Fairly quickly, it can produce beneficial results for many mental health challenges, ranging from depression and anxiety to age-related decline. Meditation has proven especially helpful in recovery from addiction and in preventing relapse.
The benefits of the ancient practice, once viewed as “out there” and “alternative”, have been thoroughly validated by science. On a physical level, a person is learning to alter the way their brain functions by changing their thought patterns. Through neuroplasticity, the ability of the brain to change its structure and function through repeated thought and activity, meditation and mindfulness strengthen connections and expand pathways in the brain that are frequently used while weakening and shrinking those areas rarely engaged. These changes permanently alter the brain’s form and operation.
Brain scans of meditators show increased activity in the frontal lobes, the rational brain, and reduced activity in the amygdala, the 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.”
In studies, just eight weeks of training in meditation decreases amygdala response to provoking stimuli in people even when they’re not meditating.
The benefits of meditation and mindfulness are not limited to the brain. Meditation has been shown to strengthen the immune system, reduce blood pressure and the risk of stroke, minimize pain sensitivity, enhance cognitive function, and even grow a bigger brain. I think doctors should prescribe meditation, not medication.)
The Neurological Benefits of Meditation
- Meditation Reduces Activity in the Brain’s “Me Center” – Research has shown that mindfulness meditation decreases activity in the brain’s default mode network (DMN). The DMN is responsible for that busy “monkey mind”, mind-wandering, and self-referential thoughts.
- The Effects of Meditation Rival Antidepressants for Depression, Anxiety – A meta-analysis found that meditation reduced symptoms of depression and anxiety equivalent to antidepressants.
- Meditation Causes Volume Changes in Key Brain Areas – A Harvard study found that eight weeks of Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) increased cortical thickness in the hippocampus, which governs learning and memory, and in certain parts of the brain dealing with emotion regulation and self-referential processing. The study also confirmed decreases in the size of the amygdala, which is the brain’s fear and anxiety command center.
- Meditation Improves Concentration and Attention – One study found that just a couple of weeks of meditation training helped people’s focus and memory during the verbal reasoning section of the GREs.
- Meditation Reduces Anxiety – Research determined that mindfulness meditation can reduce anxiety by affecting changes in brain regions associated with thoughts about the self. Mindfulness meditation has also proven helpful in reducing social anxiety disorder.
- Meditation Helps Preserve An Aging Brain – One study found that long-term meditators had younger looking and functioning brains than non-meditators as they aged.
How Meditation Helps With Addiction
The American Journal of Psychiatry has studies documenting correlations between meditation and successful addiction rehabilitation as far back as the 1970s. Regardless of the specific teaching, detaching from thoughts and observing and calming the self is always at the heart of every meditation philosophy.
In this sense, 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 actually encourages the brain to rewire and helps establish new behaviors. Addicts learn how to calm and soothe themselves without resorting to substance abuse.
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.
Research on the use of meditation for addiction relief is still in its infancy, but the results so far are very promising. Studies have shown meditation to aid in cigarette and substance abuse addiction and relapse.
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.
Meditation Groups For Addicts
This website was developed by David Shannahoff-Khalsa, a research scientist at the University of California, San Diego who specializes in treating psychiatric disorders with Kundalini Yoga. He has developed a protocol using Kundalini Yoga meditation to treat obsessive compulsive disorders and addiction. These techniques can also help improve mental concentration and mental stability, reduce anxiety and depression, and promote a deep sense of inner peace. The protocol uses unique intense active meditative breathing, chanting, and movement techniques (all while sitting in a chair), and is available for purchase on videotape on his website.
In addition, Dr. Shannahoff-Khalsa has an article describing a specific Kundalini Yoga meditation technique for treating addictive disorders that is available online, which has proven helpful in reducing the obsessive thinking and cravings that often lead to relapse.
Founded by George Haas, who is also an individual in recovery, Mettagroup offers mindfulness meditation skills based on 2600-year-old Buddhist teachings adapted specifically for addiction recovery. These skills help to rewire the deep automatic responses of the brain and are focused on living more peacefully, compassionately and wisely. Daily live guided meditations via conference call or archived are available six days a week ($35 per month) as well as one-on-one mentoring via Skype (1/2 hour sessions twice a month for $200 or four times a month for $400).
Hazelden Foundation mobile applications feature their best-selling daily meditation books, Twenty-Four Hours a Day, Each Day a New Beginning, A Day at a Time, Food for Thought, and Touchstones. The apps feature the complete collection of thoughts, meditations, and prayers.
This post originally appeared on Breaking the Cycles: Changing the Conversation with Lisa Frederiksen.