Here's What Happened to Opioid Users After 8 Weeks of Mindfulness Training

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New research finds that a special mindfulness therapy works as an antidote to opioid misuse.

Opioid misuse and addiction are one of the great scourges of our times. Up to 30 percent of adults in the United States have chronic pain, many of whom are prescribed opioid painkillers. A quarter of those who take them long-term end up misusing them. In 2015, opioids accounted for 63 percent of all drug overdose deaths.

It is a dreadful problem, and not one easily solved. For years we have had Big Pharma pushing the painkillers, and the powerful drugs are an insidious beast. According to researchers from the University of Utah, they actually make the brain more sensitive to pain and less able to experience the to the joy of natural rewards – leading people to take more and more.

"Previous research shows that prolonged use of opioids makes our brains more sensitive to pain and less receptive to the joy one might normally experience from natural rewards, like spending time with loved ones or appreciating a beautiful sunset," explained Eric Garland, associate dean for research at the University of Utah College of Social Work and lead author of a new study on opioid misuse and mindfulness. "This blunted ability to experience natural positive feelings leads people to take higher and higher doses of opioids just to feel okay, and ultimately propels a downward spiral of opioid dependence and misuse. Because of this downward spiral, scholars are increasingly referring to chronic pain and opioid misuse as 'diseases of despair.'"

With this in mind, the team selected 135 adults who took opioids daily for chronic pain and randomly divided them into two groups. For eight weeks, one of the groups attended a therapist-led support group while the other group attended a specific mind-body therapy, called Mindfulness-Oriented Recovery Enhancement (MORE). The study describes MORE as, "a cognitive training program that integrates skills designed to promote sustained attention to natural rewards with mindfulness and reappraisal techniques."

As the University of Utah notes, MORE was developed by Garland as an integrative mind-body therapy designed to "promote positive psychological health while simultaneously addressing addiction, pain and stress. MORE teaches mental training techniques to help people to find meaning in the face of adversity while simultaneously alleviating physical and emotional pain by cultivating positive feelings and experiences."

At the start of the study, researchers gathered electroencephalogram (EEG) data from each participant, measuring brain function through electrical activity at the scalp.

Here's what happened over the course of the study to participants in the MORE group:

  • Their brains became significantly less reactive to cues related to their opioid medications, while also becoming significantly more responsive when they used mindfulness to savor natural pleasure.
  • They reported feeling enhanced joy and more meaning in life.
  • They reported experiencing significantly less pain and greater positive psychological health (positive emotions, the ability to savor natural pleasure and self-transcendence) than those in the support group.
  • Three months after the treatment, they had reduced risk of opioid misuse.

"MORE teaches people to better notice, appreciate and amplify the good things in life, while also deriving meaning and value from difficult situations," said Garland. Enhancing joy and meaning in life through mindfulness may be an antidote to diseases of despair, he explains..

"Our nation's opioid crisis kills more than 100 people a day," he adds. "So it is critical that we help develop new and effective ways to prevent opioid misuse. The data shows that MORE can play that key role."

The study, "Mindfulness-Oriented Recovery Enhancement remediates hedonic dysregulation in opioid users: Neural and affective evidence of target engagement," was published in Science Advances.