BEHAVIOR
August 28, 2017

Mindful Drinkers

Being mindful of the urge to drink can be an excellent way to reduce your consumption.

A group of serious drinkers in the UK learned how to cut down on their drinking, and it only took 11 minutes.

That's how long the session of mindfulness training they were given as part of a University College of London study took. That training, along with the encouragement to continue practicing what they had been taught, enabled them to cut their drinking by more than a third in the following week.

Those given mindfulness training drank about a third fewer units of alcohol than they had the week before receiving the training.

Sixty-eight drinkers were recruited for the study; all were considered heavy drinkers by UK guidelines, but none drank so much that they fit the standards for an alcohol use disorder.

Half of the participants were given a brief audio training in mindfulness, which teaches heightened awareness of one's feelings and body sensations. The idea was not to suppress cravings for alcohol but to be fully aware of them and learn to live with these cravings as temporary events that could be tolerated without acting upon them (having a drink). They were also given a card outlining the mindfulness technique to use as a reminder during the following week.

The other half received brief relaxation training, training designed to lessen cravings by calming and unwinding the mind and releasing the tension that's accumulated in the body. The study was a double blind study — the researchers did not know who had been given which kind of training.

Those given the mindfulness training drank about a third fewer units of alcohol than they had the previous week — reducing their drinking by 9.3 units, down from the 27.7 units of alcohol they had drunk the week before receiving the training. Those who received the relaxation training drank about three units of alcohol less, a decrease that, unlike the one shown by the mindfulness group, was not statistically significant.

It's challenging to apply the results to the U.S. and guesstimate how many fewer drinks people took the week after training because the UK and the U.S. measure alcohol content differently and have different size pints. Individual beers also vary in their alcohol content.

What is significant, however, is how quickly and effectively mindfulness training helped study participants curb a habit they hoped to change. Mindfulness training has previously been shown to help people cope with a host of problems, including PTSD and depression, but the training itself can last for weeks. The training here only took 11 minutes. A recent study of mindfulness and pain relief also found short training with mindfulness (15 minutes) to be effective.

Dr. Sunjeev Kamboj, Director of the University College of London Clinical Psychopharmacology Unit and the study's lead author, explained why mindfulness training might help people cut down on drinking: “Practising mindfulness can make a person more aware of their tendency to respond reflexively to urges,” he said. “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.”

The study is published in the International Journal of Psychopharmacology.

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