The terror of “Locked In” Attention!

I remember when I was in the first days, weeks and months of early recovery I used to give myself such a hard time when my attention was drawn to some alcohol-related cue, like someone drinking ,or finding it difficult not dealing with some  reminder of people places and things from my alcohol abusing past; finding that I found it nigh on impossible dragging my attention away from these and related memories associated with my drinking past.

It was as if I was entranced by it, in some of tunnel vision. It used to scare the life out of me.

I rarely found these thoughts appetitive but if I dwelt on these thoughts or trained my attention on cues I would find that the adverse, fearful things would turn to more desire based physiological reactions like salivating and so on.

I took these to mean that I actually wanted to drink and not stay sober. My sponsor at the time said two things which helped – a. I have an alcoholic brain that wants to drink period, 2. cues from my past may always have this effect on me. Accept it, don’t fight it.

That was what I had been doing in fact. Fighting it, these cues reminders and their automatically occurring intrusive thoughts about the past. It is in fighting these thoughts that they proliferate and then become “craving”.

Years later after much research I found that all alcoholics seem to have an attentional bias towards alcohol-related cues which leads to a cue reactivity.

Originally I thought this meant that I simply wanted to drink but found out that in  any manifestation of urge to drink (which is slightly different from a craving which requires an affective response on the part of the alcoholic in order to become a craving similar to mental obsession of the Big Book ) there is a stress reponse like the hear beat quickening, differences in galvanic skin conductance, increased saliva production etc .

Thus this cue reactivty seems to involve not only appetitive or desire states, i.e. it activates the reward system in the brain to motivate one to drink but also contains a stress based reactivity.

Any so-called “craving” state also manifests as either an anxiety state in simple cue reactivity e.g. the sight of alcohol or in negative emotions such as fear, anger and sadness in terms of a stress based craving.

Together, i.e. a cue based reactivity in the face stress/distress leads to a greater urge to drink than by either alone. By reacting to these one is increasing the stress/distress.

To the alcoholic brain having a drink or the desire to drink is the brain suggesting to us as alcoholics that this is the best way to attain transient homeostasis from an allostatic state of distress because this is how we used to balance the effects of emotional distress when we were drinking. We experience distress and automatically had thoughts about drinking. Thus alcoholism is a distress-based condition. We think it is us wanting the drink but it is the distress prompting the wanting of the drink!!

The distress does the drinking for us, itgets us out of our seats and down the street to the bar, it gets us on the bar stool….We may think it is our actions as we use rationalisng and justifying schemata afterwards to justify behaviour that had, in fact, been automatic or compulsive, compulsive meaning to relieve a distress state.

As a schema, which is implicit, i.e. it is automatically prompted and activated by distress also. We are not even in charge of this. We feel and think that we are in control over behaviour bit this is not the case as self control has become so impaired and limited it is distress doing the action and the subsequent rationalising.

The compusive part of the brain, the dorsal striatum, is the only part of the brain that requires us to make a post hoc rationalisation of why we did an action that was essentially automatic and compulsive.

We have become passengers in our own lives. Distress is now doing the driving.

So the brain thinks it is simply telling us the best way to survive this distress or in other words to regulate this distress. Thus it is an incredibly impaired way to regulate stress and emotional distress.

I want to further explain how some of this is linked to low heart rate variability. If we have low HRV we find it difficult inhibiting automatic responses and in changing behaviour. We become behaviourally rigid, and locked into attending to things like cues when we don’t really want to.

This is often the result of distress reducing the ability of the heart rate variability to inform and change our responses.

I cite and use excerpts form one of my favourite articles again by co-authored by Julian Thayer (1).


“The recovering alcoholic must face the difficulty of having his or her ambition to remain abstinent challenged in various situations in which memories about the pleasurable effects of alcohol are activated and the striving for abstinence no longer seems meaningful (Anton 1999; Marlatt and Gordon 1985). The odds for successful coping with such temptations are related to numerous factors, such as one’s subjective affective state and the ability to shift one’s focus from the automatic impulse to drink toward a cognitive reconstruction of the situation (Palfai et al 1997b; Tiffany 1990). Despite the importance of  attentional flexibility in effectively modulating such “highrisk” situations, research on the topic is scarce.

Thayer and Lane (2000) suggested that the interplay between positive (excitatory) and negative (inhibitory) feedback circuits in the nervous system (NS) allows for flexible and adaptive behavior across a wide range of situations. The uniqueness of this model lies with its emphasis on the importance of inhibitory processes in effective modulation of affective experience. In short, these researchers propose that the defects in neurovisceral regulation of affective experience seen in various psychiatric conditions (e.g., anxiety disorders) may be better explained by faulty inhibitory function in the NS than by unitary arousal models.

Tonic heart rate variability (HRV) may be a physiologic indicator of such inhibitory processes (Friedman and Thayer 1998a; Porges 1995). Heart rate variability refers to the complex beat-to-beat variation in heart rate produced by the interplay of sympathetic and parasympathetic (vagal) neural activity at the sinus node of the heart.

Importantly, heart rate (HR) is under tonic inhibitory control via the vagus nerve (Levy 1990). These neural connections to the heart are linked to brain structures involved in goal-directed behavior and adaptability (Thayer and Lane 2000). Compelling evidence now exists to show that high levels of HRV are related to cognitive flexibility (Johnsen et al 2003), modulation of affect and emotion (see Bazhenova 1995, cited in Porges 1995), and increased impulse control (Allen et al 2000; Porges et al 1996).

The hypothesis that reduced HRV is related to defective affective and emotional regulation has been supported in recent research in which reduced HRV was present in clinical disorders such as generalized anxiety disorder (Thayer et al 1996), panic disorder (Friedman and Thayer 1998b), posttraumatic stress disorder (Cohen et al 1997) several scientific arguments suggest that impaired inhibitory function may play a role in chronic alcohol abuse.

First, alcoholics have repeatedly been shown to have problems shifting attention and directing their attention away from task-irrelevant information (Johnsen et al 1994; Setter et al 1994; Stormark et al 2000). Second, frontal areas of the brain are most affected by the acute and chronic effects of alcohol, and these structures are of crucial importance in inhibitory functioning and self-control (Lyvers 2000). Third, acute effects of alcohol ingestion result in reductions in HRV, implying that chronic alcohol ingestion may result in a long-lasting impairment of the vagal modulation of HR (Reed et al 1999; Weise et al 1986)

Fourth, severely dependent alcoholics show a sustained phasic HR acceleration when processing alcohol information, indicating defective vagal modulation of cardiac function (Stormark et al 1998). Tonic HRV has similarly been found to be a useful measure of physiologic activity in challenging situations (Thayer and Lane 2000). Appropriate modulation of HRV (increases, decreases, or no change) depends on the type of challenge and the characteristics of individuals as they interact with specific contextual manipulation (Friedman and Thayer 1998a; Hughes and Stoney 2000; Porges et al 1996; Thayer et al 1996).

For example, during attention demanding tasks, healthy individuals show appropriate reductions in HRV (Porges 1995). In general, high tonic levels of HRV allow for the flexible deployment of organism resources to meet environmental challenges. With respect to attention, it is suggested that high levels of HRV reflect flexible attentional focus, whereas low HRV is related to “locked in attention” (Porges et al 1996). Moreover, increased tonic vagal activity is related to adaptive development and lack of behavioral and emotional problems (Hughes and Stoney 2000; Porges et al 1996).

Furthermore, it has been demonstrated that increases in vagal activity during challenging tasks discriminates between individuals who have experienced traumatic events and managed to recover from them and those who still suffer from chronic symptoms of posttraumatic stress (Sahr et al 2001). Such increases in vagal activity during challenging tasks are particularly interesting because studies on alcohol abusers have found increases in HRV after exposure to alcohol-related cues (Jansma et al 2000; Rajan et al 1998).

One could speculate that such enhanced vagal activity could be a sign of compensatory coping aimed at taming automatic drinking related processes (Larimer et al 1999). Such an interpretation is in agreement with cognitive theories predicting that alcoholics and other drug users do not simply respond passively to exposure to drug-related cues, but, on the contrary, in such situations conscious processes are invoked, inhibiting execution of drug-related cognition (Tiffany 1990, 1995). If this explanation is correct, alcoholics who have more effective coping resources should show stronger increases in vagal activity during such challenging exposure than alcoholics who express greater difficulty in resisting drinking-related impulses.

Also  general differences in HRV between alcoholics and nonalcoholics are interesting indicators of defective inhibitory functioning, a measure of rigid thought-control strategies and lack of cognitive control should be an important indicator of defective inhibitory function and “positive feedback loops” reflected as low HRV (Wegner and Zanakos 1994).

Linking these measures to the physiologic index of HRV makes a stronger case for attributing reduced vagal tone (HRV) to a defective regulatory mechanism resulting in unpleasant affective states and maladaptive coping with psychologic stressors

The main results of our study may be summed as follows. First, as expected, alcoholic participants had lower HRV compared with the nonalcoholic control group. Second, the imaginary alcohol exposure increased HRV in the alcoholic participants. Third, across the groups, an inverse association was found between HRV and negative mood and a positive association between positive mood and HRV. Fourth, HRV was negatively correlated with compulsive drinking during the imaginary alcohol exposure in the alcoholic participants. Fifth, within the alcoholic group, HRV was negatively associated with chronic thought suppression (WBSI).

Generally, these findings are in agreement with the neurovisceral integration model and the polyvagal theory that suggests HRV is a marker of the level of cognitive, behavioral, and emotional regulatory abilities (Thayer and Lane 2000).

The fact that the alcoholic group had generally lower tonic HRV compared with the nonalcoholic control group indicates that such reduced HRV may also be a factor in alcohol abuse; however, such group differences in HRV provide only indirect support for the theory that low HRV in alcoholics may be related to impaired inhibitory mechanisms

Because HRV is related to activity in frontal brain areas involved in cognition and impulse control (Thayer and Lane 2000), we speculated that tonic HRV would be an index of nonautomatic inhibitory processes aimed at suppressing and controlling automatic drug-related cognitions. To test this hypothesis more directly, the association between HRV and problems with controlling drinking-related impulses were studied.

Consistent with this hypothesis, the compulsive subscale of the OCDS was found to be inversely associated with HRV in the alcohol-exposure condition, thus suggesting that HRV may be an indirect indicator of the level of impulse control associated with drinking. These findings are therefore consistent with Stormark et al (1998), who found that sustained HR acceleration (lack of vagal inhibition) when processing alcohol-related information was related to compulsive drinking and “locked-in attention.”

Post hoc analysis further suggested that alcoholics who expressed a relatively high ability to resist impulses to drink (OCDS) had the clearest increase in HRV under the alcohol exposure this study suggests that alcoholics may actively inhibit or compensate for their involuntary attraction to alcohol-related information by activation of higher nonautomatic cognitive processes (Tiffany 1995). Such conscious avoidance has previously been demonstrated in studies on attentional processes in alcoholics (Stormark et al 1997) and by the fact that frontal brain structures involved in inhibition and control of affective information are often highly activated in the processing of alcohol related cues (Anton 1999). Furthermore, this interpretation is in agreement with other studies suggesting that high HRV during challenging tasks is associated with recovery from acute stress disorders (Sahr et al 2001).

Several studies have indicated that low HRV is associated with impaired cognitive control and perseverative thinking (Thayer and Lane 2002). Consistent with these reports a negative association was found between HRV and chronic thought suppression. The WBSI assesses efforts to eliminate thoughts from awareness while experiencing frequent intrusions of such “forbidden” thoughts and thus represents an interesting and well-validated measure of ineffective thought control (Wegner and Zanakos 1994). Thought suppression has been found to be an especially counterproductive strategy for coping with urges and craving (Palfai et al 1997a, 1997b) and may even play a causal role in maintaining various clinical disorders (Wenzlaff and Wegner 2000).

To our knowledge, this is the first time a link between physiologic indicators of a lack of cognitive flexibility (low HRV) and chronic thought suppression has been demonstrated.

Thayer and Friedman (2002) have reviewed evidence indicating that there is an association between vagally mediated HRV and the inhibitory role of the prefrontal cortex. Consistent with Thayer and Lane (2000), this study suggests that impaired inhibitory processes are significantly related to ineffective thought control.

The fact that this association between HRV and WBSI was only found in the alcoholics may be related to the fact that only this clinical group shows signs of such faulty thought control.

Wegner and Zanakos (1994) suggested that thought suppression is particularly ineffective when the strategic resources involved in intentional suppression are inhibited or blocked (Wegner 1994). Consistent with this hypothesis, our findings show that those reporting high scores on WBSI show signs of impaired inhibitory functioning as indexed by low vagally mediated HRV.”

This excellent article fro me is also alluding to the fact that those with increased HRV was related to successfully related to regulating negative emotion,  stress/distress and affect, not just the thoughts that these affective states gave rise to .

Thus any strategies that help with improving  the ability to increase HRV will likely have positive results in coping with cue associated materials.

We look at one of these therapeutic strategies next…that of mindfulness meditation.



1. Ingjaldsson, J. T., Laberg, J. C., & Thayer, J. F. (2003). Reduced heart rate variability in chronic alcohol abuse: relationship with negative mood, chronic thought suppression, and compulsive drinking. Biological Psychiatry54(12), 1427-1436.





  1. feelingmywaybackintolife · May 6, 2015

    Hi Paul,

    I read through it diagonally, finding in interesting that (indeed?) alcoholics have more attention for not important details – sounds like another way where having little boundaries works to our disadvantage. :-/

    On the getting ‘locked’; I passed that by with my alcohol desenitation training. In laymens words: they show you so many pictures of alcohol that you get bored out of the drinking habit.

    Here’s a post on getting into the free (!) training program:

    The instructions seem to work because I’ve actually heard of 1 person who has tried it. I swear by it. I think it works and I think it has helped me to have an easy time staying away from alcohol. Not drinking is not the problem. Dealing with life without the drinking is. :-/

    Hope you enjoy!
    xx, Feeling

    • alcoholicsguide · May 6, 2015

      thanks for this. Most alcoholics also seem to have developed a strategy with attentional bias, they attend for 50ms and then de-attend at around 120ms by looking elsewhere. Many recovering alcoholics never even think of alcohol and have no trouble sitting in bars. That may be to do with it acceptance at a deep psychological level. So in your desensitisation training what do they say about distress and stress based craving? The only times I have come close to relapse is when in extreme distress which affects memory recall, especially the implicit part of the memory network that shouts drink! when distressed. Again it is more about living life on life’s terms rather than alcohol on a daily basis. If I can’t achieve that then I get into dangerous water. Yes I found the attending to not important details interesting to and thought this was to do with cognitive rigidity which I definitely have.

      • feelingmywaybackintolife · May 6, 2015

        It is an online training so they ‘say’ nothing but also do not write anything about how to cope. It really is only the training, and some questionaires for their own benefits like ‘age’ and ‘how much did you drink these last days’, ‘how do you feel’. It is just like entering a video game. Quite literally. Still I think it works. At the end of each session I go like ‘Ooh, nooooo, not another glassss, please!.’ I have seen a documentary from them and their first test club with severe alcoholics (drinking all day and strong liquor) had 80% succesrate over a year without any problems. That’s good. Not?
        If you need help with translation just let me know.

      • alcoholicsguide · May 6, 2015

        what is your first language?

      • feelingmywaybackintolife · May 6, 2015

        Dutch (of course :-D)

      • alcoholicsguide · May 6, 2015

        that explains it then?

      • feelingmywaybackintolife · May 6, 2015

        I’m guessing that explains everything 🙂

      • alcoholicsguide · May 6, 2015

        one of my academic co-researchers is Dutch so I have some experience. 🙂

      • feelingmywaybackintolife · May 6, 2015

        Ghegheghe, with the directness, the lack of tact, the disregarding general politeness and the disdain for keeping up appearances? 🙂 That’s all in the Dutch genes. 😉

      • alcoholicsguide · May 6, 2015

        excellent description how do you know her?

      • feelingmywaybackintolife · May 6, 2015

        Ghegheghe, it’s in the genes, believe me. Enjoy the honesty, you will never find something like that anywhere else.

  2. feelingmywaybackintolife · May 6, 2015

    That should be ‘desensitation training’. Not desanitise, gheghegheghe… Yeah, well, not my first language. Sorry.

    • alcoholicsguide · May 6, 2015

      too late I had already marked you down one for the spelling error. 🙂

      • feelingmywaybackintolife · May 6, 2015

        Gheghegheghe, I thought I did more than that? Did I not just write that I went to a training to learn to be less clean?

  3. alcoholicsguide · May 6, 2015

    I did that training before coming into recovery.

  4. alcoholicsguide · May 6, 2015

    perhaps you can explain also what you meant by “I read through it diagonally”? Would you not have missed important words and meaning?

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