According to this study, the use of mental strategies, such as relaxation techniques, can decrease the level of physiological arousal associated with an expected reward. That is, our bodies often experience an increase in arousal when we expect some sort of positive outcome or reward. This is not in and of itself a bad thing. However, when the arousal is associated with a “reward” that is actually unhealthy, such as a high from drug use, a reduction in that physical tension would be beneficial. From the article:
Skin conductance responses (SCRs) of the participants were taken at the beginning of each conditioned stimulus. These served as a behavioral measure of physiological reaction potentially related to reward anticipation.
The results showed that the participants' emotion regulation strategies could influence physiological and neural responses relevant to the expectation of reward. Specifically, results from the SCRs revealed that the subjects' emotion regulation strategies decreased arousal that was linked to the anticipation of a potential reward.
"Our findings demonstrated that emotion regulation strategies can successfully curb physiological and neural responses associated with the expectation of reward," said Delgado. "This is a first step to understanding how our thoughts may effectively control positive emotions and eventual urges that may arise, such as drug cravings."
One of the things I’ve often educated substance abuse client about (as well as other clients who have difficulty managing either emotions or other cravings) is that the longer they go without indulging their cravings, the more effective they will be in discontinuing future maladaptive behavior. Unfortunately, as an individual attempts to resist the urge to engage in the behavior, they will often become uncomfortable, if not downright ill (in the case of substance withdrawal). While “doing nothing” is certainly a substitute for engaging in the maladaptive behavior, in reality clients often desire something else to do. Exercise is one behavior people will often switch to when they are giving up an unhealthy behavior (and note, exercise is a very effective stress management technique). Mental stress management techniques can also provide some temporary relief, as this study shows. A mistake many people make when trying to change their behavior is that they make an effort to give up the unhealthy actions, but fail to adequately plan for replacement behaviors. Beginning therapists also make this mistake by failing to adequately lay the groundwork for coping with the discomfort people will experience as they attempt to extinguish unhealthy behaviors, especially those based on addiction, or those with frequent reinforcement (for example, jealousy, where every time the person engages in a “checking” behavior, such as snooping through a call list, they are reinforcing the unhealthy behavior). Giving up something isn’t good enough, a person must have substitutes, or else the discomfort is very likely to lead to relapse. This study suggests the use of stress management techniques may aid that effort.