Restorative Routines

Harnessing the Power of Meditation to Quit Smoking

Dr Lisa Thomas is a GP in South Wales who believes in the power of meditation to help smokers quit the habit. Having trained with the British School of Meditation she now prescribes meditation for her patients and has even set up her own YouTube channel Revive Prescribed Meditation. ASH Wales met Lisa to find out more about how meditating can help smokers to quit the habit .

1. As a GP, what do you think are the main barriers smokers face when trying to quit?

I work all over South Wales but mainly in the deprived communities of the valleys. There continues to be a high level of smoking that is in stark contrast to the city of Cardiff, where I live. We know it is much harder to quit a habit when you are surrounded by it. I have whole families who smoke and live in confined spaces together or near each other and so young children grow up in environments where it is normal to smoke. We need a cultural shift in these communities so it is not normalised. There is also a mindset problem where I find patients have tried numerous methods in the past and because it didn’t work before, they feel there is no point trying this method again. They have a ‘hopeless’ mentality or a fear of failure so often trying to convince them to try or try again is tough. Unfortunately, the saddest thing I hear and hear frequently is ‘smoking is the only thing I enjoy in life’. They use it as escapism from stress. This is where I try to use meditation and mindfulness to replace that as a stress reliever and teach them how to find joy in their lives as it is.

2. Can you explain how meditation can help smokers to quit the habit?

Current scientific research suggests that meditation can aid smoking cessation. Abstinence, decreased number of cigarettes smoked, lower intensity of cravings and changes in attitude regards smoking are all observed in the results of trials. The evidence is promising despite the limitations of the studies and so more research is being done. Neuro-imaging data shows current smokers have less activity in the brain cells in the areas of the brain associated with attentional and cognitive control. Meditation reduces impulsivity, reduces reactivity to smoking cues and enhances a person’s awareness of their thought patterns and behaviours. It increases cognitive control and enables them to make better, positive choices. It is also a method to cope with stress and enhances mood and quality of life. Another positive aspect of meditation as a smoking cessation aid is that it does not come with the stigma of being ‘on a treatment’ that prevent some people from seeking help.

3. Is there enough awareness among smokers of how meditation can help them to quit?

No! Most of my patients have never heard of meditation, let alone its ability to help them stop smoking. There is a lack of meditation classes available to them locally hence why I have given them access to free videos to watch when they need it. A few have heard of hypnosis to stop smoking but most can’t afford that service.

4. How easy is it for a person to meditate if they have never tried before? Does it become more effective with practice?

Meditation is simple but it is certainly not easy! It is often referred to as a meditation practice because practice is key to learning this skill. Just like learning the piano, you would not expect to be a concert pianist without endless practice and the same is true for meditation. It needs to be incorporated in to your day to day routine to become a lifelong habit. Results won’t be seen immediately, the same being true for any new skill or therapy. Patience and persistence will soon lead to improvements in the meditation experience and then benefits become noticeable. It does become more effective with time and most research shows benefits after at least 8 weeks of regular commitment. There are plenty of classes, apps, books or online videos these days. I advise my patients to start with a 10 minute guided meditation, daily.

5.  As a GP you prescribe meditation for your patients. What are the main health and wellbeing benefits of meditation?

There is considerable excitement in the scientific field as more and more evidence of the benefits of meditation are recognised. It has measurable beneficial effects on the brain and the body. Most people are aware that it reduces stress, alleviates anxiety and improves depression. However, it also improves physical health as well as mental wellbeing. Meditation leads to neuroplasticity, the brain’s ability to develop new nerve cells. Numerous studies show that the structure of the brain is altered leading to improved function. This is promising in clinical conditions associated with reducing brain size, such as dementia. On MRI scans, less activity is seen in the fear centre of the brain, resulting in better emotional regulation. Blood flow is also enhanced to areas of the brain responsible for executive function. Benefits are also seen right down to a cellular level. Meditation improves cell longevity. This essentially means we do not age as quickly or become prone to disease so early. There is improved immune system function, less inflammation and less stress response within the body. Meditation was also even shown to be better than exercise in it’s ability to improve our immune system against the cold virus. It is well known that meditation reduces stress and it has been proven to induce our parasympathetic nervous system leading to reduced heart rate, breathing rate and blood pressure and encourages healing and digestion. It is also beneficial in cancer patients to improve symptom control and patients with chronic pain to help alleviate the severity of pain experienced. All studies report enhanced quality of life as a result of regular meditation. Ultimately, this is what everyone wants and everyone deserves.

6. Can you give some examples of how meditation has improved the health and wellbeing of your patients?

I have had such good feedback from patients who have improved their health and wellbeing through the regular practice of meditation as part of the lifestyle medicine I prescribe. Examples include stopping smoking, feeling less pain and therefore requiring less pain medications, reduced anxiety and depression and improved blood pressure control. I also have cancer patients who feel their quality of life is improved just by practicing a meditation for 10 minutes a day. Many patients are able to reduce medications or stop them and they become more motivated to control their health with other positive lifestyle changes. Meditation can be used as part of the treatment of any condition. I was honoured to be nominated by patients and win the RCGP GP of the Year Wales 2018 second runner up award for my work running lifestyle medicine workshops. I guide them in meditation practice and provide information regarding evidence based lifestyle interventions for improved health along with exercise and cooking sessions. It was great to see what impact this work has had on the lives of these patients and that has boosted my motivation to help more people.

7. What future plans do you have for Revive Prescribed and how do you hope to continue to work with smokers in future?

My plan is to develop my website to continually have up to date information regarding the evidence backing the use of meditation as a healing tool. I want to provide free guided meditation so that money is not a barrier to health and wellbeing and try to reach as many people as I can. These will be available on my YouTube channel so that people can use these at their leisure. I truly believe that having the right mindset and attitude is essential to improving health and that is why I believe meditation and it’s ability to enhance our awareness of our thought patterns and choices is a powerful tool that everyone should have access too. Of course, I will continue to spread the message about lifestyle medicine to the patients I see in surgery and use this as routine healthcare. I have a few speaking engagements coming up so that will provide further opportunities to educate my medical colleagues in this field. It has been great to see so many of my medical colleagues being open minded to learning more about using meditation in healthcare. When it comes to specifically helping my patients who smoke; it’s important for me to be working in partnership with other smoking cessation services. It will enhance my ability to signpost my patients to the most suitable option for them so I am keen to build connections in the community as I believe in the power of social prescribing.