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Mindfulness helps addiction

Addiction is a Common Problem

Mindfulness to Break Free from It

In Hong Kong, there are over 200,000 problem gamblers, over 500,000 people with heavy alcohol use, and number of smokers reaches 600,000. Although these statistics do not include other forms of addiction, such high numbers are indicative that addiction is common in Hong Kong. This article aims to explore the root cause of addiction from psychological counselling perspective and highlight how practicing mindfulness can help address mild symptoms of addiction.

The development of addiction can often be explained by the Attachment Theory. When we grew up with a sense of security that were developed from close emotional bonds with parents or primary caregivers, we are likely to have better mental health and more resilience in adulthood. A child’s sense of security is established through his/her parents’ consistent and continuous care. Without such care, our childhood development would be affected, making us less apt at managing stress.

When one did not get the appropriate care and responses from family members during childhood, he/she may try other means to seek solace, such as getting a false sense of comfort through smoking, gambling, or consuming alcohol. Counsellor Amoy Ong shares that almost all clients with addictive concerns have experienced trauma related to parent-child attachment. There was a 30 years-old female client who had obsessive thoughts of befriending men as she felt a deep void in life. In-depth conversations with her revealed that the obsessive thoughts were related to the intergenerational trauma inflicted by her parents and her grandparents during her childhood.

Do Not be Misled by the Pleasure from Addiction

Mindfulness instructor Katy Mok states there is a consistent, habitual cycle behind various forms of addictions (smoking, gambling or sex addiction, etc). For example, a smoker may think that smoking relieves stress and smoke when stressed out. He or she may feel relaxed for a short while during smoking.  This experience will then be encoded into a memory that associates relaxation with smoking, further increasing his or her desire to smoke. Hence, whenever a smoker is bored or stressed out, the thought of“it’s time for smoking” will surface. Although a smoker may aware that smoking is harmful to health, once the behaviour becomes habitual, he or she may use it as a way to escape from any unpleasantness.

Often, unhappiness stems from our subjective view. We quickly and automatically assume that the experience is unpleasant before assessing it objectively. We may turn to addictive behaviour to escape from an unpleasant experience as it gives us pleasure due to the dopamine released in the brain. However, in the long run, continued indulgence in such short-lived pleasure can become harmful.

Achieving Peace of Mind

Many therapists use mindfulness practice to help clients manage their emotional issues. Through the practice, we learn to view our experiences clearly without judgment. Once we can observe our thoughts, bodily sensations, and action tendencies in a non-judgmental way, it is less likely to fall back into addiction and we can start to break away from the vicious cycle.

For instance, when you have an urge to smoke, do not act immediately. Try to observe your bodily sensations that are accompanying the urge. These sensations can be an increased heart rate, tension in the muscles, or being restless, etc. Pay attention to sensations – how they rise, pause, change, and end. Through this process, we become gradually aware that the thoughts and feelings associated with addiction are temporary. As such, we do not need to try to make them disappear quickly.

Each time we yield to an addictive urge, it deepens our addiction. To address this problem , we must be aware of its existence and observe the nature of how the urges arise and go away to break off from the habitual cycle. Once we have learnt to accept our bodily sensations and be aware of the vicious cycle, we can always maintain peace of mind.

(Note: The case mentioned has details modified to maintain client’s confidentialty.)

Steps in Practicing Mindfulness When Addictive Urges Arise:

  1. When addictive urges arise, pause and find a place to be alone
  2. Take a few slow, deep breaths
  3. Slowly observe the parts of the body that are experiencing discomfort, e.g. increased heart rate or a bland taste in your mouth
  4. No need to resist distracting thoughts
  5. Observe your bodily sensations without judgment
  6. You may start to feel that the addictive thoughts are diminishing with each breath
  7. Imagine that you are breathing in positive energy and breathing out discomfort

(It is advisable to consult a mindfulness instructor to manage strong addiction urges)

The Companions
Katy Mok