If you’re a current smoker trying desperately to become a former smoker, you may have come to the realization that the infamous “Quit Day” doesn’t work. It’s time to find out what actually does work. A joint review conducted by researchers from Texas Tech University and the University of Oregon has found that people looking to kick their nicotine habit should begin with exercises that strengthen self-control, such as mindful meditation.

"We are interested in trying to probe how repeated use of drugs ultimately influences our ability to control our desires," Nora Volkow, director of the U.S. National Institute on Drug Abuse, said in a statement. "We are starting to work through how drugs affect areas of the brain that normally enable us to self-regulate, to create goals and to be able to achieve them, and how those changes influence the behavior of the person addicted."

Volkow and her colleagues recruited 60 undergraduate students — 27 cigarette smokers and 33 nonsmokers — who were split into two groups. Participants were told they would be using meditation and relaxation for cognitive improvements and reducing stress. The first group ended up participating in mindful meditation training which included becoming self-aware of one’s experience, while the second group participated in a relaxation technique that meant relaxing each muscle group.

Researchers also conducted brain scans, issued questionnaires, and used carbon monoxide and dioxide measurements to evaluate how much each participant actually smoked and their habits. Although a majority of the participants indicated that they smoked the same number of cigarettes before and after the start of the study, carbon dioxide measurements from the mindful meditation group revealed a 60 percent reduction in smoking over two weeks after the study was completed.

"The students changed their smoking behavior but were not aware of it," explained Yi-Yuan Tang, professor of psychological sciences at Texas Tech. "When we showed the data to a participant who said they had smoked 20 cigarettes, this person checked their pocket immediately and was shocked to find 10 left. We then measured intention to see if it correlated with smoking changes and found there was no correlation, but if you improve the self-control network in the brain and moderate stress-reactivity, then it's possible to reduce smoking."

A similar study led by Julien Lacaille, a psychologist at McGill University in Quebec, found that mindful meditation can also be used to treat a much less ominous form of addiction: chocolate cravings. Results focused on 196 individuals who were asked to rate the level of their cravings. Responses included, “I eat chocolate to cheer me up when I am down” and “Chocolate often preys on my mind.” Participants who practiced mindful eating, which included noticing the craving, not judging the craving, and detaching from the craving, craved chocolate less than before “because they now perceived it as generally less desirable.”

"Even though one therapy works on something, you cannot say this therapy is better than others," Tang added. "We can only get a full picture through systematic research and practice, but I think this is a field with a lot of promise and that we should be open minded. Mindfulness meditation, as well as other strategies that are aimed at strengthening self-control, are likely to be useful for the management of addiction, but not necessarily for everybody. However, understanding how our brain works when we do interventions that strengthen self-control can also have multiple implications that relate to behaviors that are necessary for health and well-being."

The research team from this study hopes to further their findings by answering some of their own unanswered questions. For example, how long could the benefits from mindfulness last for? Do certain individuals benefit more than others? What types of addiction (drugs, alcohol, overeating) can mindful meditation help with overcoming?

Source: Tang Y, Volkow N, et al. Circuitry of Self-control and its Role in Reducing Addiction. Trends in Cognitive Sciences. 2015.