Updated: Oct 12, 2020
Despite what we've been told in the past, science now confirms that addiction is a complex brain disease and behavioral disorder which is brought about by multiple factors. Repeatedly doing anything — whether it's using drugs, gambling, shopping, or watching porn — can actually physically rearrange pathways in the brain motivating the person to perform the behavior again and again.
Over time, the brain patterns become stronger and more well connected and a person’s impulse-control, originating from the thinking brain in the frontal-lobe, becomes weaker. This makes a person even more likely to engage in the behavior, further cementing the circuit in their brain and reinforcing the addiction. Anyone who has dealt with addiction knows just how difficult it can be to overcome. Even when a person has a strong desire to quit, gaining control of cravings and the accompanying emotions encouraging the behavior are major obstacles to recovery.
While meditation alone is not an instant cure, it can be an effective tool to helps someone stay on the path of recovery. By practicing meditation regularly, you can shift your perspective towards addiction and change your physical brain in a way that makes you more likely to make choices in your best interest.
Meditation Actually Rewires the Addicted Brain
On a physical level, meditation teaches a person to alter their brain function by changing their thought patterns. It teaches them to shift control to the thinking brain rather than the instinctual, addicted brain. Through neuroplasticity, the ability of the brain to change its structure and function through repeated thought and activity, meditation and mindfulness strengthen connections and pathways in the frontal lobe of the brain that can overrule urges and weakens the addiction circuits. Over time, these changes permanently alter the brain’s form and operation.
Brain scans of meditators show increased activity in the frontal lobe and reduced activity in the amygdala, the instinctual fear center of the brain. According to Frontiers in Human Neuroscience:
"Meditation training may induce learning, that is not stimulus or task-specific but process specific, and thereby may result in enduring changes in mental function.”
According to another study, repeated mindfulness meditation can thicken the bilateral, prefrontal right-insular region of the brain. This is the part of the brain responsible for optimism, creativity, curiosity and the sense of well-being. By strengthening it, you are helping it overpower the parts of the brain motivating you to engage in the addictive behavior.
Meditation Helps a Person Handle Emotions
Meditation teaches a person to passively observe their thoughts and emotions rather than act on them. Detaching from thoughts and observing and calming the mind is at the heart of every meditation philosophy. In this way, the practice is a mental health tool which teaches a person to put time and distance between themselves and their impulses. This pause between urge and action encourages the brain to rewire and helps establish new behaviors. Addicts learn how to calm and soothe themselves without resorting to substance abuse.
The American Journal of Psychiatry has studies documenting correlations between meditation and successful addiction rehabilitation as far back as the 1970s. Specifically, meditation helps the addicted mind in these ways:
A person notices cravings and can address them before they become urgent and overwhelming.
Meditation strengthens a person’s ability to focus their attention, making it easier to let go of cravings.
Meditation helps a person observe, experience, and detach from cravings without having to act on them.
A person who meditates is better able to handle stress, making them less likely to turn to addictive substances as a coping tool in the first place.
A Meditation Specifically for Addiction: Urge Surfing
One type of meditation aimed at overcoming addictive conditioning is called urge surfing. Here’s how it works:
“While meditating, a person dealing with addiction acknowledges an urge to use when it arises. The meditator lets the feeling crest like a wave and visualizes in that way. The urge is looked at something to be expected rather than something to fight or be ashamed of. It’s all part of the process.
The goal is to monitor the urge – watch it rise and fall without giving in to it. Meditative breathing serves as the metaphorical surfboard and lets the person ride on top of the urge and observe it without being sucked in. Over time and with practice, resisting urges starts to become easier.”
At Start Recovery, we understand how addiction takes over in your brain. We also understand the process of changing your brain, through meditation and other tools, to help you recover. Start Recovery will work with you as an individual, putting together a personalised care plan to ensure that you have the best possible information, help, and guidance in your recovery journey from substance abuse, alcoholism or addiction.
Written by Debbie Hampton for Start Recovery.