We’re all aware that drinking heavily and frequently poses serious risks to our health, yet people regularly drink more than the safe recommend units of alcohol (that’s around 14). But a recent study from the University College London (UCL) found meditation and mindfulness to be a useful tool for heavy drinkers to reduce their alcohol cravings.

After an 11-minute training session and encouragement to continue practising mindfulness, heavy drinkers drank less over the next week than people who were taught relaxation techniques, according to the researchers. The mindfulness group drank 9.3 fewer units of alcohol the week after the study, while there was no significant reduction with those partaking in relaxation techniques.

Dr Sunjeev Kamboj said:

“We found that a very brief, simple exercise in mindfulness can help drinkers cut back, and the benefits can be seen quite quickly.”

For the study, the team analysed 68 drinkers who reported heavy drinking, but not an alcohol use disorder. 34 were told to practice mindfulness, so they could pay attention to cravings instead of suppressing them, via an 11-minute audio recording. Participants were told that “by noticing bodily sensations, they could tolerate them as temporary events without needing to act on them”. At the end of the training, they were encouraged to use the techniques for the next week.

Half of the participants were taught relaxation strategies, which were just as credible as mindfulness. The study was also double-blinded – neither the researchers or heavy drinkers knew what strategy was being delivered. “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,” said co-author Dr Tom Freeman.

Dr Kamboj added:

“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.”

The team say continuous drinking often leads to alcohol disorders, so mindfulness techniques could be a way to reduce harmful drinking habits before they become severe. They also highlight the speed and limited training it took to help participants to become mindful.

They plan to look at how to make mindfulness training most effective in practice and other substance use problems.

The research was published in International Journal of Neuropsychopharmacology.

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