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Editor’s Note: Meditation has been used for centuries to help reduce stress and promote psychological growth. Of the many types that exist, Transcendental Meditation is one that has the most scientific studies supporting its effectiveness in the treatment of substance use disorders. Dr. Stuart Rothenberg is a traditionally trained family physician who works to bridge the gap between traditional and alternative medical approaches with interventions such as TM. 

By Stuart Rothenberg, MD

“I have a lot less anger and a much clearer mind … I believe that TM has been a major factor in my being sober today. I cannot express in words the rewards that I receive daily through meditating.”

–Sam, recovering alcoholic1

“When I transcended, I connected with something permanent, something I’d been seeking all my life…Transcendence treated the hole in my soul.” 

–Jonah, recovering alcoholic and drug addict2

As a family physician who is also trained as a teacher of the Transcendental Meditation technique, I have observed the devastating influence addiction can have in the lives of my patients—as well as the profound effect that TM practice can have in helping them achieve healthy, fulfilling lives. I believe in the link between treating addiction and meditation.

Research suggests this simple mental procedure has a healing effect for all forms of substance dependency—including alcohol, drugs, and smoking–and meta-analyses have found that TM practice is significantly more effective than other meditation or relaxation approaches and other conventional programs used to treat addictions.3, 4 

How does TM accomplish this?

Jonah’s description above of the “hole in my soul” reflects the experiences of many addicts who use substances to compensate for an inner emptiness–and to escape, if only temporarily, the anxiety and depression that these feelings create. TM allows the practitioner to reconnect with the Self within—the deepest level of the mind, which is a profound reservoir of creativity, serenity, and bliss. With regular practice, this experience of “transcendence” naturally provides a stable sense of inner peace, expansion, and fulfillment that replaces the craving for substances.

TM practice has been shown to increase production of neurochemicals associated with happiness and fulfillment—including dopamine, serotonin, and gabaminobutyric acid (GABA). Increase in these neurotransmitters reduces autonomic arousal and anxiety—decreasing the need for drugs or alcohol.5-7

TM practice also reduces blood levels of the stress-hormone cortisol, elevated levels of which can contribute to a host of serious chronic disorders.8 NIH-supported clinical studies on TM practitioners have shown significant reductions in heart attack and stroke, as well as improvement in insulin resistance—all effects that can be tied to reduced cortisol levels.9

Another mechanism underlying the addiction-healing effect of TM is brain integration. The ancient Yoga Sutras identify the goal of meditation as a state of complete balance or integration (this is the literal meaning of the word “yoga”). During the practice of the TM technique, research has documented a remarkable state of brain integration. The electroencephalograms (or brain-wave patterns) of TM practitioners typically display high levels of orderliness, or coherence, suggesting greater communication among the different parts of the brain.10

What’s more, the EEG coherence found during TM practice is particularly strong in the very front of the brain—the “prefrontal cortex” (PFC). Brain-imaging studies also show increased blood flow in this part of the brain. This is highly significant, as the PFC is known to be the seat of many crucial higher-level executive functions, including healthy decision-making ability, focus, impulse control (willpower), moral judgment, and organizational skills. Strengthening this critical area helps a person struggling with addictions gain mastery over emotions and cravings.

How is TM used to treat addiction?

In a real-world setting, TM is best used as an adjunct to conventional rehabilitation programs. Researchers working with one of the most difficult-to-treat patient populations—so-called “skid row” alcoholics—concluded that adding TM to AA and conventional counseling programs significantly enhanced their effectiveness.11 Recovering addicts in 12-step programs who learned TM—including Bill Wilson, the co-founder of AA, who learned TM late in his life—have commented that it fulfills the purpose of the 11th step, which encourages individuals to increase their conscious contact with a higher power as they work toward recovery.

While TM practice has been shown to be effective in treating addictions of all kinds, its therapeutic impact is really a by-product of its main effect: to allow individuals to unfold their full inner potential, the self-actualization or “yoga,” described in the ancient texts. In that sense, using TM to treat an addiction disorder helps the individual to not only transcend the addiction problem, but to fulfill his or her highest aspirations for a fully realized human life.

References:

  1. Bleick CR. Case Histories: Using the Transcendental Meditation Program with Alcoholics and Addicts. In Self-Recovery: Treating Addictions Using Transcendental Meditation and Maharishi Ayurveda, O’Connell DF and Alexander CN, eds.: Harrington Park Press, 1994; p. 248.
  2. Rosenthal NE. Transcendence: Healing and Transformation through Transcendental Meditation. Tarcher-Penguin Books, 2011; p. 164.
  3. Alexander CN et al. “Treating and Preventing Alcohol, Nicotine and Drug Abuse through Transcendental Meditation: A Review and Statistical Meta-analysis.” Alcoholism Treatment Quarterly (1994), Vol. 11, No. 1/2, pp. 13-87.
  4. Haaga DA et al. “Effects of the Transcendental Meditation Program on Substance Abuse among University Students.” Cardiology Review and Practice 10 (2011) doi: 10.4061
  5. Bujatti M and Riederer P. “Serotonin, Noradrenaline, Dopamine Metabolites in Transcendental Meditation.” Journal of Neural Transmission 39 (1976): 257-267.
  6. Walton KG and Levitsky DK. “Effects of the Transcendental Meditation Program on Neuroendocrine Abnormalities Associated with Aggression and Crime.” Journal of Offender Rehabilitation 36 (2003): 67-88.
  7. Elias AN and Wilson AF. “Serum Hormonal Concentrations Following Transcendental Meditation: A Potential Role of Gamma Aminobutyric Acid.” Medical Hypotheses 44 (1995): 287-291
  8. Walton KG and Levitsky DK. “Effects of the Transcendental Meditation Program on Neuroendocrine Abnormalities Associated with Aggression and Crime.” Journal of Offender Rehabilitation 36 (2003): 67-88.
  9. Barnes VA and Orme-Johnson DW. “Prevention and Treatment of Cardiovascular Disease in Adolescents and Adults through the Transcendental Meditation Program: A Research Review Update.” Current Hypertension Reviews 8 (2012): 227-242.
  10. Travis FT et al. “Patterns of EEG Coherence, Power and Contingent Negative Variation Characterize the Integration of Transcendental and Waking States.” Biological Psychology 61 (2002): 293-319
  11. Taub E et al. “Effectiveness of Broad Spectrum Approaches to Relapse in Severe Alcoholism: A Long-term, Randomized, Controlled Trial of Transcendental Meditation, EMG Biofeedback and Electronic Neurotherapy. Alcoholism Treatment Quarterly (1994), Vol. 11, No. 1/2, pp. 187-220.

Stuart Rothenberg, MD, is a fellow of the American Academy of Family Physicians and was one of the first U.S. physicians to be trained as a teacher of the Transcendental Meditation technique. He is national director of the TM Health Professionals Association and has lectured widely at leading medical schools and research centers on the applications of the TM technique in health care. 

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