A new UK study suggests that mindfulness training could be one way to help heavy drinkers reduce their alcohol intake, potentially reducing the risk of more serious problems in the future.
For accuracy the study was double-blind, with neither experimenters nor participants told which 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.
As mindfulness teaches a heightened awareness of one's feelings and the body's sensations, it can be used to pay attention to cravings instead of suppressing them. Participants were told that by noticing these sensations, they could learn to tolerate them as temporary states without the need to act on them.
The team found that the heavy drinkers in the mindfulness group drank less over the next week than those who were taught relaxation techniques, consuming 9.3 fewer units of alcohol -- equivalent to around three pints of beer -- compared to the week before. However, there was no significant reduction seen in the relaxation group.
"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 the study's lead author Dr. Sunjeev Kamboj.
Another benefit of the mindfulness techniques is that they were brief and simple for drinkers to use, and the benefits were also seen quite quickly. "Some might think that mindfulness is something that takes a long time to learn properly, so we found it encouraging that limited training and limited encouragement could have a significant effect to reduce alcohol consumption," said co-author Damla Irez.
As heavy drinking can often lead to severe alcohol problems, the team are now hopeful that mindfulness could be used to help to reduce alcohol consumption before drinking gets to this stage, and potentially also help with other substance use problems.