How can breathing help you put down that beer/donut/cigarette?

You may have a problem with addictive or compulsive behavior. Most of us do, to varying degrees, so this is for everyone, but it is especially for those of you with chronic and problematic addictive or compulsive behaviors. If that is you, you most likely have heard all the talk about mindfulness (like breathing). But what is it, and how can it have any effect on these seemingly intractable habits?
Well, it’s a long story, involving neurocircuitry, habituation and conditioning, but for the purpose of this small article, you can look at it in the following way. Addictions, whether they be to alcohol, drugs, food, cigarettes or texting; or compulsions, such as the tendency to over-think, to analyze, to check your Facebook page again and again etc, all have a common psychological basis. You experience an anxiety-provoking stimulus, and you have an automatic reaction (the harmful behavior) to neutralize the anxiety. It is a form of avoidance, and the more and longer you do it, the more set or instinctual it becomes, the harder to both recognize and change. These habits are usually learned in the past, probably in a un-supportive environment under trauma or stress. You experienced something scary and did not have the ability to come up with a healthy response, and chose what made the experience easier in the moment.

This is a natural human reaction, since we all seek relief from suffering. However, this habitual response may not be working for you anymore. You’re hungover for work everyday, you’re overweight, you’re twitchy and anxious from all the repetitive checking of social media. This is where those mindfulness techniques can come into play.

At its essence, mindfulness is living in the present moment through sensory experiences. It’s basically the opposite of living in your head- slowing down, observing physical sensations as well as the mind and what it is doing. It is living in the present, intentionally moving focus away from regrets about the past, and worries about the future. Practicing this kind of recognition and returning to the present can alleviate some of the suffering that our minds can cause.

There are all sorts of exercises and practices to encourage this type of awareness, and they can be learned with or without professional help. While cultivating this state of mind is not something that happens overnight (despite what some pop psychology sources may tell you….), it is remarkably accessible for everyone, and there are plenty of resources out there both in your community and online. You don’t have to meditate for two hours a day, convert to Buddhism or go to a $2000 yoga retreat to reap the benefits. There are many types of practices to explore and resources to utilize and it is totally possible for most people to come up with a plan that works for them and their lifestyle.

So let’s say you have a habit of eating a box of Entenmann’s dark chocolate donuts after a stressful day at work. If you’ve been practicing these techniques, mindfulness gives you an at-the-ready tool to use in that moment. It allows you to create space between the impulse to eat all of the donuts, and actually doing so, putting the brakes on this automatic reaction. And then, you can make a choice between the options. Maybe you decide to eat them, maybe you don’t, perhaps you have just two and actually enjoy them. But you will be the one making the choice, not an unconscious impulse. And this is how these practices are both empowering and freeing.

Some resources to get you started:

Article written exclusively for wellness warriors NYC by: by Leila J. McCarthy, LMHC

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