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A new study from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) suggests that low levels of mindfulness may be contributing to the development of addiction.

Using information gathered from the 13-question Toronto Mindfulness Survey, the NIH researchers examined the mindfulness of a group of adults seeking treatment for substance abuse and compared it with mindfulness data from a group of healthy adults. The results revealed that those in recovery have lower levels of mindfulness on average than healthy adults, suggesting that a lack of mindfulness may be a contributing factor in the appearance of substance use disorders.

What Is Mindfulness?

Mindfulness can be loosely defined as being aware and paying attention in the present. It means actively exploring your own thoughts and feelings, but doing so in a detached way without judging them or judging yourself.

In a time when science is working to isolate the precise chemical and biological mechanisms of addiction and mental illness, the concept of mindfulness can seem vague. However, studies have repeatedly found that treatment involving mindfulness training and improvement is useful for people in substance abuse recovery, as well as for people in treatment for mental disorders such as depression, post-traumatic stress disorder and bipolar disorder.

The Toronto Mindfulness Scale

The Toronto Mindfulness Scale (TMS) used by the researchers looks at two basic components of mindfulness. The first is curiosity, and the second is decentering. These refer to mental and emotional self-exploration, as well as the ability to detach from that exploration.

The TMS has been widely used, and a significant amount of data is available about mindfulness levels in the general population. However, relatively little data has been gathered about mindfulness among people with substance use disorders.

From May 2012 to August 2012, the authors of the new study examined the records of 107 adult patients at a residential substance abuse treatment facility. Approximately 62 percent of the patients were male, and approximately 58 percent were receiving treatment for alcohol dependence. The remaining patients were being treated for dependency to various drugs, including opioids, cannabis, cocaine, amphetamines or sedatives.

The results of the study showed that the mindfulness levels of those in treatment for substance use disorders were around half the mindfulness levels of the general population. Specifically, the average curiosity scores for those in treatment was 5.58, compared to 13.72 for healthy adults, and the decentering score for those in treatment was 6.78 compared to 11.93 for healthy adults.

The data showed little difference between the mindfulness levels of men and women, and also very little difference in mindfulness between those in treatment for alcohol dependence and those in treatment for drug dependence.

A Treatment Tool, and Also a Cause?

The comparative lack of mindfulness among adults in substance abuse recovery makes it easy to understand why people in recovery often benefit from increasing their mindfulness. However, the authors of the study also suggest that low levels of mindfulness may play a role in the development of substance use disorders in the first place.

They suggest that people with less mindfulness cannot cope with stressful or distressing experiences as well as people with more mindfulness, and are therefore more likely to turn to substance abuse to help them cope with mental or emotional turmoil.

If future research were to confirm this hypothesis, it could reinforce the importance of treating low mindfulness levels as part of treatment programs for substance use disorders. It could mean that low levels of mindfulness might be viewed as a co-occurring condition that should be addressed during treatment, just as disorders like depression are often part of the root causes of addiction that need to be addressed in order to help patients stay in recovery.

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