The problem: the stranglehold of addiction
To understand meditation’s role in treating addiction, it is useful to understand how the brain responds to the activation of its pleasure pathways, and how reward mechanisms play their part.
A key factor in our sense of pleasure is the neurotransmitter dopamine. If we lack sufficient quantities of dopamine stimulation, we feel unhappy and sometimes depressed.
Unfortunately, this is often the case when we’re stressed. Yet most ways to treat addiction don’t take this into account.
When dopamine activates our pleasure pathway, many regions of the brain light up, and one of the beneficiaries of this activation is the frontal cortex, which is responsible for executive functions, decision making and impulse control among other things.
The pleasure projections also inhibit the anterior cingulate cortex, which otherwise tends to colour our thoughts and feelings with sadness and negativity, sometimes overwhelmingly so.
When something new triggers a pleasure sensation, we get a nice big hit of dopamine, but thereafter, it is not so much the reward itself which triggers the release, it is the anticipation of reward which gets the brain eagerly firing with expectation.
Thus, we have a situation whereby any thought of the stimulus will trigger an appetite for more, especially if the present conditions are filled with any deficit of happiness or fulfilment.
If there is certainty of reward, then we get a nice dose of dopamine. But if there is a small possibility of the reward not arriving, then the additional surprise factor gives us a massive surge of bonus release, and it becomes even more scintillating to be in appetite mode.
It doesn’t matter if it’s shoe shopping or new lovers, we all know this feeling well.
So if due to the stresses and strains of life, we find ourselves with low levels of dopamine release, or desensitised dopamine receptors, we are much more vulnerable to finding something dangerously delicious and falling into the cycle of dependency.
And the more subjectively pleasurable a person finds a particular exposure to an activity or a drug to be, the more activation of the pleasure pathway and the more likely we are to find ourselves liking it a little too much.
Unless the substance in question is inescapably addictive, it isn’t so much the first exposure that is the problem; it is the repetition of exposure which undoes us. The problem mounts because our receptor sites begin to get blocked up and/or desensitised by the tidal waves of chemicals coming their way.
If it is an activity or consumption that creates dopamine-triggering, then the dopamine receptors will turn down the volume on their sensitivity as otherwise, the signals will become overwhelming. And if it is a drug that has a molecular structure similar, but not identical, to our naturally produced goodies, then the brain will be tricked into thinking we have plenty of organic production and will respond to the overabundance of supply by turning down the synthesis process of that particular hormone.
The result will be an ever-increasing spiral of wanting more, and there comes the point when all users and ‘experiencers’ of the high-eliciting stimulus start the transition: from appetite seekers to needers.
The need is no longer about feeling euphoric, it is now about feeling normal. So why does a lack of our preferred substance make us feel so awful?
The absence of the stimulus now leaves us feeling empty, possibly a little sad or even pretty depressed. The richness of life has been lost to us, and all we want is to feel ‘normal’ again.
And the easiest and possibly only way we know how to trigger this process is through repeated exposure to the stimulus.
The feelings of anhedonia (lack of joy) can be so powerful that our motivation complex is completely driven by the desire to avoid the punishment of feeling horrible again.
The lack of certainty surrounding said vices can make them all the more addictive:
“I think I’ll have enough cash; I think I’ll be able to find a dealer; I don’t think I’ll get caught; I’m sure it will be all good.”
All of these slight uncertainties add to the thrill of it by creating an intensity to the expectation and dopamine release. The result is an even greater level of addiction.
When the stimulant wears off, we not only have a lack of joy, we also have a return to reality which brings with it an uncomfortable level of anxiety. And because the wearing off phase is always longer than the spike high phase, it feels all the more painful. The compulsion to return to the relieving qualities of stimulus is amplified.
Stress makes us much more vulnerable to developing addiction, by creating greater contrast between our status prior to the point of experience and the lushness of the subsequent high.
Stress also makes us more likely to keep administering until we’ve crossed the threshold of addiction. And unpredictable stress only compounds the problem further.
Stress will also inhibit the production of many important neurochemicals, which will lead us to seek replacements from recreational substances and prescription medicines.
Interestingly, a history of stress, even from foetal or newborn life will make us much more susceptible to developing a dependency later in life. As the biologist Robert Sapolsky points out:
“Stress can increase the odds of abusing a drug to the point of addiction in the first place, make withdrawal harder, and make relapse more likely.”
As such, treating addiction often relies on reducing stress and accommodating for tangential factors, something rarely factored into other addiction recovery services.
What makes Vedic meditation better than other ways to treat addiction?
Treating addiction by itself is a tall order, but Vedic meditation has been shown to be a great preventer of addictive tendencies and significantly reduces recurrence rates.
Vedic meditation reduces our susceptibility to stress by calming down the nervous system and the area of the brain called the amygdala. It’s this part of the brain that is always over-activated during stress and which is the trigger for the cascade of so many of the harmful effects of the stress response.
This technique gives our nervous system such deep levels of rest that the memories of stress themselves begin to lose their hold over us, increasing our robustness further.
The result is greater freedom from the stress that so often triggers an addictive craving for dopamine-induced joy.
Vedic meditation brings a sense of fulfilment by tuning us into who we really are and what we really want. It is as if we have finally found what we have always been looking for.
This is partly because we are now producing all the right amount of neurotransmitters and hormones and these are nourishing every part of our being. And it’s partly because our corresponding receptor sites can recalibrate to a more correct level of sensitivity and can be cleansed of any pharmacological debris, which may otherwise have made them dysfunctional.
Vedic meditation also results in greater activation of the cortex, which makes us more rational and less recklessly impulsive, making it easier to make the good decisions and avoid the destructive path of least resistance.
Vedic meditation will also wash out the emotional charge of the environmental triggers that would otherwise cause us to self-destruct, a vital step in treating addiction.
You know how powerful smell can be at reawakening a long forgotten memory? Well, that is exactly what it can be like for an addict when they are faced with a trigger that the body remembers as being intimately related to the process of scoring a hit.
Before they know it, their subconscious has been consumed with the urge, and they are back in an addictive state of mind, with a thirst that can only be quenched by one thing.
For all these reasons, we can begin to see why meditation has been shown to be such a great preventer of addictive tendencies and why it has such a powerful effect on recurrence rates.
And the good news doesn’t stop there. Meditation will also clear out all of the toxicity brought in by any substance abuse and spontaneously build new inter-neuronal pathways.
In this way, it helps us evolve to a more progressive and meaningful way of life.
By working at the level of the nervous system, the mantras we use when we practise Vedic meditation create robustness within the central nervous system so that the outside world doesn’t seem so overwhelming without the numbing effects of a drug.
And going deeper still, on the spiritual level, addiction can ultimately be viewed as a state of consciousness. If we want to overcome our addictions, not just one, but all our addictive tendencies, then we must develop our nervous system, nourish our very being and, by doing so, expand our own state of consciousness.
Vedic meditation holds the key to doing just that, making it one of the most effective ways to treat addiction.
I discovered meditation in 1980... Within a week I stopped drinking, weeks later I quit smoking...I didn't need the taste, I began to feel extraordinarily well. I remember being so taken with bewildered happiness.
Deepak Chopra, Author
What's the proof?
A Harvard trained psychologist, Charles Alexander, reviewed 19 studies over a 22-year period. In 17 of the studies, there were significant reductions in the use of cigarettes, alcohol and recreational drugs amongst all age groups, ethnicities and demographics when they practised Vedic meditation and the longer people meditated, the better the outcomes. 1
A German study showed that drug-addicted participants who received counselling had a 15% quit rate. Those that practised Vedic meditation had a quit rate of a hugely significant 89%. 2
Another study found that the quit rate for smoking was 51%, and a further 30% had significantly reduced their intake. 3
A further study found that Vedic meditation was twice as effective at reducing alcoholism than conventional approaches. 4