In December 2020, I gave a lecture on my research entitled “Mindfulness-Oriented Recovery Enhancement Heals Opioid Misuse and Chronic Pain by Restructuring Reward: From Hedonic Pleasure to Self-Transcendent Meaning” to the Brown University Contemplative Studies Initiative. Following this talk, I enjoyed a fascinating dialogue about the relationship between mindfulness and self-transcendence with a leading scholar of Classical Chinese Philosophy and Taoism, Hal Roth, PhD. The video of my talk is below. Enjoy!
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!
We are 10 days away from the next Mindfulness-Oriented Recovery Enhancement (MORE) training! There are still a few seats left. The training will be held online via Zoom on September 25-26, 2020.
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 >200 clinicians from a range of settings, including Johns Hopkins Medical School (Maryland), Mt. Sinai Hospital (New York), 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, 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.
Results from a new Stage 2 randomized controlled trial of Mindfulness-Oriented Recovery Enhancement (MORE), to be published later this summer in the Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, have been covered in a news story that also details findings from a recently published study of the effects of mindfulness on deautomatization of habit behaviors. A second news story also did a really nice job describing results from this study.
Results from this study, conducted in 95 people with chronic pain who had been prescribed long-term opioid therapy, demonstrate that MORE significantly decreased chronic pain intensity and significantly decreased the risk of future opioid misuse. Further, MORE boosted a range of positive psychological functions, including positive emotions, savoring, meaning in life, and the sense of self-transcendence. Importantly, the MORE’s effects on reducing pain and opioid misuse were linked with these increases in positive psychological functioning, suggesting that teaching people to “savor the good” and increase the sense of joy, meaningfulness, and natural healthy pleasure in life may be an antidote to the current pain and opioid crises in America – modern epidemics that have been termed “diseases of despair.”
This is the second randomized controlled trial to demonstrate therapeutic effects of MORE on chronic pain symptoms and opioid misuse, providing compelling evidence of MORE’s efficacy as a means of alleviating the suffering caused by the opioid crisis.
NPR recently covered another news story about my research on Mindfulness-Oriented Recovery Enhancement (MORE) as a therapy for chronic pain patients who are taking long-term prescription opioids. This story details the experience of a participant in the MORE intervention, and describes how mindfulness can be used to cope with pain and strengthen self-control.
Recently, I was awarded a R01 grant from the National Institute on Drug Abuse to conduct a full-scale clinical trial of Mindfulness-Oriented Recovery Enhancement (MORE) as an intervention to reduce chronic pain and prescription opioid misuse in primary care. This five-year study will compare the efficacy of MORE to supportive therapy for 260 chronic pain patients receiving long-term opioid therapy who are at risk for opioid misuse.
Opioids may be medically necessary for some individuals experiencing prolonged and intractable pain, and most patients take medicine as prescribed. Unfortunately, opioids rarely completely alleviate chronic pain, and when taken in high doses or for long periods of time, can lead to serious side effects, including death by overdose, as well as risk for opioid misuse, which affects about 1 in 4 opioid-treated patients. Misusing opioids by taking higher doses than prescribed or by taking opioids to self-medicate negative emotions can alter the brain’s capacity for hedonic regulation, making it difficult to cope with pain (e.g., causing hyperalgesia – an increased sensitivity of the nervous system to pain) and experience pleasure in life (e.g., reducing sensitivity of the brain to natural reward). As such, non-opioid pain treatments that target hedonic dysregulation may be especially helpful for reducing chronic pain and prevent opioid misuse.
Multiple studies suggest that MORE improves hedonic regulation in the brain, resulting in decreased pain and an increased ability to savor natural, healthy pleasure. People who participate in MORE show heightened brain and body responses to healthy pleasures, and report feeling more positive emotions by using of mindfulness as a tool to enhance savoring. These therapeutic effects of MORE on savoring may be critically important, because findings from several studies show that increasing sensitivity to natural reward through savoring may lead to decreased craving for drugs – a completely novel finding for the field of addiction science (Garland, 2016). Our NIDA-funded R01 will provide a rigorous test of whether MORE improves chronic pain and opioid misuse by targeting hedonic dysregulation.
In our NIDA-funded R01, patients are receiving MORE at community medical clinics throughout Salt Lake City. Providing MORE in the naturalistic setting where most chronic pain patients seek medical care will make the therapy accessible to the people who need it the most. Ultimately, my hope is that this project will advance a new form of integrative healthcare, in which doctors and nurses work alongside social workers and other behavioral health professionals to help patients reclaim a meaningful life from pain.
Chronic pain is often treated with extended use of opioid analgesics, yet these drugs can alter the brain in ways that may make it difficult to cope with pain and may reduce the experience pleasure in life. Mindfulness-based interventions appear to be a promising means of addressing these issues, but research is needed to understand how such interventions change the brain to reduce suffering.
To that end, in September, 2016, I was recently awarded a five-year phased innovation grant from the National Institutes of Health’s (NIH) National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health entitled Effects of Mindfulness-Oriented Intervention on Endogenous Opioid Mechanisms of Hedonic Regulation in Chronic Pain (R61AT009296). The objective of the project is to study the effects of an innovative mindfulness-based intervention on brain mechanisms linked with pain and pleasure.
In the first two-year phase of the study ($800,000), I (Principal Investigator), along with my Co-Principal Investigator Jon-Kar Zubieta (Co-Principal Investigator), chair of the University of Utah’s Department of Psychiatry, will use positron emission tomography (PET) neuroimaging to assess the effects of Mindfulness-Oriented Recovery Enhancement (MORE) on restoring brain levels of endorphins in patients with chronic back pain who are being treated with prescription opioids.
This study represents the first use of PET in the history of science to quantify the effects of a mindfulness-based therapy on levels of endogenous opioids in the brain.
We will also use functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) methods to assess how mindfulness training through MORE may increase people’s capacity to savor natural pleasure from positive and meaningful events in everyday life – a capacity that becomes diminished over time through the deleterious effects of chronic pain and prolonged opioid use on the brain. We will use a fMRI paradigm developed by my Co-Investigator Brett Froeliger, Assistant Professor of Neuroscience at the Medical University of South Carolina.
This study aims to test whether MORE might reverse this insensitivity to natural reward by targeting the endogenous opioid system and brain reward functions.
Following a successful first phase of the project, a three-year second phase ($2.2 million) will investigate whether patients with a particular genetic makeup that affects the expression of opioid receptors in the brain might benefit more from the mindfulness-based treatment. The second phase of the project will also assess the dose of mindfulness skill practice as a predictor of changes in endogenous opioid function and clinical correlates.
Based on the results of previous research, we hypothesize that mindfulness meditation training through MORE will restore proper function to the brain’s opioid receptors. We will be able to measure how MORE changes the brain’s ability to regulate pain and respond to natural rewards, as well as deepen our understanding of exactly how these changes in neural mechanisms happen.
Overall, this project will unite expertise in mindfulness-based interventions with expertise in neurogenetics and the use of PET and fMRI to probe the neurobiological mechanisms of pain and emotional experience. By elucidating a key mechanism of meditation-based therapies, this program of translational research will further the emerging field of social work neuroscience and enable us to rapidly optimize MORE to increase the effectiveness of the intervention as it is rolled out in clinical practice.
I recently learned that my research on Mindfulness-Oriented Recovery Enhancement (MORE) was highlighted on the National Institute on Drug Abuse website. The NIDA news story, entitled “Mindfulness training may reduce deficits in natural reward processing during chronic pain or drug addiction” details a study I conducted with my colleagues Brett Froeliger (Neuroscience, Medical University of South Carolina) and Matthew Howard (Social Work, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill) that was published in April in the Journal of Behavioral Medicine. According to the excellent summary of this research on the NIDA website,
“Drug-dependent people show decreased behavioral and brain reactivity to natural rewards compared to non-drug users. As a result, drug-dependent users increasingly focus their attention on obtaining the drug instead of attending to natural rewards. Recent research shows that a cognitive-based intervention may help restore natural reward processing in opioid-dependent participants.
In this study, chronic pain patients at risk for opioid misuse were randomized to either eight weeks of a Mindfulness-Oriented Recovery Enhancement (MORE) intervention or to an eight-week support group (control). Participants in the MORE intervention used mindfulness meditation to focus on all sensory features of a pleasant experience or object (for example, a beautiful nature scene like a sunset), while reflecting on any positive emotions arising in response to the pleasant event. The support group discussed topics and emotions related to chronic pain and opioid use/misuse. Following these interventions, all participants were shown images representing natural rewards (such as endearing animals, appealing foods, landscapes) or neutral images (furniture, neutral facial expressions, or household items). Researchers measured late positive potential (LPP) brain activity, which reflects attention to emotionally salient information, while participants viewed these images. In comparison to the control group, participants completing the MORE intervention showed greater LPP responses to natural reward images relative to neutral images and greater the LPP responses predicted reduced opioid cravings as reported by the participants.”
These results suggest that teaching people who misuse opioids to mindfully attend to positive aspects of their life may increase the perceived value of natural rewards – processes that may be diminished in those facing chronic pain or addiction – which may in turn help them to control opioid cravings.”
It is thrilling to see that this line of research is making a positive impact on the scientific community, and of course, the ultimate aim of this work is to alleviate human suffering.