This mind-body therapy may decrease opioid addiction, increase joy

In a new study, researchers found that a specific mind-body therapy, Mindfulness-Oriented Recovery Enhancement (MORE), could increase the brain’s response to natural, healthy rewards while also decreasing the brain’s response to opioid-related cues.

The research was conducted by a team from the University of Utah and elsewhere.

It is estimated that approximately 20-30 percent of U.S. adults experience chronic pain.

Opioid painkillers are often prescribed to these patients, but a quarter of those who take these powerful drugs long-term end up misusing them.

With opioids accounting for 63 percent of all drug overdose deaths in 2015, the widespread misuse of this class of drugs has been deemed a public health crisis.

Previous research has shown that prolonged use of opioids makes our brains more sensitive to pain and less receptive to the joy one might normally experience from natural rewards, like spending time with loved ones or appreciating a beautiful sunset

In the study, the team examined data from four experiments involving 135 adults who took opioids daily for chronic pain.

The study participants were randomly assigned to two groups where they participated in eight weeks of MORE or eight weeks of a therapist-led support group.

At the beginning and end of the study period, researchers collected electroencephalogram (EEG) data, which measures brain function through electrical activity at the scalp.

The results showed that over the course of the study, the brains of the study participants in the MORE group became significantly less reactive to cues related to their opioid medications, while also becoming significantly more responsive when participants used mindfulness to savor the natural pleasure.

The team says the blunted ability to experience natural positive feelings leads people to take higher and higher doses of opioids just to feel okay and ultimately propels a downward spiral of opioid dependence and misuse.

Because of this downward spiral, scholars are increasingly referring to chronic pain and opioid misuse as ‘diseases of despair.’

The results of this study show that MORE can actually reverse that devastating trajectory.

In addition to these objective EEG findings, participants in MORE also reported feeling enhanced joy and more meaning in life.

They also reported experiencing significantly less pain and greater positive psychological health (positive emotions, the ability to savor natural pleasure and self-transcendence) than those in the support group.

The study concluded that three months after treatment, MORE reduced the risk of opioid misuse by increasing positive psychological health and decreasing pain.

Taken together, these findings indicate that by changing brain function and promoting positive psychological health, MORE may increase happiness and an enhanced sense of meaningfulness in the face of adversity.

These positive psychological effects, in turn, appear to reduce pain and prevent the misuse of opioids.

Thus, enhancing joy and meaning in life through mindfulness may be an antidote to diseases of despair.

The lead author of the study is Eric Garland, associate dean for research at the University of Utah College of Social Work.

The study is published in the journal Science Advances.

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