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A simple mindfulness exercise might help prevent drinking alcohol in response to stress

New research provides evidence that a brief breath counting exercise can reduce alcohol-seeking behavior. The findings have been published in the journal Addictive Behaviors.

“Our previous work had shown that people who learn to use alcohol to cope with negative emotions like anxiety and depression are prone to alcohol dependence. This is because negative emotions powerfully motivate alcohol-seeking in these vulnerable people, making alcohol use hard to resist even if they want to abstain,” explained study authors Lee Hogarth, an assistant professor, and Ruichong (Chloe) Shuai, a PhD candidate at the University of Exeter.

“Consequently, we wanted to study therapeutic strategies that can build resilience to negative emotions, such as mindfulness training. We tested only one specific element of mindfulness training — breath counting — which focuses attention on an internal state.”

In the study, 192 undergraduate students completed assessments of alcohol use and alcohol-related problems. The participants’ alcohol-seeking behavior was tested with a pictorial choice procedure, which examined their preference to view alcohol versus food pictures

Afterward, the participants were randomly assigned to either a breath counting group or a control group. Those in the breath counting group listened to a 6-minute audio file, in which they were instructed how to switch attention away from unwanted distractions by relaxing and counting their breaths. Those in the control group listened to 6 minutes of audio from a popular science book.

The participants then completed the pictorial choice procedure again. However, this time the test was completed as the participants were continuously subjected to a loud and stressful noise. Those who had been taught the breath counting technique were asked to use it during the procedure.

The researchers found that participants who used the breath counting technique tended to report being less annoyed and less unhappy after being subjected to the unpleasant noise than those in the control group. Importantly, the stressful noise promoted alcohol-seeking behavior, but this effect was attenuated in the breath counting group.

“Remarkably, breath counting did promote recovery from stress induced alcohol-seeking. The key message from the study is that if you are trying to reduce your drinking, and negative emotions often cause you to relapse, then one simple strategy is that whenever you experience negative emotions, try counting your out-breaths as you breathe normally, and it should help combat the desire to drink that comes to mind,” Hogarth and Shuai told PsyPost.

“We have made the breath counting training procedure available on Youtube at the following link for people to try out:”

But the breathing intervention does not appear to be as effective for more dependent drinkers.

“The protective effect of breath counting on stress-induced alcohol-seeking was weaker for more dependent student drinkers, suggesting the strategy might be less effective for people with serious alcohol problems,” the researchers explained.

“However, we have subsequently replicated the protective effect of breath counting in a sample of adult community daytime drinkers (who have more problematic alcohol use and psychiatric symptoms), suggesting that breath counting may help more dependent drinkers to cope with stress induced cravings.”

“We are now testing why breath counting produces this protective effect (i.e. is it just distraction or something to do with calming physiology), and whether the intervention works for individuals with more severe alcohol dependence,” Hogarth and Shuai said.

The study, “Ultra-brief breath counting (mindfulness) training promotes recovery from stress-induced alcohol-seeking in student drinkers“, was authored by Ruichong Shuai, Alexandra Elissavet Bakou, Lorna Hardy, and Lee Hogarth.