Inability to make fine-grained distinctions regarding negative emotions prompts impulsivity.

When I first came into recovery I was assigned a task which has gone on to shape much of my thinking about my alcoholism and addiction. I was prompted by my wife to sit with my emotions, that is, to sit in one place beside my wife and not suddenly get up and go elsewhere to avoid whatever emotional state consumed me, terrified me.

I have to say it was the bizarre experience. In my drinking any negative emotions would prime my thoughts towards alcohol and any increased intensity of such thoughts would practically have me skipping to the nearest drinking establishment.

Ever since I was a child, emotions were something to be avoided, tamed or feared. They were destructive, counterproductive things which somehow weakened you.

Now I was being asked to do something I had never accomplished in over thirty years. To sit with, not run from, whatever emotions starting to arise in my mind. As the first undifferentiated blobs of emotions arose I was struck my how I could not recognise them or say with any conviction what emotions they were exactly. In this undifferentiated state they felt like waves of feeling, like possessions, like being haunting by mute poltergeists!

The urge to flee these unpleasant feeling states was overwhelming. I asked my wife for help “what was happening to me!?” “What are these feeling things?”

My wife calmly said they are simply feelings, you are experiencing emotions in their entirety. It was horrible. How the hell had I not done this before, sat with my emotions instead to constantly escaping them somehow?

In fact, I am willing to say that I knew next to nothing about emotions when I arrive in recovery. These is why they have come to fascinate me and inspired my research into affective and clinical/psychiatric neuroscience.

How is it that a grown man got to this stage, to the stage where all his undifferentiated emotions propelled him into movement away from them?

The answer to this question may have been demonstrated in this study (1).



“Affective functioning plays a prominent role in several etiological models of substance use (e.g., Kassel et al., 2010; McCarthy, Curtin, Piper, & Baker, 2010; Simons, Wills, & Neal, in press). These models suggest that individuals with poor affect regulation show a diminished capacity to handle intense emotion states and often rely upon maladaptive coping strategies, such as substance or alcohol use, to manage their emotions (Lavallo, 2007; Spence & Courbasson, 2012).

One factor related to emotion regulation is emotion differentiation. Emotion differentiation is the ability to make fine grained distinctions between similarly valenced emotion states (Feldman Barrett, 2004). Individuals differ greatly in their ability to differentiate their affective experiences. Some tend to describe their emotional experiences in more global terms, such as feeling “good” or feeling “bad” and find it difficult to make more subtle distinctions, while others make these nuanced differentiations easily. These differences have been shown to impact the ability to regulate emotions and consequential behaviors (Feldman Barrett, Gross, Conner Christensen, & Benvenuto, 2001; Tugade, Fredrickson, & Feldman Barrett, 2004). In support of this, emotional differentiation has been shown to moderate associations between negative emotion and alcohol consumption (Kashdan, Ferssizidis, Collins, & Muraven, 2010).

This research suggests that the inability to differentiate emotion may foster maladaptive behavior when emotionally aroused.

Hence, it is possible that the inability to differentiate emotions may
be related to urgency, defined as rash action in response to intense emotion. Along these lines, research on alexithymia, a construct related to deficits in identifying and describing emotions, shows that these deficits are positively associated with urgency, with urgency often fully mediating the relationship between alexithymia and problematic outcomes, including alcohol consequences (Gaher, Hofman, Simons, & Hunsaker, 2013; Shishido, Gaher, & Simons, 2013).

Moreover, alexithymia has been shown to mediate the relationship between childhood maltreatment (Gaher, Arens, & Shishido, 2013) as well as trauma history
(Gaher, Hofman, et al., 2013) and urgency, suggesting that deficits in
emotional understanding may underlie urgent responding.

The findings of this study (1) showed that negative emotion differentiation was associated with both negative urgency and alcohol which suggests that the inability to make fine-grained distinctions regarding the experience of negative emotions contributes to behavioral disinhibition when in a state of high emotional arousal.


1. Emery, N. N., Simons, J. S., Clarke, J. C., & Gaher, R. M. (2014). Emotion Differentiation and Alcohol-Related Problems: The Mediating Role of Urgency.Addictive Behaviors.


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