Mindfulness is commonly used shorthand for the ability to stay aware of the internal and external changes going on in your moment-to-moment reality. While certain practices can enhance this ability, each adult already has a baseline level of mindfulness. In a study review scheduled for publication in 2014 in the journal Drug and Alcohol Dependence, a team of researchers from Indiana University-Purdue University assessed the impact that this baseline awareness, known as trait mindfulness, has on the likelihood that any given person will use a range of mind-altering substances or develop significant problems related to substance use.
In its organized sense, mindfulness is a practice designed to increase your ability to track and accept ongoing changes in your thought patterns, your emotions, various parts of your body and the animate and inanimate objects that make up your surroundings. One of the underlying motivations for this practice is a wish to do such things as stop making unsupported judgments about yourself or others, develop a closer and more compassionate connection with others and develop a closer and more compassionate relationship with aspects of your own personality and physical reality. The inspiration for mindfulness practice comes from longstanding traditions in Buddhist meditation practices. However, mindfulness training in the U.S. and other largely non-Buddhist countries is typically secular in nature and not aligned with a specific religious orientation.
In order to survive, all human beings need to develop some ability to track changes inside their minds and bodies, as well as in their surroundings. However, above and beyond this survival instinct, people typically have varying abilities to take stock of their thoughts, emotions, bodily changes and changes in their environment. Psychologists and researchers sometimes use the term trait mindfulness to refer to each person’s inherent ability to do things such as maintain awareness, react to changing internal or external circumstances without making hasty judgments and avoid acting in impulsive or ill-considered ways. Researchers can establish a person’s level of trait mindfulness with screening tools that include the Mindful Attention Awareness Scale. This short test uses 15 questions to gauge how often and how well a person maintains basic mindfulness in a range of everyday situations. Each of these questions is answerable on a six-point scale with a minimum value of “almost never” maintaining mindfulness and a maximum value of “almost always” maintaining mindfulness.
Impact on Substance Use
In the study review scheduled for publication in Drug and Alcohol Dependence, the Indiana University-Purdue researchers examined the findings of 39 previous studies that (in one way or another) investigated the connection between trait mindfulness, the likelihood of getting involved in substance use and the likelihood of developing substance-related problems. Components of this potential connection explored by one or more research teams included various relevant aspects of mindfulness, the types of substance use common in different groups of study participants, the severity of the problems associated with this use and the specific demographic attributes (gender, age, racial/ethnic background, etc.) of the participating substance users. Upon completing their review, the researchers concluded that trait mindfulness has an inverse relationship with substance use and substance-related problems. Essentially, this means that a person with a high degree of built-in mindfulness has relatively smaller chances of getting involved in substance use or experiencing related problems. Conversely, a person with a low degree of built-in mindfulness has relatively larger chances of using substances and developing problems related to that use. Overall, the impact of having a low or high degree of trait mindfulness is fairly small. However, the impact is more prominent in certain situations. For example, trait mindfulness apparently has a stronger influence on tobacco/nicotine intake and alcohol intake than it has on cannabis/marijuana intake. In addition, trait mindfulness has a stronger influence on the outcome of inpatient substance treatment than it has on outpatient substance treatment. The study’s authors note that not all aspects of trait mindfulness are equally associated with increasing or decreasing the likelihood of substance use and substance-related problems. They urge future researchers to devote their efforts to an improved understanding of the importance of specific mindfulness-related characteristics.