Brain
There has been a surge in research lately that attempts to identify the “hard” benefit of meditation, but two that I found particularly interesting focus on the effects of meditation on brain structure and function. The first study, originally published in the journal NeuroReport, found that meditation can generate structural changes in the regions of the brain that are important in sensory, cognitive and emotional processing while reducing the impact of age-related declines in cortical structure. The second study, published in Oxford Journals, found that, “meditation training can enhance various cognitive processes, such as emotional regulation, executive control and attention.”
Executive control or function is the umbrella term for the management of cognitive process, which include: memory, reasoning, task flexibility and problem solving.
Promising, but why is this information specifically relevant to those of us in recovery?
Alcohol and the Brain
In our previous discussion Alcohol Metabolism 301: Brain Dysfunction and Disease we discussed the impact that alcohol can have upon neurotransmitter production that are important in motor function, energy production and mood. In addition to this, alcohol can impact our ability to learn, remember and problem-solve – all the executive functions that we just learned are improved with meditation.
Also, chronic AND acute exposure to alcohol disrupts brain structure and function in the prefrontal cortex, which is the area of the brain whose function helps us weigh the relative risks and benefits of our behavior and normally protects us from risky or dangerous action or those that may be inappropriate during social situations. In other words, “the normal risk/benefit assessment that this brain region engages in is disrupted.” In other words, meditation can improve our decision-making ability, which may have been previously impaired by even one night of use.
Meditation for the Addict Brain
Call me crazy, but it seems that, based on the research above, meditation can reverse the affects that alcohol has upon the brain, specifically the prefrontal cortex, which is critical in our ability to learn, remember, problem-solve, pay attention, manage mood, and act appropriately in social situation.
If you didn’t think it could get any better than this, a recent study published in the Journal of Addiction Medicine found that, “meditation may be an effective adjunctive therapy for relapse prevention in alcohol dependence.” According to the study’s author, Dr. Aleksandra Zgierska, “People have been using mindfulness meditation techniques for thousands of years, including for addiction,” whose benefits have simply never been researched before.
Layer this science on top of the spiritual benefit of mindfulness meditation and we have an almost flawless argument for the integration of mindfulness meditation into a holistic recovery program and the treatment of substance abuse.
Since I am just about to undertake a mindfulness meditation practice, I am in no position to provide recommendations for how, when and where to start your practice. However, a trusted advisor pointed me in the direction of John Kabat-Zinn who has helped millions of people from every socio-economic platform develop a mindfulness meditation practice and improve their physical, emotional and spiritual wellbeing.
Here is a pretty cool little talk that John Kabat-Zinn gave at Google headquarters not too long ago where he discusses a little bit of meditation theory and its benefits, in addition to walking us through a quick guided meditation. This talk is definitely a good starting point the newbies like me.
A few of my favorite points, include:
“It’s not what you know. It’s what your willing to know you don’t know.”
“Meditation is an adventure in finding out who we are.”
“Meditation is an act of love. In fact, meditation is an act of sanity.”
There are many avenues towards health, wellness and meaningful recovery and mindfulness meditation is just one tool that can help you along the way.
Image courtesy of The Raw Story