Meditation and quitting smoking: how nicotine hijacks your brain

Nicotine is the most addictive drug along the dimension of “continues to use despite knowledge of adverse health consequences.” It is legal, cheap (at least in the short run), and works very quickly – within 8 to 10 seconds. By hijacking the brain’s reward system and seeming to master craving and difficult emotional and energetic states, nicotine is able to foster a powerful dependence. Psychologically what maintains that dependence is some combination of parts of the personality that are pleasure seeking, self-medicating, self-punishing and rebellious. Yes, there is a part that wants to be healthy and well, but until the situation becomes dire, it is often no contest.

The good news is that when a smoker comes for help to stop, the healthy part has ascendancy, at least temporarily, and there is an opportunity to nurture what supports living. Psychiatrists Herbert and David Spiegel focus their treatment of smokers around three points:

  1. For your body, smoking is a poison.
  2. You cannot live without your body.
  3. To the extent you want to live, you owe your body respect and protection.

In this approach (done under hypnosis), emphasis is focused on the difference between the decision to smoke (or not) and the effects of that decision on the body. While a cigarette may not seem like a poison to the smoker, the body is fragile and we are responsible for it, as we would be for a child or pet in our care.

So how do we connect with our bodies, these amazing physical plants through which we experience life and which, incidentally, are a lot smarter than we are?

One very powerful way is through the development of mindfulness, a deceptively simple skill of bringing a quality of kind attention to each moment of our lives. Our moments are of three types: pleasant, unpleasant and neutral. For evolutionary reasons, we are programmed to move toward pleasure and away from pain so that we can eat when hungry, drink when thirsty, be comforted and procreate. This is normal. However, under stress the more primitive parts of our brain will predominate overriding our intelligence and better judgment.

Addictions are means of avoiding or transforming intolerable experience (or stress) into something more manageable. Nicotine is particularly effective in quickly shifting unpleasant feelings and energies into a certain balance, which simultaneously screens us from the intelligence of our higher brain centers and the body. In other words, smoking has pluses and minuses.

Not smoking also has pluses and minuses. The downside is the experience of painful emotions, cravings, and feeling helpless to eradicate them in the usual way. The main benefit is that there is access to understanding the problem and potentially solving it. Mindfulness training teaches embodied awareness—the ability to stay with present experience and bring an attitude of acceptance to that experience.

Let’s try something for about 30 seconds. Please read these instructions and briefly follow them: If you would, direct your attention to your feet on the floor or in your shoes noticing the contact of the toes, balls of the feet, and heels. Then, in a similar way, you might notice your legs, butt in the chair, back, arms and hands. Those are your touch points. Now, simply notice these points of contact, either cycling through them or choosing one area that you are drawn to, that has you feeling grounded, stable or present.

Some people who do this exercise get quiet and relaxed and are surprised that they were not thinking. Others notice all of the noise in their heads, physical agitation or sounds that they had not noticed before, like the clock ticking. Whatever happened for you, there were likely some moments of mindfulness, the awareness of present experience with acceptance.

Acceptance does not mean that we like it. It is more about making space for a sensation, emotion, or thought just as it is right now without trying to change or escape it. Being mindful is not about being perfect, it is more about remembering – to return to the present moment when we have drifted away, to bring what we have learned to the next moment, and to be kind. Kindness turned toward pain is compassion or feeling with. If we can feel compassion for the suffering of the body, we can see beyond the limits of the addiction. And we might be able to change a problematic habit.

A study done at Yale compared the effectiveness of Mindfulness Training (MT) with the American Lung Association’s Freedom from Smoking (FFS) program in smokers using an average of 20 cigarettes per day. MT utilized a range of mindfulness and meditation exercises (a number of them noted below). FFS is a manualized treatment with elements of stress reduction, relaxation and relapse prevention. Both treatments were delivered over 8 sessions (twice weekly over 4 weeks) with a quit date after week 2. Compared to FFS, MT showed a greater abstinence rate at the end of treatment (36% to 15%) as well as at 17 week follow-up (31% to 6%).

Similar Posts