Date Published: 24 August 2017

Short simple mindfulness training could help drinkers reduce alcohol intake

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Recent research indicates that simple training in mindfulness strategies might help heavy drinkers begin to reduce their alcohol intake.

The study by researchers at London's UCL found that after an 11-minute training session and encouragement to continue practising mindfulness (a technique that involves focusing on what's happening in the present moment), heavy drinkers drank less over the next week than people who were taught relaxation techniques instead.

" We found that a very brief, simple exercise in mindfulness can help drinkers cut back, and the benefits can be seen quite quickly," said the study's lead author, Dr Sunjeev Kamboj.

The study involved the researchers working with 68 participants who consume a relatively large amount of alcohol although not enough to be classified as having 'an alcohol use disorder'. The study was double-blind, meaning neither experimenters nor participants knew which strategy was being delivered.

  • Half of the participants ('heavy drinkers') were taught to practise mindfulness, which teaches a heightened awareness of one's feelings and bodily sensations, so that they 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. The training was delivered through audio recordings, and only took 11 minutes. At the end of the training participants were encouraged to continue practising the techniques for the next week.
  • The other half of the participants in the study (equally 'heavy drinkers', the members of each group/'half' having been selected at random from the initial group of 68) )were taught relaxation strategies. This had been chosen as a 'control condition' that appeared to be as credible as the mindfulness exercise for reducing alcohol use.

" We used a highly controlled experimental design, to ensure that any benefits of mindfulness training were not likely explained by people believing it was a better treatment," explained researcher Dr Tom Freeman, Senior fellow of the Society for the Study of Addiction and part of the research team while based at UCL.

The researchers found that the 'mindfulness group' consumed 9.3 fewer units of alcohol (roughly equivalent to three pints of beer) in the following week compared with the week preceding the study, while there was no significant reduction in alcohol consumption among those who had learned relaxation techniques.

" Practising mindfulness can make a person more aware of their tendency to respond reflexively to urges. By being more aware of their cravings, we think the study participants were able to bring intention back into the equation, instead of automatically reaching for the drink when they feel a craving," explained Dr Kamboj.

Given that severe alcohol problems are often preceded by patterns of heavy drinking, the researchers are hopeful that mindfulness could help to reduce drinking before more severe problems develop. They also found it encouraging that limited training and limited encouragement could have a significant effect on reducing alcohol consumption.

The team at UCL hopes that subsequent studies will confirm the indications from this work and provide more insight into how mindfulness training could be most effective in practice. They are also looking into how mindfulness might help people with other substance use problems.

SourceUniversity College London (UCL), England.

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