(Reuters Health) - Heavy drinkers may be able to cut back after brief mindfulness training exercises that involve helping them focus on what’s happening in the present moment, a small experiment in the UK suggests.
Researchers recruited 68 heavy drinkers who weren’t alcoholics for the test. They randomly assigned participants to receive either a training session in relaxation strategies or an 11-minute training session in mindfulness techniques to help them recognize cravings without acting on them.
Over the next week, people who received mindfulness training drank significantly less than they had during the week before the study started, but people in the relaxation group did not drink significantly less.
“Our study was not a clinical trial and did not involve ‘treating’ people who needed help cutting down their alcohol use,” said study co-author Dr. Damla Irez of University College London.
“But it did suggest that people who drink too much, but don’t have an alcohol use disorder, might be able to reduce their consumption, at least in the short term, by practicing mindfulness,” Irez said by email.
During the mindfulness training, people were told to 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.
Relaxation training, meanwhile, told people that softening the muscles, calming and unwinding the mind and releasing tension in the body can reduce the intensity of cravings.
After receiving one of these trainings, participants were encouraged to practice the techniques they learned over the next week.
Right after training, both groups reported reduced cravings for a drink, though the decline was greater in the relaxation group, researchers report in the International Journal of Neuropsychopharmacology.
However, people in the mindfulness group consumed 9.3 fewer units of alcohol, roughly the equivalent of three pints of beer, in the week after training than they did in the week before the study started. In the relaxation group, people consumed 3 fewer units of alcohol – a difference too small to rule out the possibility that it was due to chance.
Beyond its small size, another limitation of the study is that the researchers relied on participants to accurately recall and report how much alcohol they consumed and whether they had been diagnosed with alcohol use disorder. The study was also too brief to determine how much training people might require to make a lasting impact on their drinking habits.
“It is new and surprising that such a brief training would have an impact on behavior,” said Dr. William Marchand, a psychiatry professor at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City, who wasn’t involved in the study.
“We would have thought significantly more training would be needed to change behavior,” Marchand said by email. “What we don’t know is if there will be a lasting impact on drinking behavior.”
Still, the first step to target addictive behaviors is to become aware of them, said Stefan Hofmann, a psychology researcher at Boston University who wasn’t involved in the study.
“Humans tend to establish habits and link behaviors to situational cues,” Hofmann said by email.
For drinkers, this might mean that being around certain people or in certain places, such as a bar, might make drinking more likely, Hofmann said.
Ordering another round of drinks can become automatic in these circumstances, but becoming aware of the cues that lead to heavier drinking can help change how people respond to these cues.
“This is why mindfulness can be a very powerful strategy,” Hofmann said. “It breaks reflexive behaviors by making us more reflective.”
SOURCE: bit.ly/2xAyn6F International Journal of Neuropsychopharmacology, online August 2, 2017.