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Heavy drinkers given 11 minutes of mindfulness training drank less over the week following training than others in the same study who were taught relaxation techniques.

“We found that a very brief, simple exercise in mindfulness can help drinkers cut back, and the benefits can be seen quite quickly,” said lead study author Dr. Sunjeev Kamboj of University College London (UCL), Clinical Psychopharmacology Unit.

The study split 68 non-treatment-seeking heavy drinkers (women and men who drank more than 14 or 21 units of alcohol a week, respectively, but did not meet criteria for alcohol use disorder) into two groups: half received mindfulness training, the other half were taught relaxation techniques, both via 11-minute audio recordings. The participants were asked to practice their assigned strategy for 15 minutes per day for a week.

Those in the mindfulness group were taught to pay attention to thoughts, sounds, sensations and their own feelings, without attempting to change them.  The relaxation group was given instructions designed to be calming, such as softening their muscles and breathing deeply. Their instructions emphasized that doing so could help them gain control over craving.  Conversely, the mindfulness instructions did not mention anything about craving or control. Instead, it was stressed that the goal was not relaxation, but increased alertness and attentiveness.

Both groups were given flashcards to help remember the techniques and were encouraged to practice them when they felt the urge to drink throughout the week. The mindfulness flashcard included directives such as, “Notice and observe your thoughts and physiological reactions non-judgmentally as they arise. Allow them to be there and let them go.”  An instruction on the relaxation card read, “Take a few deep breaths and release any tension in your body as it arises. Allow your muscles to feel more and more calm.”

The study, published in the International Journal of Neuropsychopharmacology, was double-blind, so neither participants nor researchers knew who was receiving which treatment.  The researchers took care not to mention terms specific to each treatment condition so that participants would not be biased, based on preconceived notions of the techniques.

After one week, participants who used mindfulness techniques drank 9.3 units (about 3 pints of beer) less than they had during the week prior to the experiment.  No significant reduction in drinking was found for the group using the relaxation techniques.

Participants in the mindfulness group were taught to redirect their focus to the present moment and to pay attention to cravings instead of suppressing them. They were told that by noticing feelings and bodily sensations they could label them as temporary events in the body, making them tolerable and lessening the need to act on them.

“Practicing mindfulness can make a person more aware of their tendency to respond reflexively to urges. By being more aware of their cravings, we think the study participants were able to bring intention back into the equation, instead of automatically reaching for the drink when they feel a craving,” said Kamboj.

While only the mindfulness group drank significantly less at the end of the experiment, both groups showed small reductions in craving, suggesting that even “ultra-brief” experience with mindfulness and relaxation can have beneficial effects in at-risk drinkers.

The short-term effects of very brief mindfulness training on alcohol consumption in this study lead the authors to suggest that future studies should evaluate longer-term effects of both mindfulness and relaxation on drinking behavior. Noting how easily and rapidly people can be trained in mindfulness, they point to its utility as a brief intervention strategy for excessive drinking.