Close to 24 million Americans abuse drugs, millions more drink heavily and around a fifth of our population is hooked on tobacco. Understanding why these habits are addictive is important, as this can help to offer effective treatments to those who wish to escape the grip of substance dependency.
In a nutshell it is down to the way in which reward pathways in our brain are set up to help us learn. When our survival was uncertain we developed reward-based systems to encourage us to adopt habits that promote our endurance, which is why food tastes so good. However, move forward to the present day and we still have these mechanisms in place. The problem now is that they have been hijacked by tobacco, alcohol and drugs, so when we engage in these habits our brain is flooded with the feel-good neurotransmitter dopamine, which encourages us to seek out the substances again and again.
Using mindfulness to break habits
When we are stressed we are more likely to smoke, drink or take drugs. During the same conditions the part of our brain known as the prefrontal cortex shuts down. This is bad news for CBT which works through this area, but evidence shows that practicing mindfulness may offer a solution to the problem. By increasing our awareness of our thoughts and feelings, this heightens our awareness of cravings and lets us appreciate they are not everlasting; they do subside and this enables us to ride them out. When we are mindful we can also acknowledge the true effects of our habits, which suddenly make smoking or drug taking less appealing. Mindfulness therefore helps to breakdown the habit loop. However, this isn’t just hearsay, as there are randomized controlled trials to support use of mindfulness in addiction therapy.