The ancient practice of mindfulness meditation is gaining lots of interest in fields of physical and mental well-being, due to a growing number of clinical studies which are showing evidence of the positive benefits the practice can lead to on the brain and our physiology. And even more interestingly for us, studies are showing that those who practice meditation when in the process of quitting smoking, greatly increase their chances of quitting altogether.
Before you stop reading, know that meditation is not just for Buddhists monks or hippies, rather it’s accessible to all of us, we just need a few minutes in a quiet space to be with ourselves.
In one of the key studies undertaken by Michael Posner (et al.) a psychologist at the University of Oregon in USA, a group of 60 college students (27 smokers) were divided into two groups: those who would participate in two weeks of meditation, and those who would undergo two weeks of relaxation training. While smokers in the relaxation training group showed little change in their habit, smokers in the meditation group smoked 60 per cent less at the end of two weeks.
Here are some ways that meditation can support the journey to becoming quit:
Meditation is proven to reduce stress (and its effects on the mind & body):
Stress is a common trigger to smoking(and reason for relapse). There is no denying the short-term relief from intense stress and feelings of angst; nicotine activates the dopamine chemical which floods the system giving a temporary feeling of pleasure and calm. Ironically, the relief is usually from the withdrawal symptoms of not smoking, rather than relief from the stressful situation that triggered us to smoke and very quickly we’re needing that feeling again. Meditation has been found to reduce the grey matter around the brain (amygdala) responsible for our stress response (also known as ‘fight or flight’), studies have shown that regular meditators have smaller amygdala meaning that instead of mindlessly reacting, they are able to respond more mindfully to the stress of daily life. Stress is an inevitable part of life, but it’s our reaction to the stressor which determines how much it impacts us. With meditation, we can learn to change our relationship with the things that make us feel stressed, even responding to the stressors in a more mindful manner and instead of smoking to feel calm, choosing to do something else such as go for a walk or take 10 deep breaths.
Meditation helps develop self-control:
The practice of meditation involves setting a point of focus for example, the physical sensations in your body, which are always occurring in the present moment. Sooner or later, the mind will get distracted by past memories or future planning, when we notice, we return to our bodily sensations (the present moment) again and again. Over time, we learn that not everything that arises requires our attention, or any need for us to engage in them. From the point of view of the brain, meditation strengthens the area responsible for self-control, decision-making and future planning – the prefrontal cortex. It’s this part of the brain that allows us to realise the value of patience, for going short-term pleasure for more satisfying, long-term reward. In the context of smoking, it’s clear how this is vital.
Meditation helps makes us aware of our smoking habits & cravings:
Over time our smoking habit becomes autopilot– meaning we carry out tasks without conscious thought – a craving arises and before we know it, puffing away whilst chatting on the phone or in between sips of coffee. Meditation has been shown to impact the area of the brain responsible for the brain being on autopilot – the default mode network, which shows reduced activity with regular meditation practice. This mean that smokers can learn to recognize and accept feelings, emotions and physical bodily sensations that arise, rather than immediately reacting i.e. by lighting up. By bringing this mindful attention to our physical and mental state of being (good and bad) when craving a cigarette, there is a chance to accept these feelings and adopt a new behaviour in response. Mindfully allowing these cravings to pass without a cigarette, we are changing our reactions to cravings by embracing them rather than wanting to get rid of them. Additionally, it’s only by accepting and allowing the cravings, we may begin to understand that they may be pointing to something else i.e. hunger, boredom, frustration, anger, sadness etc. rather than a craving for a cigarette.
Meditation might not be the magic bullet, or a quick-fix, when it comes to quitting smoking, but in combination with other approaches you may have tried or be researching (such as nicotine replacement therapy, champix, behaviour change etc.), it has the potential to help the process.