Mindfulness therapy works to successfully rewire brain during addiction recovery

Mindfulness therapy works to successfully rewire brain during addiction recovery

September 04, 2019

Mindfulness therapy works to successfully rewire brain during addiction recovery


After habitual substance abuse, studies have shown that the brain actually rewires itself to accommodate the addiction, relying less on normal “rewards” in life and more on the drug. This is why many substance-addicted individuals tend to value nothing more in life other than the substance that they are dependent on.

However, a recent article published in the journal Neuroscience and Bio behavioral Reviews revealed that not only the substance itself, but addictive behaviors can also rewire the brain over time. Just like an addictive substance teaches the mind how to become dependent on it, the experience of the drug itself and the behaviors associated with it also impact habitual cognitive patterns in the brain.

Addiction reduces sensitivity to natural rewards

Addictive substances do not only rewrite the brain to make it more sensitive to the rewards from its addiction, but also decreases their sensitivity to natural rewards such as validation, love, etc. Even when the use of a substance is discontinued, the rewired structure of the brain forces the person into thinking like the one still addicted craving the drug and triggering thoughts of relapse.

Although detox drugs can mask these cravings temporarily, the brain needs more time to rewire itself and end the addictive thought processes. Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) seeks to increase the awareness of the cues that trigger cravings and equip the person with healthier thought processes and behavioral patterns.

Mindfulness-based CBT more effective in treating addiction

Although CBT is effective in its own right, it is limited in the sense that it only addresses the conscious thoughts and behaviors prolonging addiction. Mindfulness-based CBT encourages patients to become more aware of their subconscious cues triggering their addiction by increasing awareness of their physical and emotional signals. By practicing mindfulness, the person is trained to become aware of normally subconscious processes such as breathing and heart rate. Over time, they develop the ability to notice thought processes and behavioral patterns that are normally not perceived at a conscious level.

Many triggers exist in the brains of those addicted to substances that they are not consciously aware of. For example, a person’s alcohol addiction may have developed due to the loss of a loved one. Seeing people with the same hair color or a look similar to them can subconsciously trigger their addiction without them even realizing it. Mindfulness meditation provides a way of focusing on the present moment in a non-judgmental and non-reactive way, reducing the clutter of the conscious mind and allowing the more subtle subconscious processes to surface. Mindfulness-based CBT would allow the person to identify the negative conditioned response, equipping them with the tools to alter their behavior and rewrite the brain’s neural networks.

Mindfulness and addiction

Mindfulness in addiction is more prevalent than ever considering that recent studies from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) have shown a lack of mindfulness to be associated with substance abuse. The study surveyed 107 adults undergoing addiction treatment for substance abuse. It looked at two components of mindfulness: decentering and curiosity. Decentering refers to the process of stepping back and observing one’s surroundings while curiosity refers to the introspection that meditation affords oneself.

The survey measured levels of mindfulness in non-addicted people as well, scoring an 11.93 on the decentering portion of the scale versus a 6.78 for the people undergoing treatment. Non-addicted people also scored higher in the curiosity section with an average of 13.72 versus 5.58 for the substance-dependent group. The study suggested that individuals addicted to substances were half as mindful as “normal” people and had a lower stress tolerance. Moreover, the practice of not being able to distance themselves from their issues could have resulted from a tendency of being willfully unaware of their own thoughts and actions because of substance use.

Seeking addiction treatment

The tendency to push away their problems is greatly benefitted by mindfulness. Mindfulness CBT forces people to introspectively explore and examine their thoughts, teaching them ways to cope with their issues versus simply avoiding them. With this in mind, a lack of mindfulness in itself can be considered a prerequisite for the development of an addiction.

If you or someone you know is showing symptoms of an addiction to a drug, alcohol, or any other substance, it is advisable to seek help from professionals at Invictus Health Group. A leading network with partners in the addiction industry, we can assist you with relevant information about addiction treatment programs. Call our 24/7 helpline (866) 548-0190 to find the best residential addiction facilities. You can also chat online with a representative for further assistance.

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