‘Warm’ understanding can be best to break unhealthy habits

Mindfulness measures may assist individuals to alter harmful habits such as smoking, drinking, and overeating. According to a study of current studies, however, promoting self-compassion could be critical for the effectiveness of the interventions.

A lady smoking

Most people recognize that it will bring tremendous benefits to their physical and mental well-being to follow a healthy lifestyle. It may however be difficult to implement and maintain the required changes, such as quitting smoking, having more exercise, and eating a healthy diet.

According to a study roundup published in the Harvard Psychiatry Review, mindfulness-based strategies (MBIs) can enhance the capacity of an individual to modify their actions by increasing their ability to concentrate attention and control emotions.

In 1977, the first MBI, called Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction, was developed by Jon Kabat-Zinn of the University of Massachusetts Medical School in Worcester. He described mindfulness as “awareness that arises non-judgmentally by paying attention, on purpose, in the present moment.”

Other MBIs tailored for specific circumstances have been developed by psychiatrists in recent years. This include prevention of recurrence based on mindfulness to help people resolve alcohol and illegal drug addictions, and cognitive therapy based on mindfulness to avoid depression recurrence.

Clinical evidence that MBIs can minimize a wide range of unhealthy habits such as smoking and binge eating, is cited by the authors of the new study led by Dr. Zev Schuman-Olivier of Harvard Medical School in Boston, MA.

They also cite preliminary studies indicating that MBIs can enhance the ability of patients to control chronic conditions such as hypertension, chronic pulmonary obstructive disease and diabetes.

Focused attention

Mindfulness meditation includes concentrating one’s attention entirely on the breath or another sensation of the body, and gently restoring it whenever the mind wanders to the chosen sensation.

This will improve the ability of a person to interoceptively understand internal body signals, in addition to developing attention skills, which the authors believe is one of the keys to controlling emotions and actions.

In an area called the insula, where interoceptive signals from around the body are processed, the authors of the new review examine evidence from brain imaging research that suggests mindfulness training changes connectivity.

According to a leading theory, anyone attempting to give up smoking learns to understand and concentrate on the body’s sensation of craving nicotine by mindfulness. Without being “caught up” in it and reacting in a conditioned way, they learn to feel this craving.

But the authors highlight a major difference that has arisen in recent years: between a more conventional “cool” approach to teaching meditation on mindfulness, which seeks to foster an attitude of acceptance towards unpleasant sensations, and a “warm” approach that specifically integrates self-compassion.

They write that people who have deep-seated issues controlling their emotional state can find the “cool” approach daunting, for instance, as a result of unresolved trauma or marginalized social status.

Instead of fostering a sense of equanimity, it can provoke resistance or even an adverse reaction to meditation by concentrating on unpleasant sensations.

The authors write that integrating self-compassion into mindfulness training in such cases could provide a more productive technique for emotion control than acceptance alone.

They explain:

“Self-compassion involves responding with a warm, kind, and understanding orientation toward oneself, as one would to a close friend, when we suffer, fail, or feel inadequate. […] Interventions and programs that focus explicitly on cultivating inner compassion, which includes and extends beyond self-kindness, may help facilitate behavior change, particularly for individuals who are prone to excess self-criticism, shame, or unworthiness.”

Future directions

Concluding their study, the authors note that the evidence foundation for mindfulness practices still has some limitations.

They write in particular that studies appear to overrepresent well-educated, affluent, and white populations, and ethnic, sexual, and gender minorities are underrepresented.

This is important because there could be a relatively high burden of chronic disease, alcohol use and high risk behaviors for the above categories.

The authors also call for further study of high quality. Suggested enhancements include quantitative outcome measures, broader samples, and experiments of “active control groups,” contrasting MBIs rather than individuals on a waiting list with other treatments.

In addition, few studies monitor or report adverse reactions to MBIs, they note.

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