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 addicts tend to value nothing else in life other than the drug they are dependent on. Research reveals that substance and addictive behaviors can 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 impacts habitual cognitive patterns in the brain.
Addictive substances do not only rewrite the brain to make them more sensitive to the rewards from their addiction but decrease their sensitivity to natural rewards such as validation, love, etc. Even when the use of a substance is discontinued, the rewired structures of the brain force the person into thinking like an addict still, craving the drug and triggering thoughts of relapse.
Though detox drugs can mask these cravings temporarily, the brain needs more time to rewire itself and end the addictive thought processes. Cognitive behavioral therapy seeks to increase the awareness of the cues that trigger cravings and equip the person with healthier thought processes and behavioral patterns.
Cognitive-behavioral therapy is somewhat limited in the sense that it only addresses 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 bodily and emotional signals. By practicing mindfulness, the person is trained to become aware of normally subconscious processes such as breathing and heart rate. In time, they can develop the ability to notice thought processes and behavioral patterns that were normally not perceived on a conscious level.
Many triggers exist in addicts’ brains 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 that 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 in addiction is more prevalent than ever, considering studies from various institutes. Studies show a lack of mindfulness to be associated with substance abuse. The studies surveyed adults undergoing addiction treatment for substance abuse, looking at the following components:
- Decentering – the process of stepping back and observing one’s surroundings
- Curiosity – the introspection that meditation affords oneself
The tendency in addicts 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.