How One Woman Used Meditation to Quit Smoking

PHOTO: Michelle Morgan used mindfulness training to help quit smoking.Michelle Morgan
Michelle Morgan used mindfulness training to help quit smoking.

Yale graduate student Michelle Morgan started smoking at age 12. When the 35-year-old wanted to quit she tried everything from cold turkey to medications, but nothing worked.

Then Morgan saw a flyer for a research study on mindfulness-based smoking cessation. She qualified and enrolled.

In weekly sessions Dr. Judson Brewer, associate professor of medicine psychiatry at the University of Massachusetts Medical School, taught Morgan to smoke “mindfully” by keeping a journal about how she experienced the taste of the cigarette, its odors and her bodily sensations and cravings while she smoked.

Morgan thought this was ridiculous.

“I remember thinking this is hokey and it’s not going to work,” she recalled.

Yet, when prompted to quit several weeks into the trial, Morgan smoked her last cigarette. That was 4 years ago.

According to Brewer’s research, Morgan isn’t alone in her success.

In randomized controlled trials, mindful techniques were more than twice as effective American Lung Association’s Freedom from Smoking treatment, the current gold standard. And Brewer claimed he has demonstrated that mindful awareness training is at least as effective as current treatments with helping patients quit alcohol, cocaine, and gambling.

However, Dr. Peter Shields, the deputy director of the Comprehensive Cancer Center at Ohio State University is skeptical.

“Most people who quit, quit on their own,” Shields, who is also a spokesman for the American Association for Cancer Research said. “It’s fine if they find journaling and meditation helpful but at this point in time that’s not what’s been shown to be effective.”

On the other hand, Jean Kristeller, Ph.D., professor emeritus at Indiana State University and co-founder of The Center for Mindful Eating, is among a growing cadre of psychiatrists and scientists who think that training the mind can be very effective for helping people change a host of behaviors, including kicking the habit.

Mindfulness works, Kristeller explained, by lowering activity in the amygdala, a region of the brain associated with emotions while increasing activity in the prefrontal cortex, a brain region responsible for executive function and logical decision-making.

With mindful awareness, patients are no longer at the mercy of their cravings, she said. Instead, they can build awareness for their cravings and choose how to respond.

According to Brewer, mindfulness may also allow patients to build healthier behaviors. As he explained it, everyone knows smoking and eating too much is bad for them, but mere knowledge doesn’t change behavior. It’s when they actually begin to pay attention to how smoking tastes, they want to change on a visceral level, he reasoned.

Brewer and his team have even developed a smartphone app, Craving to Quit, which can help people learn similar techniques to what Morgan learned in the research study.

Morgan credits the techniques she learned in the research trial with helping her stay smoke-free, even when she’s itching to smoke. Now she knows how to wait out her desire to smoke until it fades.

“If you’re not fighting the cravings, it paradoxically becomes less of a struggle.”

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Additional reporting by Liz Neporent