Traumatic experiences in childhood can lead to increased cannabis usage, but mindfulness has generally been believed to protect against both the damaging consequences of childhood trauma and drug misuse. However, a new study published in Mindfulness has discovered how some components of mindfulness are more protective while other components are more harmful.
Adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) refer to abuse (verbal, sexual, and/or physical), or household dysfunction (e.g., parental divorce) experienced before 18 years of age. ACEs are highly associated with increased drug misuse, including cannabis. Cannabis misuse is strongly linked with poorer physical and mental health consequences. This is especially concerning in American university students because at least one in two students report experiencing at least one ACE, and because cannabis usage has been increasing in recent years in this group.
Dispositional mindfulness refers to providing attention and awareness to thoughts and feelings in the present moment, without judgment. It has generally been found to be a protective factor against the negative effects of ACEs and substance use disorders – for example, mindfulness is associated with lower cannabis use and more successfully quitting cannabis use after treatment.
Dispositional mindfulness is made up of various components or ‘facets’. However, studies demonstrate mixed effects of the different facets of mindfulness on individuals exposed to ACEs at risk for drug misuse, prompting Michael Gawrysiak and colleagues from West Chester University of Pennsylvania to clarify this phenomenon.
The researchers recruited 354 university students aged roughly 20 years old on average. These students completed three online surveys: the Adverse Childhood Experiences Questionnaire (ACEQ) to measure childhood adversity, Five Facet Mindfulness Questionnaire (FFMQ) to measure mindfulness, and finally Cannabis Use Disorders Identification Test-Revised (CUDIT-R) to measure cannabis use and misuse, in addition to associated problems regarding use.
Gawrysiak and colleagues ran a statistical model that tested educated assumptions that the different mindfulness facets would play a significant role in explaining the ACE-cannabis relationship.
The facets explored were Awareness (how much we are paying attention to the current surroundings and what is being felt or experienced), Nonjudgment (accepting thoughts and emotions without criticizing ourselves or labeling thoughts and emotions as good or bad) and Observation (paying attention to thoughts, feelings, and what’s happening in your body, as well as the things happening around us).
The Awareness and Nonjudgment facets were each negatively associated with ACEs and cannabis. In other words, higher implementation of the Awareness and Nonjudgment components of mindfulness were associated with lower cannabis use. “Higher mindful Awareness and Nonjudgment may be more capable of self-monitoring and attending to the present-moment experience with acceptance, thereby responding to challenging [mental] and [emotional] states with greater tolerance and self-regulation,” the study authors proposed.
Conversely, the Observe facet was positively associated with ACEs and cannabis, meaning that higher implementation of the Observe component was associated with higher cannabis use. The researchers suggest that this may be because Observe “enhanc[es] the absorption in, or vividness of, aversive bodily associations, thoughts, and feelings,” and therefore individuals may be “at greater risk for overall distress and a propensity toward drug use avoidant coping.”
Awareness, Nonjudgment and Observe partially explained the relationship between ACE and cannabis – 20%, 41% and 19% respectively.
Total mindfulness overall, as measured by the FFMQ total score, was not found to explain the relationship between ACEs and cannabis, which emphasized the researchers’ aims of scrutinizing each mindfulness component individually.
Gawrysiak and colleagues noted some limitations. The university student volunteers anonymously filled out surveys online without specific checks for their level of engagement throughout the tasks, whereas an in-person structured interview with additional measurements of substance use and adult trauma may have provided more accurate and reliable results. Additionally, nearly 73% of participants were non-Hispanic White, and nearly 79% identified to be female, which reduces generalization of results. The researchers propose a more diverse recruitment would be beneficial in future studies.
The study, “Mindfulness Facets Differentially Mediate the Relationship Between Adverse Childhood Experiences and Cannabis Use Severity”, was authored by Michael Gawrysiak, Daniel Loomis, Mikaela Armao, Elizabeth Gillooly, Lexi Kearns and John Walsh.