How Meditation Can Fix a Bad Habit (Video)

January 18, 2017 Updated: January 18, 2017

Could meditation be the secret to quitting smoking? This psychiatrist thinks so.

Is there anything that meditation can’t help fix? From making us kinder and happier to actually improving our overall physical health, meditation’s benefits are vast. Psychiatrist Judson Brewer adds another benefit of meditation to the list: it has helped his patients let go of the bad habits, like smoking, that were harming their health. 

He explains that our bad habits tend to fill an emotional need, and when we learn how to tap into that, we can break the cycle of addiction.

Rather than tell them to not eat a brownie when they’re sad or to stop smoking, he asks them to just be mindful of how they feel when they’re engaging in these activities.

The emotional cycle of addiction is something I’ve experienced firsthand. I smoked for around 12 years, and like most smokers, I tried quitting many times. The physical withdrawals are no fun, but the emotional desire for a cigarette is what really kept me, and keeps millions of other smokers, coming back.

About 15 years ago, I got sick with bronchitis so severe that I couldn’t get out of bed for three days. After that, smoking was a different experience. It was unpleasant and reminded me of how awful I felt when I was bedridden. Instead of feeling cool and calmed by cigarettes, the taste turned my stomach and the smell made me cough. It turns out that I was practicing what Brewer calls “mindful smoking” by accident.

Brewer studies how humans have evolved to form some of the bad habits that plague us, like eating our feelings or smoking cigarettes. In his short TED MED talk, he explains how practicing mindfulness can help us break the bad habits that we just can’t seem to kick.

Meditation is the foundation for this type of therapy. He teaches his patients how to step back and get curious. Rather than tell them to not eat a brownie when they’re sad or to stop smoking, he asks them to just be mindful of how they feel when they’re engaging in these activities.

He actually encourages patients to take part in the activity they’re trying to stop, but be mindful while they do it. “Go ahead and smoke,” he says, “Just be curious.”

“Mindful smoking” might not sound like how to quit smoking, but when smokers in his program practice mindfulness, they connect with parts of smoking that long-time smokers gloss over. Instead of getting swept up in the emotions that made them want a cigarette, they notice how it makes their hands and hair smell and how the smoke really tastes.

(Basil MK/Pexels)
Basil MK (Basil MK/Pexels)

Brewer’s mindfulness program has been so successful that he has launched an app based on this technique to help people quit smoking: Craving to Quit. It’s a 21 day program that educates and supports smokers on the road to cessation. He also has an emotional eating app called Eat Right Now.

Rather than force you to quit smoking, Craving to Quit sheds light on why our brains want a cigarette and how to quit smoking by breaking the craving-reward cycle that keeps us lighting up. Eat Right Now works similarly, by helping you tune into why you want a cupcake rather than telling you not to eat that cupcake. If you want to learn more about Brewer’s work, Mindful has a Q&A with him that’s great further reading.

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