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Reclaiming Meaning in Life After Addiction, Stress, and Pain

Insights from mindfulness-oriented recovery enhancement.

Key points

  • The mortality rate is increasing due to diseases of despair such as substance use disorders.
  • Training in mindfulness, reappraisal, and savoring has been shown to be an efficacious treatment approach.
  • Recovery from addiction, stress, and pain may be possible through the neuroplastic effects of mental training.

Modern life is beset by struggle. To alleviate the resultant physical and emotional pain, we often turn to unhealthy coping habits: We eat too much, we use drugs and alcohol, and we numb ourselves with binge watching, doomscrolling, and social media. These strategies work in the short term, but in the long term, they make us feel worse by dysregulating the stress and reward circuitry of the brain. Consequently, epidemiologists have noted a rise in mortality due to addiction, emotional distress, and chronic pain. These "diseases of despair" ensnare us in a downward spiral. But is there a way out of the trap?

The Antidote to Diseases of Despair

This page will share insights from evidence-based psychotherapy and neuroscience to answer this question. I am an professor, psychotherapist, and scientist with over 20 years of experience helping people heal from diseases of despair and reclaim a meaningful life from addiction, stress, and pain. The goal of my work is to translate findings from affective neuroscience into the development of treatments that effectively target transdiagnostic mechanisms underpinning addiction, emotion dysregulation, and chronic pain.

I am the developer of Mindfulness-Oriented Recovery Enhancement (MORE), an evidence-based, mind-body therapy that integrates training in mindfulness, reappraisal, and savoring skills to help people to heal from physical and emotional pain and free themselves from addictive behavior. MORE has been tested in over 12 randomized clinical trials involving more than 1300 patients, and has been shown to be nearly three times as effective as standard therapy for treating addiction and chronic pain, while at the same time significantly reducing symptoms of depression and post-traumatic stress. MORE is unique among other psychotherapies in that it also increases natural healthy pleasure, joy, meaning, and self-transcendence — the sense of being connected to something greater than the self.

A lot of what I discuss here will come from my research on MORE, and I will explain how teaching people to mindfully savor natural healthy pleasure, joy, meaning, and self-transcendence can provide a potent antidote to diseases of despair.

Healing Is Possible

I'd like to end on a hopeful note: Leading-edge science supports the notion that recovery is possible. Over the past several decades there has been an explosion of research demonstrating that our thoughts, feelings, and actions can change the function (and perhaps even the structure) of our brains. Research has even begun to demonstrate that our brains can be modified by mental training, not unlike the way people lift weights to build the size and strength of their muscles. By practicing techniques like mindfulness, reappraisal, and savoring on a regular basis, you can help yourself heal and reclaim a meaningful life from addiction, stress, and chronic pain. Stay hopeful, and stay tuned: Help is on the way.


Garland EL, Hanley AW, Nakamura Y, Barrett JW, Baker AK, Reese SE, Riquino MR, Froeliger B, Donaldson GW. Mindfulness-oriented recovery enhancement vs supportive group therapy for co-occurring opioid misuse and chronic pain in primary care: a randomized clinical trial. JAMA internal medicine. 2022 Apr 1;182(4):407-17.

Parisi A, Hudak J, Froeliger B, Garland EL. Mindfulness-Oriented Recovery Enhancement reduces post-traumatic stress via reappraisal among patients with chronic pain and co-occurring opioid misuse. Nature Mental Health. 2023 Jul;1(7):489-500.

Garland EL, Atchley RM, Hanley AW, Zubieta JK, Froeliger B. Mindfulness-Oriented Recovery Enhancement remediates hedonic dysregulation in opioid users: Neural and affective evidence of target engagement. Science advances. 2019 Oct 16;5(10):eaax1569.

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