Quick mindfulness training may help heavy drinkers reduce consumption

September 4, 2017

A small experiment in the UK suggests that brief mindfulness training exercises could help heavy drinkers lessen their alcohol consumption by helping them focus on what’s happening in the present moment.

Sixty-eight heavy drinkers who weren’t alcoholics were randomly assigned to receive either a training session in relaxation strategies or an 11-minute training session in mindfulness techniques to help them recognize cravings without acting on them.

Over the next week, people who received mindfulness training drank significantly less than they had during the week before the study started, but people in the relaxation group did not drink significantly less.

Study co-author Dr. DamlaIrez of University College London said their study was not a clinical trial and did not involve “treating” people who needed help reducing their alcohol intake.

However, the study suggests that people who don’t have an alcohol disorder but still drink too much might be able to reduce their consumption, at least in the short term, through mindfulness exercises.

During the mindfulness training, people were told to pay attention to cravings instead of suppressing them. They were told that by noticing bodily sensations, they could tolerate them as temporary events without needing to act on them.

Relaxation training, meanwhile, told people that softening the muscles, calming and unwinding the mind and releasing tension in the body can reduce the intensity of cravings.

After receiving one of these trainings, participants were encouraged to practice the techniques they learned over the next week.

Right after training, both groups reported reduced cravings for a drink, though the decline was greater in the relaxation group, researchers report in the International Journal of Neuropsychopharmacology.

However, people in the mindfulness group consumed 9.3 fewer units of alcohol, roughly the equivalent of three pints of beer, in the week after training than they did in the week before the study started. In the relaxation group, people consumed 3 fewer units of alcohol – a difference too small to rule out the possibility that it was due to chance.

Beyond its small size, another limitation of the study is that the researchers relied on participants to accurately recall and report how much alcohol they consumed and whether they had been diagnosed with alcohol use disorder. The study was also too brief to determine how much training people might require to make a lasting impact on their drinking habits.

Stefan Hofmann, a psychology researcher at Boston University who wasn’t involved in the study, said the first step to targeting addictive behaviors is to become aware of them. Humans tend to establish habits and link behaviors to situational cues, he added.

For drinkers, this might mean that being around certain people or in certain places, such as a bar, might make drinking more likely, Hofmann said.

Ordering another round of drinks can become automatic in these circumstances, but becoming aware of the cues that lead to heavier drinking can help change how people respond to these cues.

Mindfulness can be a very powerful strategy, Hofmann said, as it breaks reflexive behaviors by making people more reflective.

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