“It’s a human tendency to want to have pleasure and want to avoid pain or discomfort,” says Sarah Bowen.
But the University of Washington researcher adds that we’re often unaware of this tendency. We might reach for our cell phone to escape boredom or for food to escape stress, without knowing that these are coping strategies.
According to Bowen, substance abuse is another example of that too-human automatic drive to move toward pleasure and away from pain—one that affects an estimated 24 million Americans, according to the National Survey on Drug Use and Health.
Traditional treatment for substance abuse often focuses on avoiding or controlling triggers that result in negative emotion or craving. While research has shown that this approach can help, substance abuse relapse remains a problem: about half of those who seek treatment are using again within a year.
Bowen has spent much of her career studying another approach: mindfulness, which involves cultivating moment-to-moment, nonjudgmental awareness of thoughts, feelings, and surroundings. She and her colleagues have developed a program called Mindfulness-Based Relapse Prevention (MBRP), which combines practices like sitting meditation with standard relapse prevention skills, such as identifying events that trigger relapse. Rather than fighting or…