Bad Habits, Mindfulness and Curiosity

Addiction is a difficult condition to understand, whether the problem is alcohol, drugs or nicotine, or behavioral addictions such as gambling, porn, smoking or overeating. Although scientific knowledge of addiction is becoming more advanced, the fact remains that even the best drug and alcohol treatment centers and rehabs continue to have a high rate of relapse.

Judson Brewer, an addiction researcher and psychiatrist at University of Massachusetts Medical School has a different take on breaking bad habits and addictions, which he says are often used to distract ourselves when we’re uncomfortable or restless. In a TedMed talk, Dr. Brewer explains how all habits work much the same way. They are triggered by a situation or event, and are then repeated until they are performed automatically.

Using eating as an example, Dr. Brewer describes how food is used to satisfy hunger (the trigger). Our brains develop a memory and the behavior is repeated. Eventually, our brain realizes that food tastes good and makes us feel better, so we begin to use food as a pick-me-up when we’re feeling tired or discouraged. Emotions become the new trigger and eating becomes an addictive behavior.

If we learn to develop curiosity, Dr. Brewer says, we can tap into a natural learning process and observe our cravings close up without giving in. The key, he says, is to stop trying to force the issue, and instead, notice what the craving feels like in our minds and bodies.

Dr. Brewer described a study in which he and his colleagues at University of Massachusetts discovered that mindfulness training can help people stop smoking – even long-time smokers who have tried to quit numerous times without success.

Research participants were given permission to smoke, but were asked to be mindful of their bodily sensations while smoking. According to Dr Brewer, mindfulness allows people to become “inner scientists,” tapping into a natural curiosity and awareness, thus interrupting the process, or “driving a wedge of awareness” into the cravings. As a result, people are able to step out of an endless habit loop.

At that point, curiosity is rewarded and we are able to realize that cravings consist simply of bodily sensations that come and go. Once we realize that, we become wise and can manage triggers and cravings from moment to moment. Then, we can experience the joy and freedom of letting go.

Research indicates that mindfulness techniques can also help with newer, less studied addictions such as dependence on the Internet, cell phones or social media.

As the benefits of mindfulness training become more apparent, many drug treatment centers and rehabs are integrating training into addiction treatment.

Watch Dr. Brewer’s TED Talk, “A Simple Way to Break a Bad Habit” here.

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