Maintaining emotional sobriety (and sanity) via Steps 10-12

When I have did my steps 4-7, noting the situations, the people, the institutions  that have caused persistent resentments in me, then examining what parts of my self have been affected,  I also, thanks to one sponsor was asked me to,  put down exactly what “sins” or defects of character I also experienced during these resentments. This jotting down of the exact sins I was in during these resentments  has proved to be very useful in my recovery ever since.  What I noticed was that I had the same array of sins or negatively (immaturely) expressed emotions in relation to all resentments regardless of the situation or the person I had the resentment, the same web of sins was weaved in every situation.  For me this shows clearly how I do not process and regulate my emotions properly, how it has a canalized form of reaction.

I have found increasingly in recovery that when I want someone or something to be the way I want it and it doesn’t go that way or I want something to stay a certain way or I believe someone is threatening to interfere or take away something that I have (when I am controlling basically), I find I respond by either being dependent or dominating of the person or situation. This is what Bill Wilson also found out in ten years or so of psycho-analysis with Harry Tiebout.

Immature emotional response I call this, followed by emotional reasoning. I rarely react in a balanced manner to these prompts. The situations invariably provoke a fear based response in me which somehow also leads to me suddenly becoming dishonesty in my thinking. It is as if this self centred fear as cut me off from the truthful sunlight of the spirit and I am suddenly in the dark shadow of dishonesty. In fact, according to Father Ralph honesty comes from the Greek to be at one with God funnily enough.

Then I feel shame as the result of my pride being hurt, which can lead to self pity it if I let it. I may also feel guilt. Then I may decide to strike back via being arrogant, impatient or intolerant, in behaviourally expressed sometimes as putting others down to elevate one self. Again immature emotional response. I am obviously also being self centred and selfish while in this process. I can also be envious or jealous of others in the midst of this for taking what I wanted or threatening what I have, like a child in the park or playground with friends. Other ways of fixing my feelings rear their heads and I can be gluttonous as a reaction or become greedy. Eat too much or go on a shopping frenzy. All instead of processing the emotions which are driving this behaviour I react, act out of distress based impulsivity. I can be so distressed that I can tend towards procrastination, which is sloth in five syllables. These sins or negatively expressed emotions truly grip me and these sins seem to  hunt in packs.

I found this fascinating when I first discovered this during my steps. It seemed to map the reactions of my heart when I react via resentments to the world. They describe accurately how I relate to the world especially when the world does not give me what I want or I have stood on it’s toes.

What else is this but an immature emotional reaction based not just on me being the same age as I started drinking  but also on the fact that the regions of the brain which govern emotional regulation in the brain of the alcoholic are immature, are smaller, not connected as well or do not function as well as healthy folk.  This is according to many academic studies and also seen in the brains of children of alcoholics, so our emotional brain regions may never have worked properly and thanks to years of alcohol abuse have gotten a whole lot worse.

When I am not in charge of my emotions they are in charge of me, in other words. They are controlling me and not the other way around. This type of emotional immaturity happens throughout the day sometimes. So there is no point waiting to the end of the day to do a step 10, to see when have I been fearful, dishonest, resentful or selfish. I have to do it continuously throughout the day to maintain my spiritual and emotional equilibrium, because it needs constant attention and maintenance, because I have no naturally maintained balance. I have to manage it. I impose homoestasis to an allostatic system. There is not naturally resting place. I am in charge of my serenity.

So I spot check continuously to ensure my emotional sobriety. Another word for sober is sane. I ike this because  while I am in emotional dysregulation or immaturity, I am far from sane. In fact, I am strangely deluded, distinct from from any reasonableness. I need to do my step ten to be restored to sanity.

The other problem with this emotional lability and dysregulation is that it send streams of distorted thinking into my head. I remember ringing my sponsor in early recovery, a few months in, with the startling relevation, to me,  that my thoughts were all leading me to a place of emotional pain. My emotional dysregulation leading to cognitive distortions which leads to further emotional dyregulation etc.  Spot the negative emotions underpinning these thoughts and they disappear like wispy evaporating clouds. This has similarities here with the practice of mindfulness.


I do this all in a very simple way – I simply ask God to remove my sins, which are usually fear, dishonesty, pride, shame,guilt, self pity, leading to intolerance, arrogance and impatience and so on, warmed in a dendritic spreading across my heart and polluting of my mind with stinking thoughts.

It is interesting that in the 5th century a religious man called Evagrius Ponticus suggested that one gets rid of troublesome thoughts by pinpointing the negative emotions which were somehow underpin then and weight these thoughts in one’s mind, like anchors weighing down lassoed clouds. I do the same effectively.

I ask God to remove these emotions after I have first identified them and offered them to Him for help in removing. What I am doing, in a sense, is also identifying, labelling and letting go (processing) of the negative emotions that have kept these thunderous grey black clouds of thoughts in my head, and striking my heart with forked pain. I am asking God to help me do what I cannot do for myself it seems; namely emotional regulation.

People outside AA often wonder how this spiritual program can help people recover. As  I blogged about recently recently it does so, I believe partly, because it helps us learn how to practice identifying, labelling  and processing emotions (often by verbalising them to someone or via step 10)  in a way that is not only healthy and adaptive but in a way I was seemingly never able to do prior to coming into AA.  Or had never been taught to do.

I have learnt all these development skills not in my childhood but in my surrogate home of AA.  How many of us have come home in AA?

Processing the Past via the action steps, 4-12!



Processing the Past via the actions steps, 4-12!

by alcoholicsguide

How The Alcoholics Anonymous’ program of action helps with emotional dysregulation.

When I first came into recovery I was surprised how much more time I spent embroiled in thinking about past incidents and how I had numerous murderous resentments  about people who had supposedly done me wrong, than I did thinking about drinking.

The thought of drinking terrified me rather than enticed me. Fortunately it also made be nauseous and fortunately still does. A full year of vomiting on an empty stomach, throughout each and every interminable day and night, has had some aversion like effect.

I had literally hundreds of thoughts and negative emotions about the past streaming through and around my aching head and piercing my heart. They were like toxic mind darts that flipped my guts and almost made me physically ill. Even thinking back now makes me feel queasy.

It was a constant state of emotional distress, those early days of recovery.

I was shocked as the weeks trudged on painfully that I seemed to have problems other than the drink. I was reassured by many other AAs in meetings when they shared about how difficult life was on life’s terms – how they struggled with resentments and fears and their “emotional disease”. I was was glad it wasn’t just me.

I had finally found a club where I fitted in! After all these years. In fact most people I drank with were also alcoholic! So I have always sought the company of my own. I thought we could only be found in pubs! And here we had rooms of them talking about trying to stay “emotionally sober”. It wasn’t just sobriety it had to be emotional sobriety. I was, through my fading eyesight and mercifully abating alcoholic psychosis, greatly intrigued by this. My life, and their lives, had become unmanageable, they said,  not just because of the drink, but because of some underlying condition.

I was especially interested in why I was so cursed by memories of my past. Why hadn’t they gone away? Why had they come back so prolifically in early recovery. The alcohol must have keep some of them suppressed, at bay. Now they were teeming through, poisoning my mind just as effectively as any alcoholic withdrawal or rattling hangover ever did. It was difficult not to somehow see these rampant, rampaging negative thoughts and emotions as akin to a disease. When they spoke of spiritual disease, it seemed to describe what was happening in my head.

I have “done” the steps three times and each time has offered more insight into this spiritual malady which I call an emotional disease. Why? Well because the sure sign of a spiritual malady, I believe,  is the expression and lack of control over negative emotions. The emotional lability and volatility. The bad temperedness, the indignition at life’s flaws, the perfectionism, the need to control, the righteous anger. We sin via these negative emotions. Have you ever heard of someone sinning via positive emotions? “Yes he wronged me by being so kind and generous, thoughtful and loving, to hell with that man!” So why are we so scared of the e word, emotion.

We sin via, or have defects of character which are, negative expressions of emotion. Intolerance, or impatience, selfishness, fear based dishonesty and so on. All expressions of distress. A fear based illness?  I like the term defect of character because it suggests sometime intrinsic to alcoholics. I call this inherent aspect of this condition called alcoholism, emotional regulation and processing difficulties.

In this blog I will attempt to explain how the 12 steps of AA, principally the action steps 4 through to 12, have not only connected me with a power greater than myself  but they continue to treat, on a daily basis, my unmanageability.  An  unmanageability caused inherently by my difficulties processing and regulating emotions.


12 steps pic


I have looked hard for supporting evidence to substantiate what I am about to write and found this link to an interesting piece on the use of EMDR and other therapies in treating the unprocessed emotions caused by emotional dysregulation in those who suffer from trauma. I have used aspects of this to make it applicable to alcoholics. I believe profoundly that steps 4-12 facilitate a profound alteration in our ability to regulate and process emotions.

Steps 4 -7,  in particular help us to embed the numerous unprocessed memories from childhood onwards, that all seem to have been tied together in a terrible mnemonic mesh by aspects of emotional dysregulation such as resentments.  It is in addressing all these that we finally process these associated negative emotions in our memory banks and finally embed all these memories in long term memory.

In short, the Steps allow us to adaptively and healthily process our disturbed pasts. They also allow us to maintain a health and adaptive emotional regulation  on a daily basis and via steps 10-12 in particular allow us to greatly improve our emotional regulation.

I am not rewriting the Big Book of AA here, only to add another angle to understanding it and how it works, so that others in related therapeutic fields can have some insight into how it may work and those who need help feel more inclined to come to AA for help.   – Refer also to the work of Francine Shapiro (1) and her work which shaped development of the EMDR therapy which treats trauma (PTSD) and other disorders. I know it works for PTSD as my wife suffered PTSD after a car accident, and was greatly helped by this type of treatment. It is Shapiro’s insight into the role of unprocessed emotions in causing emotional volatility and a “volcano of unresolved distressing effects” (2) and that  chronic dysfunctional perceptions, responses, attitudes, self-concept, and personality traits are all symptoms of unprocessed memories (3) that shapes my thinking, partly, on how the steps allow us to put the past to bed.

I have to add also that I believe myself to be a sufferer of PTSD also. I have stressed that alcoholism is a psychiatric disorder in it’s own right but would never be silly enough to suggest it does not have co-occurring disorders such as PTSD, as the result of abuse and trauma in earlier life experience. Especially as there as up to 2/3s of dependent people may have had abuse in their early lives and that PTSD sufferers have up to a 50 % co-morbidity with alcoholism and addiction. Perhaps this is why this work by Shapiro strikes a cord with me. I think it is naive to say that abusive early life does not play a role in alcoholism and addition and that this environmental influence on genetic inheritance (alcoholism has a a generic heritability of some 50 – 70% making one of the most inheritable disorders). In other words, some 50 – 70% of alcoholics have alcoholism in their genes.

Throughout our lives, we all experience significant events that impact our perceptions of the world and determine how we interpret and respond to future experiences. These moments represent painful experiences so severe that they overwhelm our ability to cope with the rush of thoughts and feelings they elicit and If left unresolved, these feelings can persist for years in unprocessed emotions.

As a general rule, anything destructive that is left untreated — disease, trauma, stress, psychological disorders, addiction — can become progressively worse over time. Coming to terms with the past is often referred to as “integration,”  of these errant unprocessed emotions and achieving resolution. One way this resolution can be accomplished is by verbally and somatically (by being aware of how they affect one bodily) reprocessing these, like in step 5 when discussing one’s inventory, and the rewards can be transformative.

Mental networks contain visual images of the previous experiences  as well as related thoughts, emotions, and sensations. Previous experiences — including every physical sensation, every emotion, and every perception or interpretation — are encoded and stored in the brain and throughout the body. The processing of information about previous events may be incomplete, perhaps because the person has not developed the emotional or mental faculties to effectively manage or correctly interpret the situation (often the case with children who have faced abuse, trauma, insecure attachment to caregivers) or because processing is hindered by strong negative feelings (such as shame, helplessness, and denial) which I believe may be the consequence of emotional dysregulation.

images (3)


The memory of the previous experiences can  therefore be improperly stored without appropriate associative connections and with many elements still unprocessed. This incomplete processing prevents the forging of connections with more adaptive information or new learning which might help the person release the abusive, traumatising, misrepresented, resented, emotionally dysregualted and unprocessed experiences from the past. Finally when we do process these experiences then we can consign them to, embed them, happily in long term memory.

In a previous blog we say how one maladaptive emotional regulations strategies that of self elaboration, where one regulates a negative emotional experience by filtering in through the self and then elaborating on this in a ruminating manner, i.e. only seeing an event in relation to themselves, in self- reference (similar to a resentment)  and that our minds in early recovery are thus filled with these unprocessed memories as the consequence of this type if emotional dysregulation which filtered everything through a self centredness. In many cases we began to see in our step 4 inventory that it was often our emotional dysregultation that caused others to act in certain ways which we interpret, whether for valid reasons or not, in a self centred and distorted way which was base on emotional reasoning. These unprocessed emotions and memories thus lingered on in our minds for decades, festering as resentments and fuelling our drinking and drug use.

Doesn’t Step 4 allow us to record these unprocessed memories, get them down in black and white, with the unprocessed emotions, the resentments and other negative unprocessed emotions, such as anger, fear, selfishness, self-centredness, dishonesty and son on.  Doesn’t it let us use our proper reasoning to see through our purely emotional reasoning?

Don’t we start to process these emotions and thus the attached memories by verbalizing them in a therapeutic sense to our sponsors, mentors, respected religious or spiritual guides, counsellors etc? Don’t we learn to see what has kept us enslaved in feelings of injustice, resentment, of being wronged? Doesn’t it help us see how our emotional dysregulation distorts our perception of reality, and leads to a negative bias in our thinking about life and the people in it? Doesn’t it show us our underlying problem, our underlying psychiatric condition, which the steps helps us then to manage, to help us become manageable. We are not powerless over alcohol when we manage our negative emotions.

The Steps 6 and 7 allow us to have these removed. I believe God remove my many previous unprocessed emotions and memories, helped me consign then to the past and my long term memory. They did not go into ether as i fist thought, but into were processed in long term memory. This is no way lessens the Grace of God or his mercy.  He helps me do what i cannot, He goes deep! Steps 8 and 9 process these emotions even more via making amends for our wrongdoings and getting rid of the potential distress associated with unresolved situations from our past.  The final recognition of the effects our emotional dysregulation has had on our wider community.

Aren’t the steps, primarily to help us manage our emotional dysregulation?

Isn’t this what was unmanageable? Wasn’t it this which gave King Alcohol power over us? Doesn’t the AA program of action help us in a similar way EMDR does with trauma victims?

Step 10 helps us on a daily basis look out for manifestations and examples on how we hurt others with our lack of control over our negative emotional response, our dysfunctional emotional response. It gives us a way to examine and process these emotions and to take action to apologise to those who experienced this emotional volatility. It helps encourage positive, healthy, adaptive emotional expression.

Step 11 helps us self soothe and this helps our emotional regulation, meditation improves  and strengthens the very brain areas which regulate emotion, the dlPFC and ACC, which help control our anxious amygdala, the very the heart of all distress.  And via Step 12 we regulate our emotions in one of the most profound ways possible by helping others. By showing love. There is little dyregulation in love, the most healthy of human  emotional expression. ..and in all our affairs! We do not become intolerance of other is upholding “Principles not personalities”

Love contains the positive assets hopefully also listed in your inventories; selfishness, consideration, patience, tolerance etc  – the aspects of healthy emotional being. Perhaps this is another reason why Step 12 is so profound in helping us manage the unmanageability of our emotional dysregulation.

And fellowship itself, gives us an “earned attachment” especially when many of us had insecure attachments with our parents, grew up in dysfunction, disrupted families, in abuse or trauma. It helps us finally “belong”.  Fellowship  allows us perhaps to express our emotions fully for the first time, allows us to verbalize our concerns and feelings, label them for the first time, regulate and process them. Provides a safe environment in which to emotionally mature. The list goes on and on. AA gives us loving feedback, nurtures us, nourishes us.  Home groups with regular members over many years obviously aid this process of caring and mutual self growth.

It has become more clear while writing this how AA manages this emotional disease we call alcoholism.

The AA program of action helps us change how we feel and think about the world.


1. Shapiro, F. EMDR Therapy: Adaptive Information Processing, Clinical Applications and Research Recommendations.

2. Courtois, C. A., & Ford, J. D. (Eds.). (2009). Treating complex traumatic stress disorders: An evidence-based guide. New York, NY: Guilford Press.

3  Alcoholics Anonymous. (2001). Alcoholics Anonymous, 4th Edition. New York: A.A. World Services.

Some references to follow.

One Christmas I nearly relapsed!


One Christmas I nearly relapsed!

by alcoholicsguide

“One Christmas, I nearly relapsed. I did not wish to relapse, in fact I would rather put a gun to my head and blow my brains out! Nonetheless, I was indeed about to relapse. It seemed urgently inevitable.
The emotional distress I had suffered all over Christmas, prompted by sad unresolved feelings about my deceased parents’s had built up, aided by a few bitter arguments with my frustrated wife, into into a sheer, blind terror.
Somehow I had the sense to shakily climb the stairs to the top of the house to tell my wife that I was in trouble.My wife’s facial expression quickly flickered from hurt to heightened concern. She could tell by my quivering voice and ashen complexion that I was in trouble. I shakily walked over to sit near her. Out of the corner of my eye I could see a bottle of white spirits, which glowed invitingly with some spiritual lustre.
My attention seemed ‘locked into’ this bottle of spirits. Somewhere there was voice in my head saying “You could drink that, soon get rid of this terror”
My wife had been trying to talk to me, get through to me. I looked at her. I recognised her face but couldn’t remember her name or the fact she was my wife. My wife and I couldn’t remember her name!!? What the ….? I was consumed with a rampant rampaging terror that flipped by guts. Hallucinatory terror.
I was going to drink the white spirits. I have never drunk white spirits during my active alcoholism but had heard of plenty of alcoholics who had, and their wife’s perfume and many other such unthinkable liquids. It had, via these accounts, become a viable option. Something I could drink if need be!
It seemed like this was one of those moments.
“What do you normally do?” was all I heard. What? “What do you mean, what do I normally do….?” I hesitantly replied in a hushed almost child-like voice. “When you are like this, what do you normally do?” her voicing becoming more urgent . I could see the white spirits glisten and almost feel it evaporate, on my tongue, harshly as it deeply burnt my chest with a warm reassuring heat, move glowingly outwards from there in little dendritic branches of smoothing warmth and the whispering promised of blessed relief and good cheer. When alcoholism whispers sweet nothings it is sweeter than your lover.
“You better drink it” sounded in my head. I couldn’t remember what I normally do, or who was this asking this I head was jumbled and terrified. “You’d better do it”, the internal voice insisted. All I could feel was huge surges of stress chemicals pulsating through my veins like little scuttling manic spiders, speeding through my veins, up and down the insides of my legs, my limbs, scurrying frantically.
For some inexplicable reason, I thought, or a thought occurred to me “once I would have thought this a massive craving!” but now I felt I knew better. This wasn’t an appetitive craving, I didn’t fancy a wee drinky winky, wouldn’t that be nice.
I knew this was a stress based urge and nothing to do with desire. Nonetheless, I would kill for a drink, but paradoxically I didn’t even want one!? It wasn’t for pleasure but to escape this escalating aversion.
I knew somewhere, and know more now, that the stress chemicals swirling around my nervous system were activating my reward (or survival) brain systems. I knew it because I had read about it. Many, many times. Enough times. Stress and emotional distress activated the inner beast.
Massive amounts of stress and distress cuts off the action outcome memory, the explicit memory, the remembering of knowledge of what I would normally do in this type of situation, the “what do you normally do in this situation?” my wife had implored me to recall. It was completely cut off, I couldn’t get to it, access it. It might as well have belonged to someone else.
In there, in that explicit memory, was my wife’s name and other life saving stuff like what I normally did when faced with inevitable relapse, apart from staring at a bottle of spirits and salivating!
Stuff like the tips of recovery that I had learnt so proficiently that they were ingrained in my explicit memory, for occasions such as this one!?
Some of this recovery memory had become habitualized in my implicit memory too, thank God. It was this memory that had prompted me to climb the stairs to my wife’s help on my uncertain legs. To automatically ask for help. This was implicit recovery.
The very memory I could now not access now was explicit, because the excessive stress had cut if off. The what to do now I have asked for help memory. I knew this from my research as well. The “flight or fight “mechanism, a cascade of noradrenaline, the actions of chronic stress on switching explicit to implicit memory from the action outcome to the stimulus response, to the compulsive automatised, you see it and then you do it, memory. The stimulus response memory.
The distress was the stimulus and drinking to alleviate it would be the response. Your life can depend on this memory, like when fleeing an approaching tiger, so it does not ease it’s grip on your mind too readily or easily. This is the memory with no insight of future negative consequence. It acts now and too hell with the later consequences. The “let’s deal with this now!” memory, not later.
The “what I usually did as a chronic drinking alcoholic during extreme moments of distress”, a compulsive action hardwired into my brain. I drank alcohol previously at such prompting. It had become a unpremeditated, compulsive reaction to distress. It was how I survived back then. But then was now.
Not only did it shut off my escape route via my explicit memory and knowledge of how to get out of this life threatening crisis but it locked me into “your life is in danger, act without thinking, just do the thing your have normally done over the past 25 odd years” routine.
It showed me fleeting images of doing it before, drinking, in case I had forgotten, floating airy glimpses of the people I did it with and where, when, and whispered to me that this this person was actually the real me. Not this quivering sober fraud, in this torturous alien sober reality. That I was kidding myself.
The response was positively motoric. Get up and go over there and…drink! Lots! I could feel my legs stiffen and steal themselves.
Drink, although you would rather kill yourself than drink. Where was the choice there in this? Where had it gone, disappeared with my explicit memory no doubt? As my wife further implored me to do something, the voice in my heading was now screeching orders at me “Drink now!” “Drink now or you..will, die!!!” Drink for God’s sake, drink!!”
So it wasn’t to be a case of I will relapse because “hey one will not hurt” sort of reasoning, rationalising and justification. I was being implored to drink because my life was at risk if I did not!! I could die. I could die if I didn’t!
How badly is an alcoholics reward/survival system hijacked…usurped when this brain is imploring him to do the very thing that will kill him? And in order to help, save him from this nightmare, help him survive like some psychotic caregiver would suggest. How far down the road from full cognitive control over one’s behaviour had I gone.
Answer: about as far as I could go! How much stress surges through the alcoholics brain to close down the mnemonic survival kit. When you can’t access your “recovery” survival kit, the old alcoholic one kicks in! The alcoholic self schema overrides the recovering alcoholic schema.
I slumped to my knees and implored through tear blurred eyes for help from somewhere. I gave in profoundly, I was beat. I surrendered. The stress retreated like waves scuttling away from a beach. All action stations became deactivated and the red swirling light in my head and the honking siren turned off. I was emotionally traumatised but still sober.” An abbreviated excerpt from “How Research Helped Save My Life” 
I had given up on the idea that I, my self, could solve this terrifying dilemma. The answer was outside of my self, my survival network, it was in letting go. Letting go of the distress and all the brain regions it was activating; memory, attention. emotion, reward/survival. It is regions that make up the self that are taken over in the course of alcoholism. The self can no longer be fully trusted in matters such as these. It needs to escape to brain regions outside of self or to the helping arms and reassurance of someone who knows how to help, and external prefrontal cortex of reason. One armed combat with the self will end up in crushing defeat. At certain times we are beyond our own mental control.
This ancedotal evidence highlights why research is essential to the effective treatment of alcoholism and addiction as it clearly shows the neural mechanisms implicated in relapse in chronic addiction. Altered stress systems (and their affective manifestation of emotional distress) hijack memory systems. In “offlining” the prefrontal cortex and the explicit memory of the hippocampal region it makes it very difficult to access “recovery tools” and prevent relapse.
It is only in clearly understanding these mechanisms can we seek to prevent the very high level of relapse in these clinical groups. We have to fully understand the problem before we can effectively deal with it.
We have shown via this “case study” how one can almost relapse when one has no desire ever to drink again, we have shown how it is emotional distress that precipitates and prompts this type of relapse.
We have seem how the “self will” is greatly limited and the regulation of self usurped by the impact of stress systems on reward/motivation, attention, affective and memory systems. Systems all essential to regulating one’s behaviour.
Thus treatment may find it more profitable in addressing measures to alleviate distress, increase stress and emotional coping strategies and improve the emotional regulation that is key to recovery.

When fighting your neural ghosts make sure to surrender!!

When I was in early recovery, in the first weeks and months my brain would continually trick me into thinking I was not an alcoholic and it did this via a combination of  stress and memory.

The process went like this – first I would have an intrusive thought about alcohol and drinking which I did not want and had not consciously put in my own head. Which used to annoy me! So what was it doing there then? I must have put it there right? why else would it be there?

So I must still have wanted to drink?

I would find this thought very threatening, frightening and upsetting. I would try to get rid of it by suppressing it, pushing it out of my consciousness. The problem was this didn’t work.


In fact, it made the situation a whole lot worse. The intial intrusive thoughts about drinking would then proliferate and there would be other thoughts about drinking; where, at what time, who would be there. I would then have a visual read out of all these scenarios. In the bar, the sunlight streaming through the window, the golden glistening pint of lager in the summer sun matched only by the pearly white smile of the beautiful buxom bar maid slowly pulling my pint, looking at me longingly etc. in a busy atmosphere, full of happy your attractive people laughing and enjoying themselves. people dancing and hugging. Sweet music drifting acorss the bar. You get the picture.

Delusion! This was nothing like the last bar I drank in a can assure you!! It was however the image my brain was evoking partly via memory association partly by motivational embellishment.

I have an alcoholic brain which wants me to drink. It uses, still, memories from the past, to whisper sweet nothings. It never casts images across my feverish mind of violently vomiting, bent over the downstairs toilet, or me staring through half blind eyes at my severely jaundiced face in the bathroom mirror. Or being thrown out of various bars onto the hard concrete pavement outside, on my head. Or the tears and violent rows. And the distress and confusion on loved ones’ faces.

No my alcoholism never accesses these images. Ignores them completely. Instead, as my alcoholic brain wants nothing more or else than to drink, it sends memories like neural ghosts into my head to cast a spell of delusional images and suggestive ideas, mainly promoting the idea of how good it was.

This is why in AA it is said we should wind the tape forward a bit to the disgustingly horrible reality of our final drinking. The constantly wretching and living in isolaton in our alcohol induced psychosis and the shivering terror of delirium tremens.

We have a inner voice of alcoholism that quite simply lies. Distorts our memories. The motivational voice of our alcoholism is a pathological liar. It only wants to drink because it is like a psychotic carer who thinks that drinking is the thing to do when we are in full of stress or in emotional distress. It automatically says hold one I have a solution to this distress, DRINK!

This is what the brain has become hardwired to do when distressed enough.  it is a habitual response of our implicit memory which then recruits our explicit memory which paints the picture of why drinking would be such a good idea.

I have a distress based illness, so I do get distressed from time to time. Sometimes over the most innocuous things sometimes.

Not as badly as in early recovery.  No, things have improved beyond belief since then.

The neural ghosts of my motivation were like intoxicating sirens in early recovery. My impaired reward systems implored me to have liquid release. Both combined to conjure an alternative view of myself from that of my recovering self, which was still in it”s infancy. They seemed to have control of my brain!  I suddenly had a problem beyond my own will power, I couldn’t resolve these things under my own steam.

The thoughts would come and I would suppress them and the thoughts would multiply and then the memories would all chain link  and pretty soon I would have an Amazon warehouse store of memories, all providing evidence against those guys in AA, who were not telling me truth about me being an alcoholic, They were wrong…sure I liked to drink, especially given by traumatic upbringing and all?

All these thoughts and memories floating across my mind like edits in a movie to show me as a drinking person who wasn’t an alcoholic. Not many disorders go to such profound trouble!!

I would fight these images, memories and thoughts to such an extent my brain would quite simply end up paralysed, my brain felt like it had become locked and there was nothing I could do about it. It had frozen into a terrifying inertia. Stalemate. No resolution apart from increased suffering.

Fortunately whatever I had learnt in AA even in the early days would rescue me. I had learnt to habitually grasp at something close to hand, my mobile phone. After a few puzzling moments of indecision I realised I could get help from somewhere. Ring my sponsor!!!!

I had to use someone else’s head to help me with my head, my newly recovering alcoholic head. I needed a recovered head who knew what I was going through and could help me through it! I felt all fragile like a jaundiced chick.

Recovery is tough in the early days, let’s never forget that! Life without a sponsor and right from the start is a key to surviving this alcoholic possession by these deluded memories and these neural ghosts.

This is the most vital period, to keeping those who need help in recovery. Saying someone doesn’t want it enough doesn’t cut it for me anymore. Better to show them what they are missing, namely a solution to their problems. Who ultimately doesn’t want that?

If you have never trusted anyone in your life, like me, this is the time to start if you want to recover. Trust at least one person on God’s earth. One, that’s all. This is the start to a new world in recovery. A world beyond your alcoholic brain’s comprehension.

Anyway, remember that in the feverish brain of a person in early recovery who ends up engaged in this neurobiological possession, thought straightjacket and fighting for his or her life against a mnemonic Hydra when it is the last thing they should be doing, the only way to win is to give in. Surrender!

Ultimately, how we appraise and react to naturally occurring alcohol or drug related thoughts and associated memories  will determine if this process of “craving” is activated. If we use strategies such as acceptance of these thoughts as transitory then the thoughts will not affect this process and if we “Let Go and Let God” then the distress which initially activates this process will not do so. How we react to our thoughts and accompanying distress (as they appear be be coupled) will determine whether the mental obsession mentioned above will be provoked.

Also see Cognitive Craving Part 3  and Part 4

A Cognitive Model of Craving – Pt 3

In an earlier blog we asked the question whether  neurobiological or “conditioning” or reinforcement models of craving predict relapse in abstinent alcoholics and addicts?

For us this is the most essential question. How do we explain relapse in those individuals motivated to remain abstinent, especially when they have followed some form of treatment, including 12 step groups.

We have seen that most relapse seems to be prompted by psychological stressors such as interpersonal relationships and the failure to cope with these.

This is very different to conditioning or reinforcement models that simply posit that people relapse because of the lure of alcohol or drug related stimuli, “cues”, or cues in the presence of stress or negative emotions, which we believe does have some affect.

Equally we have shown that in treatment seeking individuals there seems to be an automatic avoidance of cues so attentional bias does not really apply to this group plus there is a negative memory association bias in this abstinent, treatment seeking group also. So why do these people relapse?

What is the craving process prior to relapse for this group? . This is hugely important as neurobiological accounts do not predict relapse, so what does?

Over the next two blogs we will forward a model of craving or “mental obsessing” which we believe more accurately models the mechanisms which lead these individuals committed to staying sober and in recovery to relapse.

Ultimately we believe it may the maladaptive cognitive-affective reaction to naturally occurring  intrusive thoughts about alcohol or drugs (which are also the function of emotional dysregulation) that creates a proliferation of such thoughts, until they become obsessive, and which escalates stress and emotional distress to such an extent that the individual relapses to silence these tortuous obsessive thoughts.

These thoughts may not always be about alcohol or drugs. They may also contain negative perceptions of self, such as low self esteem and negative self schemas as the consequence of abusive early childhoods. These may result in “I am not good enough” thinking or “to hell with it!” relapse which have little to do with an appetitive urge to drink as in some reinforcement models. They are more akin to escape from self.

So models of addiction tend to focus on neurobiological substrates underlying addiction rather than on how affective (and cognitive) processing mediate addictive behaviours (1) although 80% of problem drinkers after outpatient treatment reported drinking episodes aimed at manipulating thoughts or emotions (2), with the majority of treatment clients attributing their relapse to interpersonal stress or negative emotions (3).

Also the involuntary retrieval of drug related thoughts is a hallmark of addicted populations. Over 70% of smokers stated that urges disrupted their thinking or functioning (4). Intensity of obsessive thoughts about alcohol predict relapse rate (5), with addicts motivated to use drugs to “silence” obsessive thoughts (6).  The idea that abstinence automatically decreases alcohol-related thoughts is challenged by research and supported by clinical observation that among abstinent alcohol abusers, alcohol-related thoughts and intrusions are the rule rather than exception (7).

So if emotion regulation difficulties and related intrusive thoughts are so prevalent in recovering abstinent addicts and alcoholics how do we account for this in a satisfactory and comprehensive theory of craving?

One study important to the conceptual framework set out here (6) used heart rate variability (HRV) measures, as a putative index of emotional regulation, to illustrate how craving involves cognitive-emotional processing and how conditioning models may not fully explain  ‘craving’.  This is consistent with the increasing concern in the literature about the applicably of such “one-dimensional” conditioning models explaining the results of cue reactivity studies (6). This study, among various findings, showed a link between HRV and obsessive thoughts,  in simple terms, the greater the emotional dysregulation, the greater the obsessive thoughts about alcohol.

It may even be that these “conditioning” reinforcement models or dopaminergic or stress-based models are describing “urges” rather than craving.  For us “craving” is distinct but interdependent on this “urge” state, it is partly triggered by it, if you like.

As an alternative to such passive “respondent” or “conditioning” models, some researchers have advocated the use of information-processing theory to understand how dependent individuals react in their encounter with “drug-related” cues (external and internal, e.g. stress or negative emotions) (6). Craving may thus be a different phenomenological experience to that of the physiological urges, although one may prompt the other.

According to one ‘info-processing’ view of craving, forwarded by Stephen Tiffany (4), ‘craving’,  occurs only when the automatic approach behaviour commonly seen in addicts in thwarted. This is particularly pertinent to those abstinent, treatment seeking individuals. In addiction, drug use behaviour develops various rituals around the seeking, preparation and consumption of drugs. These habitual procedures become stored in memory, in automatized action schemata  or action plans.

Encoded within these unitized memory systems are prompts such as external events (e.g. sight of a hypodermic syringe,) or internal events such as physical states (e.g. NA). Although activation of these memory structures may not be a sufficient for addicts to respond to ‘urges’, via actual drug seeking, they may stimulate approach behaviours.

Tiffany (1990) proposed “urges”, or what we call craving, are said to be associated with conscious efforts to inhibit the operation of drug use action plans (e.g. prevention of relapse or suppressive reaction to intrusive using-related thoughts). In abstinence, these “urges” involve non-automatic (i.e. conscious, effortful) cognitions that compete with automatic (unconscious effortless) drug use related plans. Thus, relapse may occur under two circumstances: when the action plan operates autonomously and when conscious processes to inhibit the action plan (thought suppression) backfire and are unsuccessful.



We agree with Tiffany’s (1990) assertion that, like other stereotypic motor acts, some aspects of the drug-use ritual are susceptible to automatization. In fact in relation to automatic using schemas it is only the “nonautomatic” processing where cognitive resources are consciously devoted to disrupting the course of a perceive threat of relapse and prior experience of these self same affective states in the context of use that activate drug- and alcohol related memories (Bradizza, Stasiewcz, & Maisto, 1994.) and cause “craving”.

The “exhaustive and effortful” effects of “urges” (craving)  in abstinent addicts (Tiffany, 1990 p.158) may reflect consciously trying to inhibit these by thought suppression. Whereas, drug using schemas are firmly established and neurally embedded and require few resources to operate, the “abstinence plan” is poorly established and demands vigilance (i.e. attention) and effort to maintain. It is also a relatively new internal voice and not as familiar to the addict. Therefore, it not surprising that many addicts take the path of least resistance and relapse.

Addictive behaviours thus become increasingly automatic or compulsive in the addiction cycle, which supports Tiffany’s ‘cognitive’ model of automatic action plans. ‘Cravings’ are generated, in our model, by non-automatic, cognitive processes which are invoked to thwart (or interfere) with these drug use action plans.

For example, in abstinent addicts, internal stress/emotional distress provokes automatic action plans (and accompanying intrusive thoughts). These individuals then use non-automatic processing i.e. cognitive control/thought suppression) to ‘fight’ these threatening (naturally occurring) automatic thoughts.

The anterior cingualte cortex (ACC) acts a gateway between what is known as explicit (hippocampal) memory (remembered knowledge about things – e.g. where we drank, with whom, how it felt, noises, smells, atmosphere and ourselves in those situations etc) and implicit (dorsal striatal)  memory (the procedural, how to do memory-  the habitualised procedure of Tiffany’s automatic addiction action plans). The dorsal medial striatum (DMS) plays an important part orchestrating the switching between these memories through a “hippocampal-to-striatal pathway” passing through the ACC (41). It may be ACC hypofunctioning, under extreme stress, which aids transition between explicit and implicit memory networks (42).

Addiction severity is suggested as being represented by a shift in reward processing from ventral stiatum (VS) to DS (28) with this marked by an emergence of automatic thoughts, which the authors suggested as the cognitive thoughts and images of automatized drug action schemata (Tiffany 1990). As addiction escalates there appears to be a greater reliance on implicit rather than explicit (hippocampal) memory too. Also emotional distress is known to recruit the DS region also. So in effect the DS becomes involved in memory, reward and affect in later addiction.  So emotional dysregulation will not only provoke intrusive thoughts, but activate automatic approach behaviour, i.e. will prompt a movement towards getting and consuming drugs and alcohol.

Modell et al, 1992, distinguished between  intrusive thoughts – and memories – in a cognitive component to craving and in compulsions, which is more motoric and action component –  the cognitive component may be governed by the dorsal medial which has connections with the ‘associative’ PFC and lateral DS which is more involved in habitual motor activity As we have already discussed, addiction severity corresponds with the extent of obsessive thoughts as measured by the Obsessive Compulsive Drinking Scale (OCDS) which suggest that as the severity of this illness progresses, so does the intensity of the obsessive thoughts about alcohol and the compulsive behaviours to use alcohol. Kranzler et al. (1999) showed relapsers who scored higher in ‘obsessions’ craving measured by the OCDS predicted relapse in the 12 months after treatment completion. It is tempting to ad that emotional dysregulation also worsens as addiction becomes more severe(  ).

‘Cravings’ are thus generated by non-automatic, cognitive processes which are invoked to thwart (or interfere) with these drug use action plans.  The DMS may be very important in the relapse mechanism we are about to explore.

The DMS may have a potential role in cognitive control of behaviour flexibility and mediating behaviours by hippocampal guidance. As such the DMS and DLS may either compete (Misumori, Yeshenko, Gill and Davis, 2004) or cooperate (Devan, MacDonald, White 1999) under different conditions.  For example, DMS may be activated when a reversal of a previously reinforced response, i.e. habitual response, is required (Eichenbaum et al, 1989). Thus in attempting to inhibit stimulus response, i.e. the automatic alcohol approach behaviour of the DLS,    the DMS activates action-outcome pathways

Thus the ‘cognition and imagery of automatized schema’ becomes increasingly obsessive as the consequence of the anterior cingulate cortex (ACC) detecting conflict between memory intrusions and alerting the prefrontal cortex (PFC) to actively suppress unwanted thoughts (169). This only serves to intensify these thoughts as thought suppression ‘rebounds’ unwanted thoughts more intensely and prolifically into consciousness (170).

This, in abstinent addicts, appears to make the situation worse leading to greater stress reactivity and  need to further inhibit habitual response which activates even more action-outcome memory, e.g. the automatic activation of mental representations in associated memory networks of what course of action has normally been followed to affect the outcome of reducing this distress, i.e. which normally has been to drink.

Whereas the DMS normally in adaptive processes competes with the DLS to resolve a situation, for the abstinent addict, it only increases the problem by suggesting solutions which in fact make the situation more acutely adverse.

For the addict attempting to maintain abstinence, declarative memory and controlled processes may often be “corrupted” in service of promoting or rationalizing drug use. This will occur because negative affect is aversive and intrinsically primes escape and avoidance strategies.

Thus the ACC in recruiting explicit memory to counteract the automatic alcohol related thoughts of the DS may unwittingly be increasing memories of drinking and explicit prompts to drink as this is what has normally been the course of action in such situations of negative emotions.

The best and most well-intentioned efforts to remain sober/clean threaten sobriety most; producing a mnemonic ‘Hydra Effect’ whereby attempts to cut off this terrible flowering of intrusive thoughts leads to increased proliferation of these thoughts and accompanying emotional distress.


This, we posit, is what occurs in the mind of a recovering/abstinent alcoholic and is more akin to the “mental obsession” of the Big Book that purely neurobiological/physiological urge states.

Equally it should be noted that craving or mental obsession does not suggest that the alcoholic or addict in recovery/abstinence is actually motivated or even wants to relapse to former use. One can engage in this “mental obsession” or cognitive craving simply via a maladaptive emotional dysregulation whereby a defective emotional strategy such as thought suppression of threatening intrusive thoughts can set up a chain of reactions which lead to an unfortunate proliferation of thoughts and memories which promote alcohol and drug use to relieve escalating emotional distress which leads to relapse even if the alcoholic or addict in recovery did not even wish it! What else is this other than a craving beyond one’s mental (cognitive) control!

Relapse can happen to an alcoholic or addict if he does not manage his underlying condition of emotional dysregulation, in other words.



References (to follow)

1. Cheetham, A., Allen, N. B., Yücel, M., & Lubman, D. I. (2010). The role of affective dysregulation in drug addiction. Clinical psychology review30(6), 621-634.

2. Sanchez-Craig, M., Annis, H. M., Bronet, A. R., & MacDonald, K. R. (1984). Random assignment to abstinence and controlled drinking: evaluation of a cognitive-behavioral program for problem drinkers. Journal of consulting and clinical psychology52(3), 390.

3. Lowman, C., Allen, J., Stout, R. L., & Group, T. R. R. (1996). Replication and extension of Marlatt’s taxonomy of relapse precipitants: overview of procedures and results. Addiction91(12s1), 51-72.

4. Tiffany, S. T. (1990). A cognitive model of drug urges and drug-use behavior: role of automatic and nonautomatic processes. Psychological review97(2), 147.

5. Bottlender, M., & Soyka, M. (2004). Impact of craving on alcohol relapse during, and 12 months following, outpatient treatment. Alcohol and Alcoholism39(4), 357-361.

6. Ingjaldsson JT, Laberg JC, Thayer JF. Reduced heart rate variability in chronic alcohol abuse: relationship with negative mood, chronic thought suppression, and compulsive drinking. Biological Psychiatry. 2003;54(12):1427–1436.

7.  Hoyer, J., Hacker, J., & Lindenmeyer, J. (2007). Metacognition in alcohol abusers: How are alcohol-related intrusions appraised?


. Bradizza, C. M., Stasiewicz, P. R., & Maisto, S. A. (1994). A conditioning reinterpretation of cognitive events in alcohol and drug cue exposure. Journal of Behavior Therapy and Experimental Psychiatry, 25, 15 – 22

Modell, J. G., Glaser, F. B., Cyr, L. & Mountz, J. M. (1992) Obsessive and compulsive characteristics of craving for alcohol in alcohol abuse and dependence. Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research, 16, 272–274.

. Kranzler, H. R., Mulgrew, C. L., Modesto-Lowe, V. and Burleson, J. A. (1999) Validity of the obsessive compulsive drinking scale (OCDS): Does craving predict drinking behavior? Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research 23108–114.

(Misumori, Yeshenko, Gill and Davis, 2004)

(Devan, MacDonald, White 1999)

(Eichenbaum et al, 1989).

Acceptance is the Key – Using Acceptance-Based Mindfulness to Promote Emotional Regulation

One of the leading researchers in the area of emotional regulation difficulties and the advocacy of acceptance-based Mindfulness in treatment of these emotional regulation problems is  Kim Gratz.

In the first in a series of blogs about how different treatments address the intrinsic emotional dysregulation at the heart of addiction we consider Gratz’s view on emotional regulations and the role of mindfulness in alleviating some of this dysregulation (1).

The idea of acceptance of things as they are is central to acceptance based treatments such as Mindfulness, DBT and 12 step programs (“acceptance is the key”).

Difficulties in emotion regulation underlie many of the clinically relevant behaviors and psychological difficulties for which clients seek treatment, including substance use (2,3), binge eating (4,5).

In response, treatments for a variety of difficulties are increasingly incorporating a focus on emotion regulation and seeking to promote adaptive emotion regulation skills (6- 8 ).

There has been a great deal of research in the past decade indicating that efforts to control, suppress, or avoid unwanted internal experiences (including emotions) may actually have paradoxical effects, increasing the frequency, severity, and accessibility of these experiences (9-10 ).

Studies in this area have focused on thought suppression (i.e., deliberately trying not to think about something). Consistent with the findings of this research, another approach to emotion regulation emphasizes the functionality of all emotions (11,12) and suggests that adaptive emotion regulation involves the ability to control one’s behaviors (e.g., by inhibiting impulsive behaviors)



These studies show that attempts to avoid or suppress internal experiences may actually have paradoxical effects (referred to as ironic processes (13)) were attempts to suppress thoughts leads to them increasingly rebounding in one’s mind so this has the opposite effect, ironic, to what one hopes to achieve, to lessen these thoughts.  More recently, researchers have  found similar results when attempting to suppress emotions (14). All in all, these findings suggest that conceptualizations of emotion regulation that equate regulation with  the control or avoidance of certain emotions may be counter productive to emotion regulation.

Some researchers have suggested suggests that adaptive emotion regulation involves the ability to control one’s behaviors when experiencing negative emotions, rather than the ability to directly control one’s emotions themselves (7,15). This approach distinguishes emotion regulation from emotional control and, instead, defines regulation as the control of behavior in the face of emotional distress

According to this approach, although adaptive regulation may involve efforts to modulate the intensity or duration of an emotion (16) these efforts are in the service of reducing the urgency associated with the emotion in order to control one’s behavior (rather than the emotion itself).

In other words, this approach suggests the potential utility of efforts to “take the edge off” an emotion or self-soothe when distressed, rather than to get rid of the emotion or escape it altogether.

Moreover, when it comes to efforts to modulate the intensity or duration of an emotion, attachment to the outcome of these efforts is thought to have paradoxical effects (as directly trying to reduce emotional arousal to a particular level or make an emotion end after a certain amount of time is considered to reflect an “emotional control” agenda indicative of emotional avoidance).

Some researchers conceptualize emotion regulation as any adaptive way of responding to one’s emotions, regardless of their intensity or reactivity.

Given evidence that many individuals who engage in maladaptive behaviors struggle with their emotions (17,18), treatments that focus on teaching individuals ways to avoid or control their emotions may not be useful, and may inadvertently reinforce a non-accepting, judgmental, and unhealthy stance toward emotions. Instead, the fact  that such individuals may be caught in a struggle with their emotions suggests that they may benefit from learning another (more adaptive) way of approaching and responding to their emotions

Acceptance- and mindfulness-based treatments may be particularly useful for promoting emotion regulation and facilitating the development of more adaptive ways of responding to emotions. For example, the process of observing and describing one’s emotions (an element common across many mindfulness- and acceptance-based treatments,) to promote emotional awareness and clarity, as clients are encouraged to observe their emotions as  they occur in the moment and to label them objectively.

Through this process, clients are increasing contact with these emotions and focusing attention on the different components of their emotional responses (expected to increase emotional awareness). Further, the process of describing emotions is expected to facilitate the ability to identify, label, and differentiate between emotional states.

Moreover, the emphasis on letting go of evaluations such as “good” or “bad”) and taking a nonjudgmental and non evaluative stance toward these emotions


images (9)


Given that the evaluation of emotions as bad or wrong likely both motivates attempts to avoid emotions and leads to the  development of secondary emotional responses (e.g., fear or shame), learning to approach emotions in a nonjudgmental fashion is expected to increase the willingness to  experience emotions and decrease secondary emotional reactions.

Indeed, it is likely this nonevaluative stance (i.e., the description of stimuli as “just is,” rather than as “bad” or “good”) that underlies many of the potential benefits of observing and describing one’s emotions

Mindfulness training may also promote the decoupling of emotions and behaviors, teaching clients that emotions can be experienced and tolerated without necessarily acting on them. As such, these skills may facilitate the ability to control one’s behaviors in the context of emotional distress.

One factor thought to interfere with the ability to control impulsive behaviors when emotionally distressed  is the experience of emotions as inseparable from behaviors, such that the emotion and the behavior that occurs in response to that emotion are experienced as one (e.g.,anxiety and taking an anxiolytic). Thus, the process of observing one’s emotions and their associated action urges is thought to facilitate awareness of the separateness of emotions and the behaviors that often accompany them, facilitating the ability to control one’s behaviors when distressed.


1. Gratz, K. L., & Tull, M. T. (in press). Emotion regulation as a mechanism of change in acceptance-and mindfulness-based treatments. In R. A. Baer (Ed.), Assessing mindfulness and acceptance: Illuminating the processes of change. Oakland, CA: New Harbinger Publications.

2. Fox, H. C., Axelrod, S. R., Paliwal, P., Sleeper, J., & Sinha, R. (2007). Difficulties in emotion regulation and impulse control during cocaine abstinence. Drug and Alcohol Dependence, 89, 298-301.
3.  Fox, H. C., Hong, K. A., & Sinha, R. (2008). Difficulties in emotion regulation and impulse control in recently abstinent alcoholics compared with social drinkers. Addictive Behaviors, 33, 388-394.

4. Leahey, T. M., Crowther, J. H., & Irwin, S. R. (2008). A cognitive-behavioral mindfulness group therapy intervention for the treatment of binge eating in bariatric surgery patients.  Cognitive and Behavioral Practice, 15, 364-375.

5.  Whiteside, U., Chen, E., Neighbors, C., Hunter, D., Lo, T., & Larimer, M. (2007). Difficulties regulating emotions: Do binge eaters have fewer strategies to modulate and tolerate negative affect? Eating Behaviors, 8, 162-169.

6. Gratz, K. L., & Gunderson, J. G. (2006). Preliminary data on an acceptance-based emotion regulation group intervention for deliberate self-harm among women with borderline personality disorder. Behavior Therapy, 37, 25-35.

7. Linehan, M. M. (1993). Cognitive-behavioral treatment of borderline personality disorder. New York, NY: Guilford Press.

8. Mennin, D. S. (2006). Emotion regulation therapy: An integrative approach to treatment-resistant anxiety disorders. Journal of Contemporary Psychotherapy, 36, 95-105

9. Hayes, S. C., Luoma, J. B., Bond, F. W., Masuda, A., & Lillis, J. (2006). Acceptance and Commitment Therapy: Model, processes, and outcomes. Behaviour Research and Therapy, 44, 1-25

10. Salters-Pedneault, K., Tull, M. T, & Roemer, L. (2004). The role of avoidance of emotional material in the anxiety disorders. Applied and Preventive Psychology, 11, 95-114

11. Cole, P. M., Michel, M. K., & Teti, L. O. (1994). The development of emotion regulation and  dysregulation: A clinical perspective. In N. A. Fox (Ed.), The development of emotion regulation: Biological and behavioral considerations. Monographs of the Society for Research in Child Development, 59, (pp. 73-100, Serial No. 240)

12. Thompson, R. A., & Calkins, S. D. (1996). The double-edged sword: Emotional regulation for children at risk. Development and Psychopathology, 8, 163-182.

13. Wegner, D. M. (1994). Ironic processes of mental control. Psychological Review, 101, 34-52.

14. Salters-Pedneault, K., Roemer, L., Tull, M. T., Rucker, L., & Mennin, D. S. (2006). Evidence of  broad deficits in emotion regulation associated with chronic worry and generalized anxiety disorder. Cognitive Therapy and Research, 30, 469-480.

15. Melnick, S. M., & Hinshaw, S. P. (2000). Emotion regulation and parenting in AD/HD and comparison boys: Linkages with social behaviors and peer preference. Journal of Abnormal Child Psychology, 28, 73-86.

16. Thompson, R. A. (1994). Emotion regulation: A theme in search of definition. In N. A. Fox  (Ed.), The development of emotion regulation: Biological and behavioral considerations. Monographs of the Society for Research in Child Development, 59, (pp. 25-52, Serial No.

17.   Chapman, A. L., Gratz, K. L., & Brown, M. Z. (2006). Solving the puzzle of deliberate self harm: The experiential avoidance model. Behaviour Research and Therapy, 44, 371-394.

18. Whiteside, U., Chen, E., Neighbors, C., Hunter, D., Lo, T., & Larimer, M. (2007). Difficulties regulating emotions: Do binge eaters have fewer strategies to modulate and tolerate  negative affect? Eating Behaviors, 8, 162-169

How far have we come in understanding this emotional disorder?

A constant thread throughout our blogs so far has been an assertion that alcoholism and addiction are primarily emotional regulation and processing disorders.

So we were thus  very interested to find this article (1) which describes how we are not the first to view alcoholism and addiction this way.

Here we use this article to present a  brief history of research, dating back to the 1930s, that has viewed alcoholism and addiction in a similar way to we do now in 2014.


“Life, as we find it, is too hard for us; it brings us too many pains, disappointments and impossible tasks. In order to bear it we cannot dispense with palliative measures. (…), intoxicating substances, which make us insensitive to it” (Freud, 1930, p. 75).


Rado (1933) was the first to describe substance use as a way of coping with excessively difficult states of emotions (3).

Others subsequently interpret the phenomena as a maladaptive way of fighting against stress, anxiety, and depression (4-6). Krystal and Raskin(1970) emphasize the undifferentiated and archaic, somatically manifested, emotions of persons suffering from addictive disorders (7).

These emotions are fixed at this level owing to their early traumatic nature.

Later, McDougall (1984) also highlighted the importance of overflowing emotions in the case of people with addictive disorders (8). He identified substanceuse as a compulsive way of canalizing these overflowing emotions. Conclusively, we can see that in all of these mainly psychoanalytically oriented theories, substance use is present as an instrument to regulate emotions.

This approach is elaborated unequivocally in the theories of Leon Wurmser and Edward J. Khantzian. According to Wurmser (1974), people with addictive disorders are unable to regulate their undifferentiated feelings, impulses, and pervasive internal stress, and so they turn to psychoactive substances (9). Their substance use can thus be recognized as an attemptat “self-treatment.” The self-medication hypothesis of Khantzian (1985) also highlights emotion regulation in the background of addictions (10).

He asserts that drug use in fact emerges as the common result of psychopharmacological functioning and overwhelmingly painful emotions. Like Wurmser, Khantzian also points out that the choice of substance is specific to the person’s self-regulation and affect-regulation problems, as well as his/her personality dysfunctions (11).

More recently we have had Cheetham’s affect- centred theories of addiction (12).

Apparently, clinical observations highlight mainly those dimensions in the background of psychoactive substance use—primarily the presence of undifferentiated, overflowing, dominantly negative and painful feelings, and difficulties in emotional expression and emotional regulation—which appear to be basic components of the later Emotional Intelligence (EI)  construct (13). For instance, according to Mayer and Salovey (1997), the main components of EI are: (1) the perception, appraisal, and expression of emotions; (2) the emotional facilitation of thinking; (3) understanding and analyzing emotions, and employing emotional knowledge; and (4) the regulation of emotions.

The most important empirical findings regarding our topic may be those studies, which attempted to explore the relationship between addictions and alexithymia.

The concept of alexithymia (14) was created by Ruesch (1948) but the definition of Nemiah and Sifneos is more widely known (15,16).

The four main characteristics of alexithymia are: (1) difficulty identifying feelings and distinguishing between emotions and corresponding bodily sensations; (2) difficulty describing feelings to others; (3) constricted imaginal life and fantasies; and (4) externally oriented cognitive style (17).

The relationship between alexithymia and emotional consciousness or emotional intelligence was confirmed by several studies (18-20). These studies pointed out that a low level of EI correlates with a high level of alexithymia.

These results are hardly surprising, given that the ability to identify and express emotions is an important component of EI.

Besides clinical observations (21), empirical studies have also shown that people with addictive disorders—mainly alcoholic patients or those diagnosed with eating disorders—have difficulties with the verbalization and expression of their feelings, so in their case the problem of alexithymia is more frequent than in the normal population (22-24)

One study looking at a meta analysis of research into emotional aspects of addiction (1) found – 12 of these studies solely measured the ability to identify emotions – Oscar-Berman and colleagues (1990) were the first to draw attention to the fact that alcohol addicts, especially those suffering from Korsakoff‘s syndrome, have difficulties in identifying and decoding emotions mediated by facial expressions (25).

Underlying the inaccuracy of decoding is the overestimation of intensity of emotions, especially negative ones, characteristic of alcohol patients (26-29). They also tend to associate negative emotions more often with each of the presented facial expressions (30). Furthermore, Kornreich and colleagues have pointed out that the ability to identify emotions is tightly and negatively associated with interpersonal problems, and these problems seem to be a mediating factor between emotional identification deficits and alcoholism (31). All of these findings may relate to results stating that people with alcohol addiction tend to interpret facial expressions, like sadness or disgust, falsely as emotions describing interpersonal conflicts, like anger or contempt (32).

This latter result is also supported by an Italian study (33). A further important outcome of these investigations showed that alcohol-addicted patients, in spite of their weaker capacity, rate these emotion-decoding tasks at the same difficulty level as do people from the control groups. It therefore seems as though they are not aware of their difficulties in identifying emotions.

At the same time, however, this distortion in the subjective ratings is not only characteristic of alcohol addiction, but is present in the case of opiate-addicted people as well (34,35). These studies also highlighted that alcoholism is associated with poorer emotion-decoding  abilities than compulsive use of opiates.



We have discussed emotional processing deficits in alcoholics and addicts in another blog.

The prevalence rate of alexithymia in alcohol use disorders is between 45 to 67% (36,37). Finn, Martin and Phil (1987) investigated the presence of alexithymia among males at varying levels of genetic risk for alcoholism. They found that the high risk for alcoholism group was more likely to be alexithymic than the moderate and low genetic risk groups (38).

The inability to identify and describe affective and physiological experiences is itself associated with the elevated negative affect (39) commonly seen in alcoholics, even in recovery (40). This latter study also highlighted the link between alexithymia and the emotional dysregulation inherent in addictive disorders.

Thus, the unpleasant “undifferentiated emotional” experience of early theories might prompt individuals to engage in maladaptive behaviors, such as excessive alcohol consumption, in an effort to regulate emotions, or, more specifically, cope with negative emotional states (41).

We now see how neurobiological models can marry statisfactorially wih psycho-analytic theories. This will be especially the case when we blog about alexithymia, addictive and theories of attachment.

We have thus moved from a mainly clinical perspective on the role of emotional difficulties in addiction to providing some neuroscientific evidence that these theories were actually on to something, namely these theories were pointing the way to further conceptualisations of addiction as a disorder of emotional regulation and processing. 



1. Kun, B., & Demetrovics, Z. (2010). Emotional intelligence and addictions: a systematic review. Substance use & misuse45(7-8), 1131-1160.

2. Freud, S. (1930). Civilization and its discontents. In J. Strachey (Ed.), The standard edition of the complete psychological works of Sigmund freud (Vol. 21, pp. 59–145). London: The Hogarth Press

3. Rado, S. (1933). The psychoanalysis of pharmacothymia (Drug Addiction). Psychoanalytic Quarterly, 2:1–23

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Emotional Dysregulation, recovery and relapse

Throughout our blogs thus far, we have attempted to highlight how emotional dysregulation appears to prevalent to all aspects of alcoholism and addiction from pre-morbid vulnerability to endpoint compulsive addictive behaviours.

Here we highlight a few articles which have considered how prevalent is emotional dysregulation in alcoholism and addiction in early abstinence/recovery. 

Early abstinence from chronic alcohol dependence is associated with increased emotional sensitivity to stress-related craving as well as changes in brain systems associated with stress and emotional processing.

Early abstinence from alcohol is associated with changes in neural stress and reward systems that can include atrophy in subcortical and frontomesal regions (1).

Moreover, recent imaging studies have shown that these brain regions are also associated with the experience and regulation of emotion (2).

While alcohol-related changes in emotion, stress and reward-related brain regions have been well documented difficulties in emotion regulation (ER) have not been studied much.


One study (3) examined ER in early abstinent alcohol-dependent individuals compared with social drinkers using the Difficulties in Emotion Regulation Scale (DERS).

The DERS is an inclusive scale and defines ER in terms of four major factors: the understanding of emotion, the acceptance of emotion, the ability to control impulsive behavior and the ability to access ER strategies benefiting the individual and the specific goals of the situation. The scale has been validated in cocaine dependent patients (4) and on alcohol dependent individuals.

ER difficulties in treatment-engaged alcohol dependent (AD) patients during a period of early abstinence that is marked by an overall distress state. AD patients reported an overall problem with emotion regulation compared with SDs in the first few days of abstinence; in particular with emotional awareness and impulse control. Following protracted abstinence, AD patients significantly improved awareness and clarity of their emotional experience, and only significant problems with impulse control persisted.

This is consistent with neuro-imaging studies showing chronic alcohol abuse to be associated with stress and cue-related neuroadaptations in the medial prefrontal and anterior cingulate regions of the brain (6), which are strongly implicated in the self-regulation of emotion and behavioral self-control (7). As impulsivity in distress states may reflect a change in priority from self-control to affect regulation (8 ).

As we have seen in other blogs and articles (5) these areas are those which improve in short term abstinence/recovery.

Cocaine-dependent individuals also report emotion regulation difficulties, particularly during early abstinence (4). Additionally, protracted distress-related impulse control problems suggest potential relapse vulnerability Difficulties concerning emotional clarity and awareness compared with controls were observed which suggests that cocaine dependent individuals were less able to acknowledge and/or have a clear understanding of their emotions.

Clarity and awareness of emotions could represent early processing components of emotional competence (9) and may be integral to the maintenance of drug use.

The cocaine addicts appeared to have greater difficulty in developing effective emotional coping strategies  (i.e. they would be more likely to believe that little could be  done to change an emotionally stressful situations.) They were also found to report significantly higher scores on the Impulse subscale of the DERS compared with controls, indicating difficulties with regard to inhibiting inappropriate or impulse behaviors under stressful situations which can prompt relapse.


1. Bartsch, A. J., Homola, G., Biller, A., Smith, S. M., Weijers, H. G., Wiesbeck, G. A., et al. (2007). Manifestations of early brain recovery associated with abstinence from alcoholism. Brain, 130(Pt 1), 36−47

2. Fox, H. C., Hong, K. A., & Sinha, R. (2008). Difficulties in emotion regulation and impulse control in recently abstinent alcoholics compared with social drinkers. Addictive Behaviors33(2), 388-394.

3. Ochsner, K.N., Gross, J.J., 2005. The cognitive control of emotion. Trends Cogn. Sci. 9, 242–249

4. Fox, H. C., Hong, K. A., & Sinha, R. (2008). Difficulties in emotion regulation and impulse control in recently abstinent alcoholics compared with social drinkers. Addictive Behaviors33(2), 388-394.

5. Sinha, R., & Li, C. S. (2007). Imaging stress- and cue-induced drug and alcohol craving: Association with relapse and clinical implications. Drug and Alcohol Review, 26(1), 25−31.

6. Connolly, C. G., Foxe, J. J., Nierenberg, J., Shpaner, M., & Garavan, H. (2012). The neurobiology of cognitive control in successful cocaine abstinence. Drug and alcohol dependence121(1), 45-53.

7. Baumeister, R.F., Heatherton, T.F., Tice, D.M., 1994. Loosing Control: How and Why People Fail at Self-regulation. Academic Press, San Diego, CA

8.  Tice, D.M., Bratslavsky, E., Baumeister, R.F., 2001. Emotional distress regulation takes precedence over impulse control: if you feel bad, do it! J. Pers Soc. Psychol. 80, 53–67.

9. Salovey, P., Stroud, L.R., Woolery, A., Epel, E.S., 2002. Perceived emotional intelligence, stress reactivity, and symptom reports: further explorations using the trait Meta-mood scale. Psychol. Health 17, 611–627


Is the “mental obsession” of the Big Book relative to how severe your addiction is?

Involuntary retrieval of drug related thoughts is a hallmark of addicted populations.

Intensity of obsessive thoughts about alcohol predict relapse rate (1), with addicts motivated to use drugs to “silence” obsessive thoughts (2).  The idea that abstinence automatically decreases alcohol-related thoughts is challenged by research (3) and supported by clinical observation that among abstinent alcohol abusers, alcohol-related thoughts and intrusions are the rule rather than exception (4).

Modell and colleagues (1992) highlighted symptomatic similarities between addiction and obsessive compulsive disorder with subjective craving for drugs or alcohol characterized as having obsessive elements. (eg, the compulsive drive to consume alcohol, recurrent and persistent thoughts about alcohol, and the struggle to control these drives and thoughts) similar to the thought patterns and behaviours of patients with obsessive-compulsive illness (5).

Modell et al. also point to the potential similarities in underlying neural pathways implicated in the two disorders, suggesting that they may share a similar aetiology. The Obsessive Compulsive Drinking Scale (OCDS) implies that as the severity of this illness progresses, so does the intensity of the obsessive thoughts about alcohol and the compulsive behaviours to use alcohol.

Kranzler et al. (1999) showed relapsers who scored higher in ‘obsessions’ craving measured by the OCDS predicted relapse in the 12 months after treatment completion (6).




This may also be a reflection of addiction severity too! As addicts and alcoholics become more addictive brain imaging shows a shift in “reward processing” from the ventral striatum to the dorsal striatum. The DS is in charge of more automatic, compulsive reaction.  This shift from VS to DS  may also be marked by an increased emergence of automatic thoughts, which the authors suggested as the cognitive thoughts and images of automatized drug action schemata (2).

In fact, this is demonstrated by correlations indicating that dorsal striatum activation is lowest in participants with low OCDS scores. This means, in simple terms, that more severe addiction may be associated with more intrusive/obsessive thoughts and less severe with less thoughts.  




1.. Bottlender, M., & Soyka, M. (2004). Impact of craving on alcohol relapse during, and 12 months following, outpatient treatment. Alcohol and Alcoholism39(4), 357-361.

2. 6. Tiffany, S. T. (1990). A cognitive model of drug urges and drug-use behavior: role of automatic and nonautomatic processes. Psychological review97(2), 147.

3. Caetano, R. (1985). Alcohol dependence and the need to drink: A compulsion? Psychological Medicine,
15(3), 463–469.

4. Hoyer, J., Hacker, J., & Lindenmeyer, J. (2007). Metacognition in alcohol abusers: How are alcohol-related intrusions appraised?. Cognitive Therapy and Research31(6), 817-831.

5. Modell, J. G., Glaser, F. B., Mountz, J. M., Schmaltz, S., & Cyr, L. (1992). Obsessive and compulsive characteristics of alcohol abuse and dependence: Quantification by a newly developed questionnaire.
Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research, 16, 266-271.

6. Kranzler, H. R., Mulgrew, C. L., Modesto-Lowe, V. and Burleson, J. A.
(1999) Validity of the obsessive compulsive drinking scale (OCDS): Does craving predict drinking behavior? Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research 23, 108–114.

7. Vollstädt‐Klein, S., Wichert, S., Rabinstein, J., Bühler, M., Klein, O., Ende, G., … & Mann, K. (2010). Initial, habitual and compulsive alcohol use is characterized by a shift of cue processing from ventral to dorsal striatum.Addiction105(10), 1741-1749.