Mindfulness versus Addiction: Why the Mind Gets Addicted

Dr. Gerard M. DiLeo, MD
Source: SubstanceAbuse.com

What is addiction?

Even those who don't know what causes addiction know that addiction is a serious problem. They see it in their loved ones or themselves.

Addiction is destructive to one's daily life and employment, as well as to one's relationships with others.

It is expensive. It can literally waste years of productivity and responsibility, that is, waste years of one's actual living.

Addicted persons are driven to need a particular substance or activity like they need air, be it alcohol, nicotine, prescription, or illicit drugs, gambling, extreme dieting or excessive eating; and going without something one is addicted to is like gasping for that very air needed to breathe.

What are the psychological causes behind addiction?

No one sets out to become addicted to any particular substance or habit. Yet even the strongest-willed individuals fall victim to addiction. Why? The answer is a trick answer, just as the question is a trick question: some people fall victim to addiction simply because of the way they are.

But how are we the way we are? It certainly depends on genetics, which hardwires our temperament, personality, and even spirituality (to some extent). That's nature. But it also comes down to the reshaping of that temperament, personality, and spirituality by, as Shakespeare wrote, "the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune." That's nurture: the hard knocks; life happening to each of us.

Whether we know it or not, we are all bags of electricity and chemicals that form a coordinated self-awareness, under the influence of the total person (you) shaped by blueprint (genetics) and weathering (the wear-and-tear of life). The final outcome is a brain-chemistry unique to each of us. Addictive substances muck up that chemistry, specifically dopamine, the "feel good" neurohormone. The more dopamine provides pay-back (feeling good) for using an addictive substance, the less sensitive one becomes to it, thus requiring more. It's obvious that this will end badly.

How does mindfulness help with addiction therapy?

Mindfulness AddictionMindfulness is paying attention…close attention, to our moment-by-moment existence. Our brains tend to hardwire by repetition, and mindful attention to what one is sensing and experiencing can illustrate dangers that ordinarily go by in the blur of moving from Point A to Point B. Thus, mindfulness becomes very useful in fighting addiction.

The three core elements of mindfulness are:

1. Intention: maintaining awareness of why we are doing what we are doing.

2. Attention: that is, paying attention moment-by-moment through observation and awareness of each experience

3. Attitude: any valid observation is without prejudice or pre-conceived ideas; that is, accepting what we "intend and attend" without judgment. Attitude in successful mindfulness is objective, not subjective.

Mindfulness in addiction therapy and in the prevention of addiction relapse sidesteps the self-condemnations and guilt inherent in addiction -- those things that assign worthlessness to an individual, which is a surefire psychological recipe for failure. In fact, worthlessness is one of the tricks used by addiction to keep one addicted -- expectation of failure, even when it comes to treating the very thing that creates a sense of worthlessness and failure.

Outside of the clinical realm, deep within oneself, mindfulness gives you the opportunity -- as an objective observer -- to recognize when you're drinking too much, or are becoming dependent on a substance. This allows the ability to take the first step to recovery, which is recognizing there is a substance abuse problem and the wanting of help which naturally follows. The help can be jump-started by professionals who specialize in the mindfulness of recovery -- and that just requires making an appointment.

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