The power of mindfulness is incredible. The simple meditation technique has the power to ease pain in arthritis and asthma patients, reduce anxiety and symptoms of depression, and improve heart health. It so powerful that it works better than conventional methods (medication, psychotherapy) for many of these conditions. And now, a new study finds that it can bring back happiness in people falling down the rabbit hole of opioid drug addiction.

Mindfulness involves taking a moment to relax, to become aware of the present moment — sounds, smells, and the surrounding environment — and to think calmly about our emotions and thoughts. By considering thoughts in this context, we’re better able to achieve wellness, as mindfulness requires that we approach them without judgment, and without thinking what’s right and what’s wrong. It helps us find happiness in the present moment. And that’s exactly what people in the habit of taking opioid drugs need, according to the study.

“These findings are scientifically important because one of the major theories about how and why addiction occurs asserts that over time drug abusers become dulled to the experience of joy in everyday life, and this pushes them to use higher and higher doses of drugs to feel happiness,” said Eric Garland, an associate professor at the University of Utah College of Social Work, in a press release.

He says that the desensitization opioid drug users experience can be reversed through mindfulness, and that it may even be able to keep them off the drugs. Indeed, opioid drug users, whether they’re abusing heroin, oxycodone or some other morphine-derived drug, experience a rush of the neurotransmitter dopamine, as the drug binds to opioid-sensitive receptors in the brain. This causes a high full of pleasure, and the brain encodes that pleasure with the environment it occurs in. Thus, the brain comes to crave those feelings again, with each subsequent use inducing a weaker effect. These drug users typically search for higher doses after that, and it’s easy to see how it can become a vicious cycle of addition.

Garland and his team, however, found that the intervention program Mindfulness-Oriented Recovery Enhancement (MORE) was able to reduce patients’ cravings for opioid drugs. Chronic pain patients taking these drugs underwent the eight-week intervention, during which time they were taught a “mindful savoring practice” that encouraged them to focus attention on beautiful scenes of nature, a sunset, or a connection with a love one, all of which are considered pleasant experiences. During meditation, they were asked to focus and appreciate the present moment, which involved taking in the smells, textures, and colors of a bouquet of flowers.

By pushing patients to find happiness in their day-to-day activities, the researchers found, through EEG scans, that their brains activated at a higher rate to such events. And the more activity they showed, the less likely they were to crave opioids.

Roughly two million Americans abuse prescription opioids — it’s an epidemic — and overdose deaths have more than quadrupled in the last 15 years. It’s extremely important for opioid users to find a way out before it’s too late. After all, dependency is one thing, but addiction is a whole other beast.

Source: Garland E, Froeliger B, Howard M. Neurophysiological evidence for remediation of reward processing deficits in chronic pain and opioid misuse following treatment with Mindfulness-Oriented Recovery Enhancement: exploratory ERP findings from a pilot RCT. Journal of Behavioral Medicine. 2014.