Developing Awareness to Overcome Craving and Addiction

In an earlier blog post, I discussed how cravings are formed and how mindfulness breaks the link between addictive behaviour and perceived rewards, drawing on the work of Jud Brewer. author of The Craving Mind: Why We Get Hooked and How We Can Break Bad Habits. In a subsequent post, I discussed barriers to sustaining mindfulness practice and a four-step mindfulness practice for overcoming cravings and addictions.

In a recent presentation on the Brain Change Summit hosted by Sounds True, Jud elaborated further on how mindfulness breaks the “habit loop” of craving and addiction. He spoke of the “wedge of awareness” that mindfulness drives between a trigger (such as stress or negative emotion) and our habituated reactivity. He explained that mindfulness effectively disrupts the reward-based learning that is embedded in the craving/addiction cycle. In his view, mindfulness progressively establishes three different levels of awareness which he calls the “three gears of awareness”.

The three gears of awareness

Research undertaken by Jud and his colleagues demonstrates that if people are able to sustain meditation practice, they can realise a deepening level of inner awareness that breaks down the trigger-reward cycle involved in craving and addiction. Jud describes this progression in awareness in terms of three gears that release the power and potentiality of a person by enabling them to “move up a gear” – effectively changing the relationship between a trigger and the behavioural response. The three gears of awareness developed through mindfulness can be explained as follows:

  1. First gear: awareness of a “habit loop” – becoming conscious of the connection between a trigger, a behaviour and a reward that underlies a specific craving or addiction. The first step to breaking a habit is understanding how it is formed.
  2. Second gear: disillusionment with the reward – becoming aware that the “reward” does not work. For example, being mindful of your bodily sensations (taste, smell, touch) as you have a cigarette can make you realise how “disgusting” the cigarettes are. One respondent in a relevant mindfulness research project said (after paying attention to her bodily sensations when smoking), that her cigarette “smells like stinking cheese and tastes like chemicals”.
  3. Third gear: breaking free of the “caught up-ness” of the habit loop – works through a process of substitution of a better and higher reward. Through mindfulness you access your natural capacity to be “curious” – to observe and explore your emotions and reactions and name your feelings. Curiosity without habituated reactivity leads to a sense of expansiveness, peace of mind and equanimity – a higher level reward than flight behaviour. Jud suggests that R.A.I.N. meditation, breathing into strong emotions and loving kindness meditation can activate this third gear.

As we grow in mindfulness through meditation we can become aware of the habit loop reinforcing our craving or addiction, re-evaluate the rewards inherent in our habituated responses and begin to experience the freedom and peace which comes from the ability to be curious about our inner world, while being reaction-free.

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Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

By Ron Passfield – Copyright (Creative Commons license, Attribution–Non Commercial–No Derivatives)

Disclosure: If you purchase a product through this site, I may earn a commission which will help to pay for the site, the associated Meetup group and the resources to support the blog.

Overcoming Cravings and Addictions through Mindfulness Practice

In my previous blog post, I discussed Melli O’Brien’s interview with Judson Brewer, an expert in the use of mindfulness for overcoming cravings and addictions.  Jud, as he is called, is the author of a number of books, including The Craving Mind.

In the earlier blog post, I wrote about how addictions are formed and how mindfulness undermines both cravings and addictions through breaking the link between our addictive behaviours and our perceived rewards.

In this blog post, I will focus on the barriers that prevent us from using the power of mindfulness to break the shackles of cravings and addiction and present a mindfulness practice, recommended by both Melli and Jud, that will help to overcome those barriers and shackles.

Personal barriers to using mindfulness to overcome cravings and addiction

During the interview with Jud, Melli suggested that sometimes shame gets in the road of our recovery from addiction.   Craving and addiction feels so very personal that we are reluctant to own up to ourselves or others about its existence.  We want to avoid the pain of self-realisation.

We may be reluctant to give up the rewards associated with the addiction because they have become our crutch, e.g. to deal with stress; and we might be fearful that we will not be able to cope.

Melli also asked Jud what he personally experienced as barriers to daily mindfulness practice.  In his response, Jud identified three key things that made it difficult for him to sustain his daily mindfulness practice:

  1. growing in self-awareness that was painful – it became progressively clearer to Jud that he had caused suffering for other people in his life and this was difficult to face on an ongoing basis, and was humbling;
  2. being too intellectual in his practice – intellectualizing about some of the practices rather than just being-in-the-practice;
  3. doubting the efficacy of loving-kindness meditation; but finally, after a number of years, overcoming his assumptions and bias against the practice.

A four-step mindfulness practice for overcoming cravings and addiction

During the interview, Jud introduced the R.A.I.N. process as a mindfulness practice for breaking the habit loop of cravings and addiction.  The four-step process involves the following:

  1. Recognise – that you are caught up in a habit loop through a craving and recognise the addiction it creates when you give into the thoughts and emotions associated with the craving;
  2. Accept -that you have this craving and related addiction which, as Melli suggests, is a part of the “human condition”, that is part of being human;
  3. Investigate – what is happening in your body when the craving appears; what are the body sensations you are experiencing? what triggers the craving? what are the real outcomes/cost of the addiction (challenge the behaviour-reward link); experience the pleasantness of exploring your curiosity about yourself and your personal reactions to various triggers; enjoy the experience of getting to know yourself and who you really are.
  4. Non-identification – acknowledge that your cravings and addictions are not you; that you are not your thoughts; that you are not your emotions; and that underneath it all is you growing in awareness and becoming-in-the moment.

As we grow in mindfulness through meditation, we gain a better understanding of the personal barriers we create to stop ourselves using mindfulness to break the shackles of our cravings and addictions.  We can also learn mindfulness practices that can break through these barriers and the shackles that hold us captive to our own unhealthy habit loop.  In the final analysis, we learn to trust in the power of mindfulness and the resultant awareness.

By Ron Passfield – Copyright (Creative Commons license, Attribution–Non Commercial–No Derivatives)

Image source: courtesy of johnhain on Pixabay

Disclosure: If you purchase a product through this site, I may earn a commission which will help to pay for the site, the associated Meetup group and the resources to support the blog.

How Mindfulness Undermines Cravings and Addiction

Melli O’Brien recently interviewed Dr. Judson Brewer (known as Jud) who is Director of Research at the Center for Mindfulness at the University of Massachusetts and author of The Craving Mind.  Jud is an acknowledged international expert in training people in mindfulness to overcome addiction.

In the interview Jud explained the basic cause of addiction and shared neuroscience research that explained the impact of addiction on the brain and the counter-impact of mindfulness.

How addiction develops

The concept of “operant conditioning” developed by B.F. Skinner provides a fundamental explanation of how addiction develops.  Basically, certain behaviours lead to what we perceive as rewards.  So, if we continue to engage in those behaviours and receive the associated rewards, we positively reinforce the behaviours so that we are more inclined to repeat them – thus leading to cravings and addiction.

The craving and resultant addiction can be related to anything, e.g. food, sex, shopping, spending money, drinking alcohol, gambling or consuming drugs.  We unconsciously link the rewarded behaviour with something that is unpleasant – e.g. if we are stressed we may over-eat or drink alcohol excessively.  What we are attempting to do is to substitute something pleasurable for something that we find unpleasant, e.g. we eat dark chocolate (pleasure) to overcome the unpleasantness of stress.  So, stress acts as the trigger for our craving and addiction.

We consolidate our belief in the utility of dark chocolate to help us deal with stress by reminding ourselves of the latest research that shows the positive benefits of dark chocolate – thus we not only receive a physical reinforcement (pleasant taste) but also an emotional reinforcement (positive feelings for “eating what is good for me”).  Of course, we overlook the fact that the research on dark chocolate stresses the moderation required in eating the chocolate so that the positive benefits are not outweighed by negative impacts such as the amount of saturated facts consumed.

Mindfulness undermines addiction through a process of substitution

Jud pointed out in the interview that addiction activates a part of the brain that is called “the posterior cingulate cortex”; whereas, when we engage in mindfulness practice, the opposite happens – that region of the brain becomes deactivated.   Through mindfulness, then, we are substituting excitation of the brain (generated through craving and addiction) with restfulness.

Mindfulness for overcoming addiction works on two basic levels – firstly, as we look inward, we increase our awareness of the body sensations associated with our craving; and secondly, we sever the link between our addictive behaviour and the rewards we ascribe to that behaviour.  We effectively undermine the reinforcing link between the behaviour and the reward.

Substitution occurs on three levels:

  1. pleasant feelings associated with our addictive behaviour are replaced by the pleasure experienced when we are curious about, and investigate, the bodily sensations generated by our cravings and addiction (we are substituting one form of pleasure for another);
  2. seeking to have, or do more, is replaced by the act of noticing what is going on for us (we replace uncontrolled seeking with patient noticing of the bodily sensations experienced in craving something);
  3. temporary happiness derived from satisfying our craving is replaced by the realisation of more sustainable peace and joy.

In the final analysis, mindfulness breaks what Jud calls the “habit loop” of addiction with a new and rewarding “habit loop” – habituated behaviour whose rewards grow exponentially.  Jud reiterates that developing new habits, such as mindfulness, requires “dedicated practice every day”, which is one way to overcome the barriers to changing our behaviour.  Sustaining mindfulness practice, then, is critical to undermining cravings and addictions.

As we grow in mindfulness, we gain a better understanding of our craving and addiction and learn ways to use mindfulness to undermine the hold that cravings have on our thoughts and emotions.  We can learn to make more conscious choices in the process.

By Ron Passfield – Copyright (Creative Commons license, Attribution–Non Commercial–No Derivatives)

Image source: courtesy of  whekevi on Pixabay

Disclosure: If you purchase a product through this site, I may earn a commission which will help to pay for the site, the associated Meetup group and the resources to support the blog.