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Trying to quit smoking? Get on top of your self-control first

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Early evidence suggests that exercises aimed at increasing self-control, such as mindfulness meditation, can decrease the unconscious influences that motivate a person to smoke.

Scientists are looking to the brain to understand why setting a “quit day” isn’t a surefire way to rid oneself of a cigarette habit. Recent neuroimaging studies have shown that smokers have less activity in the brain regions associated with self-control, raising questions around whether targeting these neurobiological circuits could be a way to treat addiction.

Some studies showed how integrative body-mind training could decreases participant’s levels of the stress hormone cortisol, as well as increase immune reactivity. Specific changes in the brain have also been identified, showing stronger connectivity between regions linked to self-control.

Mindfulness meditation is of course one strategy to strengthen self-control. While this is early evidence that such programs can change the brain so people are less motivated to smoke, there are still unanswered questions about how often this therapy would need to be conducted, how long the benefits last, and whether some individuals benefit more than others. We also need to learn whether such treatments can be applied to other forms of addiction, such as over-eating or drinking.

“Even though one therapy works on something, you cannot say this therapy is better than others,” says lead study author Yi-Yuan Tang, a Professor of Psychological Sciences at Texas Tech. “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,” says senior study author Nora Volkow, Director of the U.S. National Institute on Drug Abuse. “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.”

Source: Cell Press via ScienceDaily