Mindfulness is the widely accepted term for a meditative practice designed to increase moment-to-moment awareness and thereby generate an increased sense of well-being. Numerous studies support the usefulness of this approach in a range of contexts related to both physical and mental health. In a study published in 2014 in the Journal of Clinical Psychology, a team of researchers from UCLA looked at the potential usefulness of mindfulness for men affected by sex addiction, a form of behavioral addiction also known as compulsive sexual behavior, hypersexual disorder and hypersexuality.
Mindfulness has its roots in Buddhist religious rituals that stretch back over 2,500 years. However, the practice is not limited to a Buddhist context, and anyone interested in increasing his or her level of awareness can participate in a mindfulness course regardless of religious preferences (or lack thereof). During a mindfulness course, participants learn techniques designed to focus attention on the physical and mental processes that mark the course of everyday life but typically go unnoticed. Instead of passing judgment on these processes (i.e. labeling them “good” or “bad”), the individual learns how to accept them and how to watch them as they change over time. Examples of the techniques used during mindfulness training include focusing on the inhalation and exhalation of breath, examining fleeting changes in moods or emotional states and examining fleeting changes in bodily sensations.
Current studies indicate that mindfulness has usefulness in settings that include stress reduction, improved control over impulsive behavior, aggression reduction, weight reduction/obesity treatment, depression relief and the alleviation of the symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). In addition, psychotherapists have incorporated the principles of mindfulness into a form of behavior-oriented psychotherapy called cognitive behavioral therapy, which helps clients/patients understand, recognize and change dysfunctional emotional reactions that can contribute to the onset of such things as substance abuse and/or substance addiction.
Sex addiction centers on repeated, dysfunctional involvement in real-world sexual activity, fantasies about sexual activity and/or thought processes touching on various aspects of sexual life. In some cases, dysfunction is based on excessive engagement in generally acceptable sexual practices/thoughts/fantasies. However, in other cases it stems from excessive engagement in practices, thoughts or fantasies viewed as taboo and/or explicitly illegal. Sex addiction is a behavioral addiction; this is a common term used to describe damaging behaviors and brain function changes that resemble substance addiction but don’t result from the consumption of drugs or alcohol. In the U.S., behavioral addictions became officially diagnosable in 2013 under terms established by the American Psychiatric Association; however, as of early 2015, the organization has not set forth comprehensive terms for the diagnosis of sex addiction (hypersexuality, compulsive sexual behavior, etc.).
Mindfulness as Treatment?
In the study published in 2014 in the Journal of Clinical Psychology, the UCLA researchers used a small-scale project involving 70 adult men to preliminarily explore the potential usefulness of mindfulness as a treatment for sex addiction. All of the participants were involved an American Psychiatric Association-sponsored trial designed to test out potential criteria for diagnosing sex addiction symptoms in the context of hypersexual disorder. Forty of these individuals had problems that could indicate the presence of such a disorder, while the remaining 30 participants did not have notable hypersexuality-related problems and acted as a comparison group. The researchers assessed the level of mindfulness present in the members of both groups. In addition, they assessed other traits such as a tendency toward impulsive behavior, an inability to properly regulate changes in mood and the relative tendency to experience significant stress reactions.
The researchers concluded that, among the men participating in the study, mindfulness had an inverse relationship to the symptoms of sex addiction-related behavior. In other words, each individual’s chances of exhibiting hypersexual behavior went down when his level of mindfulness went up. This fact held true even when all other considerations (level of impulsive behavior, ability to control shifts in mood and tendency to respond negatively to stress) were taken into account.
The study’s authors believe their findings tentatively support the usefulness of mindfulness in the effective treatment of sex addiction. In addition to helping bring about a reduction in dysfunctional sex-related actions, fantasies and thoughts, mindfulness training may help affected individuals gain improved emotional control, an increased ability to handle stressful situations and improved resistance to any potentially damaging sex-related urges that arise.