My colleagues and I had a new paper published in the top scientific journal Nature Mental Health showing that Mindfulness-Oriented Recovery Enhancement (MORE) led to clinically significant reductions in post-traumatic stress symptoms in 59% of patients with comorbid PTSD, chronic pain, and opioid misuse. In this NIH-funded study involving 241 patients, MORE significantly reduced PTSD symptoms by increasing the capacity to regulate negative emotions through reappraisal. In turn, the effects of MORE on reducing opioid misuse were statistically mediated by decreases in PTSD symptoms. This study is important because PTSD is highly prevalent among people with chronic pain and addiction, yet there are no evidence-based treatments for this complex comorbidity. These data suggest that MORE is a highly effective therapy that can simultaneously treat traumatic stress, chronic pain, and addictive behavior.
The largest neuroscience study to date of mindfulness as a treatment for addiction shows that Mindfulness-Oriented Recovery Enhancement (MORE) can decrease opioid misuse by changing the brain.
The study, published in the top journal Science Advances, provides new insight into the neurobiological mechanisms by which mindfulness treats addiction. Study findings provide a promising, safe and accessible treatment option for the more than 9 million Americans misusing opioids. Eric Garland is the lead author on the paper and is a distinguished professor, and associate dean for research at the University of Utah College of Social Work. He also directs the University of Utah’s Center on Mindfulness and Integrative Health Intervention Development.
Garland’s study builds on previous research measuring the positive effects of theta waves in the human brain. Researchers have found that individuals with low theta waves tend to experience a wandering mind, trouble concentrating or they ruminate on thoughts about themselves. Theta waves can best be viewed on electroencephalogram, or EEG scans of the frontal midline regions of their brains. Low theta waves result in a loss of self-control as the brain slips into its default mode of automatic habits. In contrast, when a person is focused, present and fully absorbed in a task, EEG scans will show increased frontal midline theta wave activity.
“With high theta activity, your mind becomes very quiet, you focus less on yourself and become so deeply absorbed in what you are doing that the boundary between yourself and the thing you are focusing on starts to fade away. You lose yourself in what you are doing,” said Garland.
Garland’s new study showed it is in this mindful, theta wave state that people begin to experience feelings of self-transcendence and bliss, and the brain changes in ways that actually reduce one’s addictive behaviors.
ABOUT THE STUDY
Garland’s research team recruited 165 adults with long-term opioid use for study. Participants were randomly placed into either the control group that participated in supportive group psychotherapy, or the experimental group taught to incorporate Mindfulness-Oriented Recovery Enhancement (MORE) into their daily lives. Before and after the eight weeks of study treatment, all participants were brought into the research lab and had their brain waves measured with EEG while they were asked to try to practice mindfulness meditation. Participants were assessed for opioid misuse for nine months after the treatment ended.
MORE is an eight-week, mindfulness-based therapy created by Garland to treat addiction, pain and emotional distress by promoting self-awareness and self-regulation of automatic and addictive habits. In a large clinical trial recently published in JAMA Internal Medicine, MORE was shown to reduce opioid misuse by 45%, more than doubling the effect of standard therapy.
Study participants in the MORE group learned to practice mindfulness meditation by focusing their attention on their breath or body sensations for sustained periods of time, and to refocus their attention when their minds began to wander into obsessive thinking about drugs or life stressors.
Participants showed more than twice as much frontal midline theta brain activity following treatment with MORE, whereas those in supportive therapy showed no increase in theta. Participants in MORE who showed the biggest increases in theta waves reported more intense experiences of self-transcendence during meditation, including the sense of one’s ego fading away, a sense of oneness with the universe or feelings of blissful energy and love.
MORE also led to significant decreases in opioid misuse through the nine-month follow-up. These reductions in opioid misuse were caused in part by the increases in frontal midline theta brain waves. Garland explained that by achieving “tastes of self-transcendence” through meditation, the mindfulness therapy boosted theta waves in the frontal lobes of the brain to help participants gain self-control over their addictive behaviors.
“Mindfulness can create a pathway for us to transcend our limited sense of self,” said Garland. “Civilizations have known for thousands of years that self-transcendence, the experience of being connected to something greater than ourselves, has powerful therapeutic benefits.”
This, he explained, is a part of why some cultures engage in spiritual practices, practice deep meditation or use psychedelic substances like psilocybin mushrooms. Even in the popular 12-step addiction treatment program, the 11th step—seeking conscious contact with a higher power through prayer or meditation—taps into this same mechanism to promote recovery from addiction.
The state of transcendence can be like a blissful, natural high. Garland stated, “Rather than seeking a high from something outside of yourself like a drug, meditation can help you to find an even greater sense of pleasure, peace and fulfillment from within.”
In a recent bibliometric analysis of mindfulness research published over the past 55 years, I was found to be the most prolific author of mindfulness research in the world. While I’m truly honored and humbled by this achievement, the real meaning of this body of work goes beyond numbers and world records. My deepest aspiration is that the scientific discoveries I’ve made over the past 15 years will reduce suffering and advance human flourishing.
Are you a behavioral health clinician (social worker, psychologist, counselor, etc.) looking for a job centered on mindfulness? Here’s a full-time job opportunity delivering Mindfulness-Oriented Recovery Enhancement (MORE) to active duty military personnel undergoing knee replacement surgery for a new research study funded by the Department of Defense. I am the PI on the study, but the position is through the Geneva Foundation. If you are interested, please reach out to me (firstname.lastname@example.org), or apply at the link below:
On May 4, I had the honor of giving an invited lecture for the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health (NCCIH) of the National Institutes of Health, entitled “Healing the Opioid Crisis with Mindfulness-Oriented Recovery Enhancement: Clinical Efficacy and Neurophysiological Mechanisms.” The full video of this lecture can be found here. In this lecture, I described my decade-long research program focused on developing and testing MORE as a treatment for chronic pain, opioid misuse, and addiction, and reported results from the largest clinical trial of MORE to date.
I began the talk discussing the destructive processes that unwittingly propel a person suffering from prolonged pain down the path toward an eventual loss of control over opioid use. I have been studying these risk mechanisms undergirding opioid misuse and OUD in people with chronic pain for more than a decade, and the discoveries I have made, along with great science from the field, informed the development of MORE. Then I described the Mindfulness-to-Meaning Theory, a key theoretical framework underlying MORE, as well as MORE’s treatment components, including mindfulness meditation, reappraisal, and savoring. Finally, I detailed MORE’s clinical outcomes and mechanisms of action across four randomized controlled trials involving nearly 500 patients. MORE works by strengthening self-control, reducing the brain’s reactivity to drug cues, increasing the brain’s response to natural, healthy rewards, enhancing meaning in life, and eliciting experiences of self-transcendence.
Following the lecture, I had a fascinating dialogue with the Director of NCCIH, Dr. Helene Langevin, and the Deputy Director of NCCIH, Dr. David Shurtleff about the emergence of self-transcendence in biological systems and its impact on health, and the use of mindfulness as a prevention and treatment strategy. This dialogue then opened up into a fantastic question and answer period. After the talk, I had the honor of discussing my research with multiple program directors and branch chiefs at NIH. If you didn’t have a chance to listen in, you can still watch the videocast here!
The National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health (NCCIH) invites you to join us this spring for exciting lectures on the theme of “Novel Approaches at the Intersection of Mental Health and Pain.” These virtual talks, part of our Integrative Medicine Research Lecture Series will take place on Tuesday, May 4, 2021, and Tuesday, June 8, 2021. The lectures, rescheduled from spring 2020, will be streamed live on NIH VideoCast.
May 4 Lecture Featuring Eric Garland, Ph.D., L.C.S.W.
On Tuesday, May 4 from noon to 1 p.m. ET, Eric Garland, Ph.D., L.C.S.W., will present “Healing the Opioid Crisis with Mindfulness-Oriented Recovery Enhancement (MORE): Clinical Efficacy and Neurophysiological Mechanisms.” Dr. Garland is professor and associate dean for research at the University of Utah College of Social Work and director of the Center on Mindfulness and Integrative Health Intervention Development (C-MIIND).
Dr. Garland notes that some of our most pressing “diseases of despair,” such as addiction and chronic pain, disrupt the brain’s capacity to experience healthy pleasure and extract meaning from naturally rewarding events and experiences. Prolonged opioid use, for example, in the context of chronic pain and distress can blunt positive emotions and compel opioid misuse as a way to hold on to the shrinking sense of well-being. Dr. Garland will describe development and testing of MORE, an integrative treatment strategy.
In anticipation of the lecture, the Blog Team asked Dr. Garland a couple of questions.
1) What are the building blocks of MORE?
Dr. Garland: MORE unites complementary aspects of training in several skill areas:
- Mindfulness skills enhance self-awareness, alleviate pain, and strengthen self-control over automatic, addictive habits.
- Reappraisal skills facilitate reframing of adverse life events as a potential source of psychological growth.
- Savoring skills increase a healthy sense of pleasure, joy, and meaning in life and elicit experiences of self-transcendence—the sense of being connected to something greater than oneself.
2) What are some of the insights from affective neuroscience that inform MORE?
Dr. Garland: First, the brain’s reward system computes the relative value of competing rewards. As addiction progresses, the brain’s reward system changes to become more sensitive to drug-related rewards and less sensitive to natural, healthy pleasures. MORE incorporates mindfulness, reappraisal, and savoring skills to reverse this process. A second fundamental insight is that the brain constructs the pain experience from bodily signals. In MORE, we teach patients to use mindfulness to view their chronic pain as harmless sensory information, not a threat to bodily well-being. This approach reduces the emotional suffering associated with pain, which in turn can decrease the severity of pain.
My new theory paper was just published online in Current Opinion in Behavioral Sciences. This paper outlines my recent ideas about how an addictions treatment approach based on mindfulness can enhance healthy pleasure, joy, and meaning in life. Most addictions treatments are focused on decreasing negative psychological experiences (e.g., stress, craving) and unhealthy behaviors. Few have focused on increasing positive psychological experiences as a core treatment approach. This oversight ignores fundamental discoveries from addiction neuroscience that demonstrate the plasticity of the brain reward circuitry underlying addiction. Therapies that use mindfulness techniques to savor natural rewarding objects and events, self-generate internal reward responses, and access self-transcendence may remediate the dysfunction in the reward system and thereby reduce addictive behavior.
The abstract is below:
Chronic drug use is theorized to induce cortico-striatal neuroplasticity, driving an allostatic process marked by increased sensitivity to drug-related cues and decreased sensitivity to natural rewards that results in anhedonia and a dearth of positive affect. As such, positive emotion regulation represents a key mechanistic target for addictions treatment. This paper provides a conceptual model detailing how mindfulness may synergize a range of positive affective mechanisms to reduce addictive behavior, from savoring the hedonic pleasure derived from natural rewards, to self-generating interoceptive reward responses, and ultimately to cultivating self-transcendent meaning. These therapeutic processes may restructure reward processing from overvaluation of drug-related rewards back to valuation of natural rewards, and hypothetically, ‘reset’ the default mode network dysfunction that undergirds addiction.
The National Institutes of Health (NIH) MedlinePlus Magazine covered my research on Mindfulness-Oriented Recovery Enhancement (MORE), by focusing on the personal story of one of the participants in my recently completed R01-funded clinical trial of MORE. Also, NIH MedlinePlus did a story on MORE and how it can help people reduce chronic pain while taking fewer opioids. It’s always a huge honor for my work to be recognized by the leading health science organzation in the world. Thank you NIH!!!
I’m excited to share my recent interview with my good colleague Wendy Hasenkamp on the Mind & Life podcast!
We cover some fascinating topics including:
- how my clinical psychotherapy practice informed my scientific research;
- the power of mindfulness meditation to heal and restore well-being;
- self-transcendence and non-dual states of consciousness;
- how addiction changes reward processing and attention in the brain;
- Mindfulness-Oriented Recovery Enhancement (MORE), and its application to treating addiction and chronic pain;
- how reappraisal can help in difficult situations;
- the role of savoring and reconnecting with natural rewards;
- deconstructing pain;
- the effects of mindfulness meditation on brain function;
- and exciting results from a large clinical trial showing how effective MORE is, and how it might work.
Click here to listen now: https://podcast.mindandlife.org/eric-garland/ or you can subscribe to the show on Spotify or other preferred players. I hope you enjoy it!
I had a great podcast with Dr. Santosh Rao, Medical Director of the James M Cox Foundation Center for Cancer Prevention and Integrative Oncology at Banner MD Anderson for his Integrative Oncology Talk – a podcast of the Society for Integrative Oncology.
We had a fantastic conversation ranging from how chronic pain and cancer pain are distinct at the neurophysiological and psychological levels, to how mindfulness can be used to modify how pain is experienced in the brain, to the problem of opioid misuse and how it leads to inability to regulate positive and negative emotions, and finally, to how finding meaning in the face of adversity can culminate in the experience of self-transcendence – an crucial pathway to recovery. We focused heavily on my research on Mindfulness-Oriented Recovery Enhancement as well as my clinical experiences at Huntsman Cancer Institute treating cancer patients with mind-body therapies. Thanks Santosh for an excellent interview!
The next Mindfulness-Oriented Recovery Enhancement (MORE) training will be held online via Zoom on March 5-6, 2022.
MORE is an evidence-based, transdiagnostic therapy that unites complementary aspects of mindfulness training, third-wave CBT, and principles from positive psychology into an integrative treatment approach for addiction, stress, and chronic pain. MORE’s therapeutic effects have been demonstrated in ten clinical trials, and the MORE research program is currently supported by more than $25 million in federal research grants from the National Institutes of Health (NIH), the Department of Defense (DOD), and the Patient Centered Outcomes Research Institute (PCORI). Rigorous experiments have demonstrated effects of MORE on modifying neurophysiological reactivity to drug cues and natural rewards – indicating that MORE leads to therapeutic changes in the brain.
Participants receive intensive didactic and experiential instruction in implementing specialized mindfulness techniques and other clinical skills integral to Mindfulness-Oriented Recovery Enhancement (MORE). Research evidence on the MORE model will be presented, along with a review of the latest discoveries in neuroscience and basic biobehavioral science about mindfulness, addiction, and chronic pain.
Participants will practice the therapeutic techniques outlined in the MORE treatment manual (Garland, 2013) via clinical role plays. Participants will receive live supervision from Dr. Garland in the delivery of therapeutic techniques via real-time feedback to optimize the delivery of the MORE intervention.
Unique mind-body therapy techniques, advanced cognitive-behavioral skills, and strategies from positive psychology will be presented to address common clinical problems including:
- Craving and unhealthy habit behaviors
- Physical and emotional pain
- Catastrophizing and rumination
- Stress reactivity and anhedonia
At the completion of the training workshop, participants will have a basic level of competency to use the MORE treatment manual to implement MORE for persons suffering from addictive behaviors and chronic pain conditions.
Training in MORE is provided at institutions of higher education, government agencies, academic teaching hospitals, and medical centers. To date, Dr. Garland has provided training in MORE to >475 clinicians from a range of settings, including Johns Hopkins Medical School (Maryland), Mt. Sinai Hospital (New York), Essentia Health (Minnesota, Wisconsin, and North Dakota), Medical University of South Carolina (South Carolina), Intermountain Healthcare (Utah), Southwest Care Center (New Mexico), New Roads Behavioral Health (Utah), Philadelphia Veterans Affairs Medical Center (Pennsylvania), Neuroscience Associates of New York (New York), Triangle Options for Substance Abusers (North Carolina), the University of Zurich (Switzerland), among others.
The cost of the training is $500 for 13 NASW-approved CEUs (with a 20% discount for graduate students). Register here.
I was recently interviewed by renowned psychotherapist Lisa Dale Miller for her Groundless Ground Podcast about a range of topics. It was definitely my favorite interview I’ve had to date. Lisa and I had a really fun conversation ranging from the treatment of chronic pain and addiction with mindfulness, to the neuroscience of reward, to Buddhist philosophy, to self-transcendence, and finally, to the arcane Tantric notion that the dynamic Primordial Bliss of Consciousness lies at the heart of all experience.
Using my research on Mindfulness-Oriented Recovery Enhancement (MORE) as a launchpad, Lisa and I delve into specific clinical issues around the use of meditation as a means of alleviating physical pain and drug craving, providing mindfulness instruction to people suffering trauma, and how to enhance the sense of meaning and joy in life through reappraisal and savoring. We dig deep into the science of restructuring reward processes in the brain as novel approach to addictions treatment. Finally, we give a brief history of the science of mindfulness and how it developed from a core of mechanistic cognitive psychology to begin to explore the outer edge of meditative states of consciousness – including the study of how people can transcend their limited sense of self and come to feel intimately interconnected with the world around them.
We let it all hang out! Come check it out! The podcast is also available on Spotify.
My new paper published in the prestigious journal Science Advances reporting effects of Mindfulness-Oriented Recovery Enhancement on brain reward responses among chronic opioid users has been covered by multiple news outlets, including the Los Angeles Times, the Durham Herald-Sun, the Fort Worth Star Telegram, Science Daily, and the American Association for the Advancement of Science, among others. The paper can be downloaded for free here.
New research shows that a specific mind-body therapy, Mindfulness-Oriented Recovery Enhancement (MORE), increases the brain’s response to natural, healthy rewards while also decreasing the brain’s response to opioid-related cues.
The study, published today in the journal Science Advances, 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 natural pleasure.
“Previous research shows 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,” explained Eric Garland, associate dean for research at the University of Utah College of Social Work and lead author of the study. “This 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,” said Garland.
In addition to these objective EEG findings, participants in MORE also reported feeling enhanced joy and more meaning in life, results which Garland detailed in a paper published earlier this month in the Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology. 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 risk of opioid misuse by increasing positive psychological health and decreasing pain.
Garland developed MORE as an integrative mind-body therapy designed to promote positive psychological health while simultaneously addressing addiction, pain and stress. MORE teaches mental training techniques to help people to find meaning in the face of adversity while simultaneously alleviating physical and emotional pain by cultivating positive feelings and experiences.
“MORE teaches people to better notice, appreciate and amplify the good things in life, while also deriving meaning and value from difficult situations,” said Garland.
Taken together, Garland explains, these studies 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, Garland explains.
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.
“Our nation’s opioid crisis kills more than 100 people a day,” said Garland. “So it is critical that we help develop new and effective ways to prevent opioid misuse. The data shows that MORE can play that key role.”
Results from a research study on Mindfulness-Oriented Recovery Enhancement have been covered as a research spotlight on the webpage of the National Institutes of Health – National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health (NCCIH). This randomized controlled pilot study, funded by NCCIH, tested the effects of MORE among individuals receiving medication assisted treatment (MAT) for opioid use disorder (OUD). Participants received 112 random assessments delivered by smartphone over the course of 8 weeks of treatment with MORE or treatment as usual (TAU). Compared to TAU, participants in the MORE intervention reported a 50% reduction in the intensity of their opioid cravings, as well as significantly greater self-control over cravings. In addition, participants reported significant improvements in pain unpleasantness, stress, and positive emotions. Although participants in TAU received more than 6 hours of therapy per week, the effects of MORE were evident above and beyond that intensive degree of treatment, suggesting that MORE may be a useful adjunct to community-based MAT. The full study results were published in the flagship addictions journal Drug and Alcohol Dependence.