By Matthew Watkin
Mindfulness is a practice that involves being fully present and aware of one's internal and external environment. This includes sensations, thoughts and feelings and input coming from our surroundings. Evidence suggests that mindfulness could be an effective tool for treating various behavioural addictions, including substance abuse, overeating and the big 5 online addictions – pornography, gambling, social media, shopping and gaming.
Behavioural addictions are characterized by a compulsive need to engage in a particular behaviour despite adverse consequences. When one is in the grip of a behavioural addiction, it can result in a loss of control, social and occupational dysfunction, and a negative impact on physical and mental health. Mindfulness-based approaches can form a useful component of a comprehensive treatment plan.
One of the benefits of mindfulness for behavioural addiction is that it helps individuals become more aware of and less reactive to their thoughts, emotions and impulses. With mindfulness, we become adept at recognising the triggers that lead to addictive behaviours, so we are less likely to act on them. This opens the door to develop healthier coping mechanisms. For example, a person who struggles with porn addiction may notice that they tend to watch pornography when they feel stressed or when their sexual system is activated by, for example, seeing a scantily dressed person on a beach. With mindfulness, they develop a heightened awareness of these triggers, act more skilfully to manage them and engage other alternative healthy adaptive behaviours.
Another benefit of mindfulness for behavioural addiction is that it can help reduce stress and anxiety. There are numerous studies which show how mindfulness meditation reduces activation of the amygdala, a core centre of stress and anxiety and how it activates the relaxation response. By learning to stay present in the moment and dispassionately observe one’s thoughts and feelings, a person can develop a greater sense of calm and emotional regulation. This is important because stress and anxiety can be significant triggers for addictive behaviour.
Mindfulness can also help individuals develop a greater self-compassion. The roots of addictive behaviour are complex and manifold, but it is all too common that people blame themselves for the addiction and therefore struggle with shame and guilt. Typically, this just adds insult to injury and makes the situation worse. Mindfulness helps us see the impersonal nature of these addictive processes and develop authentic self-compassion based on the unfortunate real difficulties that having them bring. Mindfulness helps us see the self-defeating effects of judgement and self criticism and opens the door to self-acceptance which is the bedrock of the change process. Greater self-acceptance and compassion form an important part of the recovery process.
In conclusion, mindfulness-based approaches form an effective and invaluable part in treating behavioural addiction. By increasing awareness and self-regulation and supporting a healthy self-acceptance and compassion, it can help individuals break free from the cycle of addictive behaviour.