If you’re suffering from addiction, remember that you’re not alone. In the USA, for example, 23 million are addicted to alcohol or other drugs. And over two-thirds of people who suffer from addiction abuse alcohol.
The good news is, help is available. If you’ve tried and failed at overcoming your addiction, don’t give up. There’s hope, with all the support out there. Mindfulness is one of many ways to overcome addiction.
Not sure whether you’re suffering from addiction? It can be hard to admit if you’re addicted to something. But recognizing and accepting your addiction is the first step in change. Ask yourself the following questions:
- Do you use more of the substance or participate in the activity more now than in the past?
- Do you experience urges or withdrawal symptoms when you don’t have the substance or activity?
- Do you ever lie to others about your use of the substance or your behavior?
Mindfulness itself is an ancient practice, going back at least 2,500 years. But, clinically speaking, mindfulness is a new approach for overcoming addiction, and the evidence for the approach is at the very early stages of being gathered, although it’s positive so far.
A mindful approach to addictionOnce you’re addicted, your actions are the opposite of mindful: they’re automatic. This example describes a process that happens almost unconsciously each time you smoke a cigarette:
- You’re sitting at work on your desk and you feel a bit lethargic and tired.
- You feel the urge to smoke a cigarette. It’s actually a physical sensation in your body, but usually you don’t know where the sensation is in your body.
- You immediately think: "I need to smoke." (You don’t often consciously register this thought – it just happens in your brain.)
- You very quickly find yourself standing up and walking out of the building with the packet of cigarettes and a lighter in your hands (usually without awareness – a conscious choice is rarely made).
- The act of taking a cigarette out, lighting it and drawing in the smoke happens quickly and automatically (you may be lost in other thoughts).
- The urge is satisfied for now and the lethargy gone. You’re rewarded with a feeling of pleasure (dopamine is released in your brain). The cycle repeats again in a few hours.
You discover that just because you have an urge to do something doesn’t mean you have to do it. You can just experience the urge until it passes.
Addiction and the brainMost scientists now consider addiction a long-term disease. This is because addiction changes the structure and function of the brain. Just as a piece of clay changes when you squeeze it, so the brain’s internal structure changes with addiction.
Changes happen in the brain due to the experience of pleasure and consequent action. When you experience anything pleasurable, the brain releases dopamine. A delicious meal, receiving money or taking a drug all result in a dopamine release. The greater the intensity, speed and reliability of dopamine release, the greater the chance of addiction.
Drugs cause a massive surge of dopamine in your brain. This begins to make changes in the way the memory, motivation and survival system areas of your brain work. This is how just wanting the substance turns into a compulsion. Addiction is much more than just a desire.The huge surge of dopamine creates the experience of pleasure and overwhelms your brain. Your brain isn’t designed to deal with so much dopamine. The ability to experience pleasure diminishes as your pleasure system gets overloaded and, to some extent, damaged. You need more of the substance or activity to get the same experience of pleasure.
At this point, compulsion takes over. Your memory reminds you of the past pleasure you experienced, and you are compelled to recreate that experience by taking more of the substance or further engaging in the behavior.
This is why addiction is so powerful and how everyday willpower doesn’t seem to help.
Urge surfing: The mindful key to unlocking addictionOne brilliant way of managing the urges that arise in addiction is called urge surfing. It’s a different way of meeting the reactive behavior of addiction. Acting on strong cravings, when in an automatic pilot mode, doesn’t help you in the long term. By urge surfing, you don’t have to act on the urge or craving that you experience.
The steps when you have an urge are:
- Find a comfortable posture. You can sit, lie down, or even walk slowly – whatever you prefer. See whether you can relax your body a little and let go of any areas of tension. Begin by taking a deep breath and slowly breathing out.
- Notice that you have an urge to smoke, drink, gamble or whatever else it is for you.
- Be mindful of your body. Turn your attention to your physical bodily sensations. Where do you feel this urge in your body? Is it in one particular place or is it all over your body? What’s does the urge actually feel like?
- Be mindful of your thoughts. Notice and acknowledge the thoughts that are arising for you right now. Is it a familiar pattern of thoughts? Are they negative or judgemental thoughts? See whether you can step back from those thoughts, as if you’re an observer of the experience, rather than getting too caught up in the thoughts, if you can. Watch the thoughts like bubbles floating away.
- Be mindful of your feelings. Notice the feeling of the urge. The feeling may be very uncomfortable. That doesn’t make it bad or good – it’s just the nature of the feeling. Notice your judgement of ‘I like this experience’ or ‘I don’t like this experience’. Remember that the feeling isn’t dangerous or threatening in itself.
- Allow the experience to be as it is. See whether you can be with the experience without a need to get rid of it or to react to it by engaging in the behavior that’s not helpful for you. Just practise being with the experience, the urge, the craving, the compulsion, in the present moment.
- Notice how the urge is changing. Perhaps the urge is increasing or decreasing for you. Maybe it’s staying just the same.
- If the urge is increasing, imagine a wave in the ocean approaching a beach. The waves rises higher and higher. But once it reaches its peak, it begins to come down again. Imagine your urge is like the wave. It’ll continue to grow in intensity but will then naturally go down again. It won’t keep growing forever. See whether you can just be present with the urge as it rises and falls. Ride the wave. You may even like to imagine yourself surfing the wave, the urge. Make use of your breathing. Keep ‘surfing that urge’. Perhaps see your breath like a surf board that supports you as you surf the wave of your urge.
- Notice how you’ve managed to surf this urge for all this time. This tool is always available for you, no matter how strong your urge or however intense your emotion or whatever thoughts arise for you.
Try reflecting on what you really want when you’re in the midst of your craving. Usually it’s not the substance or behavior you’re craving. Maybe you’re feeling lonely or stressed? Or maybe you want freedom from circumstances or emotions at this time?Think of your urge like a tantrum that a child has. If you give the child a sweet, they’ll quieten down. But they’ve learned to be rewarded for screaming. So before long they’ll have another tantrum. So what’s the solution? Just to be nice to them, but don’t to give them any sweets. Eventually the tantrum will stop.
The next time they start screaming, if , again, you just hold them or hug them but don’t give them any sweets, the tantrum will end sooner. Eventually they’ll stop having tantrums altogether. Being kind to the child without giving them sweets is like being mindful of your urge without satisfying your urge.
Each time you ride out your urge, your craving gets weaker. Each time you satisfy that urge with a smoke or a drink, for example, you strengthen your craving. Every small effort you make counts.If you want to boost your willpower, try one of the following ideas suggested by Kelly McGonigal, author of a fabulous book called The Willpower Instinct, Avery Publishing Group, 2013:
- Get enough sleep. Aim for around eight hours if possible.
- Mediate daily.
- Even a few minutes of walking is a great idea. You don’t have to be too intensive. Make it mindful walking to make it even more powerful.
- Slow down your breathing to four to six full breaths a minute – that can boost your willpower when you need it.
How to manage relapse: The surprising secret for successAs someone once told me: ‘I’ve been a smoker for 20 years. I’ve given up hundreds of times.’
Most people who want to give up an addiction are able to stop for a short period, but in a moment of difficulty or mindlessness they begin using the object of their addiction again. This is to be expected. Everyone’s human and will mistakenly go back to the drug, drink or whatever.
How do you treat yourself when you have a relapse? Most people think that if they’re hard on themselves when they accidentally relapse, they’ll get better. In fact, amazingly, the opposite has been found to be true in research.
Studies have found one of secrets of those that manage to give up long term: self-compassion. For example, people addicted to alcohol were less likely to have a major relapse if they were more forgiving of themselves when they had a drink.
The more kind and forgiving you can be with yourself when you relapse, the more likely it is that the relapse be a one-off. But if you beat yourself up, thinking, “Oh, I’m such an idiot. I can’t even give up drinking. I’ll never do it,” the worse you feel. And the worse you feel, the more you feel the need to find some false comfort in your addiction.This is a powerful approach if you’re dealing with an addiction. When you do manage to give up, let’s say a drug, for a few days, congratulate yourself each day. And when you end up relapsing on a bad day, tell yourself that you’ve made a one-off mistake and can go back to being drug-free again. Remind yourself that you’ve had four days of no drugs and one day having taken the drug. That’s four out of five – pretty good!
See whether you can manage a few more days without the substance – see whether you can sit with that urge a bit longer. See whether you can take the time to meditate, perhaps simply feeling your breathing, for a couple more minutes today. Be extra nice to yourself.
Improving yourself is a constant process. Be kind to yourself as you grow.