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?
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
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
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 & misuse, 45(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
4. Chein, I., Gerard, D. L., Lee, R. S., Rosenfeld, E. (1964). The road to H. New York: Basic Books
5. Fenichel, O. (1945). The psychoanalytic theory of neurosis. New York: Norton
6. Hartmann, D. (1969). A study of drug-taking adolescents. Psychoanalytic Study of the Child, 24:384–398.
7. Krystal, H., Raskin, H. A. (1970). Drug dependence. aspects of ego functions. Detroit: Wayne State University Press.
8. McDougall, J. (1984). The “dis-affected” patient: reﬂections on affect pathology. Psychoanalytic Quarterly, 53:386–409.
9. Wurmser, L. (1974). Psychoanalytic considerations of the etiology of compulsive drug use. Journal of the American Psychoanalytic Association, 22:820–843.
10. Khantzian, E. J. (1985). The self-medication hypothesis of addictive disorders: focus on heroin and cocaine dependence. American Journal of Psychiatry, 142:1259–1264.
11. Khantzian, E. J. (1991). Self-regulation factors in cocaine dependence – a clinical perspective. NIDA Research Monograph, 110:211–226.
12. Cheetham, A., Allen, N. B., Yücel, M., & Lubman, D. I. (2010). The role of affective dysregulation in drug addiction. Clinical psychology review, 30(6), 621-634.
13. Mayer, J. D., Salovey, P. (1997). What is emotional intelligence? In P. Salovey & D. Sluyter (Eds.), Emotional development and emotional intelligence: implications for educators(pp. 3–31). New York: Basic Books.
14. Ruesch, J. (1948). The infantile personality. Psychosomatic Medicine, 10:134–144
15. Nemiah, J. C., Sifneos, P. E. (1970). Affect and fantasy in patients with psychosomatic disorders. In O. W. Hill (Ed.), Modern trends in psychosomatic medicine (Vol. 2, pp. 26–35). London: Butterworths.
16. Sifneos, P. E. (1967). Clinical observations on some patients suffering from a variety of psychosomatic diseases. Acta Medica Psychosomatica, 7:1–10
17. Nemiah, J. C., Freyberger, H., Sifneos, P. E. (1976). Alexithymia: a view of the psychosomatic process. In O. W. Hill (Ed.), Modern trends in psychosomatic medicine (Vol. 3, pp. 430–439). London: Butterworths
18. Austin, E. J., Saklofske, D. H., Egan, V. (2005). Personality, well-being and health correlates of trait emotional intelligence. Personality and Individual Differences, 38:547–558.
19. Lane, R. D., Sechrest, L., Reidel, R., Weldon, V., Kaszniak, A., Schwartz, G. E. (1996). Impaired verbal and nonverbal emotion recognition in alexithymia.Psychosomatic Medicine, 58:203–210
20. Parker, J. D. A., Taylor, G. J., Bagby, R. M. (2001). The relationship between emotional intelligence and alexithymia. Personality and Individual Differences, 30:107–115.
21. Krystal, H. (1995). Disorders of emotional development in addictive behavior. In S. Dowling (Ed.), The psychology and treatment of addictive behavior(pp. 65–100). Madison, CT: International Universities Press.
22. Handelsman, L., Stein, J. A., Bernstein, D. P., Oppenheim, S. E., Rosenblum, A., Magura, S. (2000). A latent variable analysis of coexisting emotional deﬁcits in substance abusers: alexithymia,
hostility, and PTSD. Addictive Behaviors, 25:423–428
23. Speranza, M., Corcos, M., Loas, G., Stephan, P., Guilbaud, O., Perez-Diaz, F., et al. (2005). Depressive personality dimensions and alexithymia in eating disorders.Psychiatry Research, 135:153–163.
24.Troisi, A., Pasini, A., Saracco, M., Spalletta, G. (1998). Psychiatric symptoms in male cannabis users not using other illicit drugs. Addiction, 93:487–492
25. Oscar-Berman, M., Hancock, M., Mildworf, B., Hutner, N., Weber, D. A. (1990). Emotional perception and memory in alcoholism and aging. Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research, 14:383–393.
26. Foisy, M. L., Kornreich, C., Fobe, A., D’Hondt, L., Pelc, I., Hanak, C., et al. (2007a). Impaired emotional facial expression recognition in alcohol dependence: do these deﬁcits persist with midterm abstinence? Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research, 31:404–410
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29. Townshend, J. M., Duka, T. (2003). Mixed emotions: alcoholics’ impairments in the recognition of speciﬁc emotional facial expressions.Neuropsychologia, 41:773–782.
30. Foisy, M. L., Kornreich, C., Petiau, C., Parez, A., Hanak, C., Verbanck, P., et al. (2007b). Impaired emotional facial expression recognition in alcoholics: are these deﬁcits speciﬁc to emotional cues? Psychiatry Research, 150:33–41.
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33. Frigerio, E., Burt, D. M., Montagne, B., Murray, L. K., Perrett, D. I. (2002). Facial affect perception in alcoholics. Psychiatry Research, 113:161–171
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35. Kornreich, C., Foisy, M. L., Philippot, P., Dan, B., Tecco, J., Noel, X., et al. (2003). Impaired emotional facial expression recognition in alcoholics, opiate dependence subjects, methadone maintained subjects and mixed alcohol-opiate antecedents subjects compared with normal controls. Psychiatry Research, 119:251–260.
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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 Behaviors, 33(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 Behaviors, 33(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 dependence, 121(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
In this blog we have considered two main and fundamental areas:-
1. that alcoholism appears to be an emotional regulation and processing disorder which implicates impaired functioning of brain regions and neural networks involved in regulation and processing emotion such as the insular cortex, anterior cingulate cortex and dorsolateral prefrontal cortex.
2. that in early and later recovery there appears to be increased functioning in these areas especially the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (dlPFC) and anterior cingulate cortex (ACC) which is important not only in regulating emotions but also in abstinence success.
Our third point is that mediation, of various types, appears to strengthen the very areas implicated in emotional regulation and processing, which ultimately helps with “emotional sobriety” and long term recovery.
Various studies have shown that mindfulness mediation training in expert meditators, as well as novices, influenced areas of the brain involved in attention, awareness and emotion (1,2).
A key feature of mindfulness meditators may be the ability to recognise and accurately label emotions (3). Brain FMRI studies have shown more mindful people having increased ability to control emotional reactions in various areas associated with emotional regulation such as the amgydala, dlPFC, and ACC (4).
In a study (5) on the the effects of long term meditation on physical structure of the above brain regions, practitioners of mindful meditation who meditated 30-40 minutes a day, had increased thickness due to neuroplasticity of meditation in brain regions associated with attention and interoception (sensitivity to somatic or internal bodily stimuli) than the matched controls used in this study. Again the regions observed to have greater thickness via increased neural activity (neuroplasticity) were the PFC, right insula (interoception and this increased appreciation of bodily sensations and emotions) as well as the ACC in attention (and possible self awareness as ACC is also linked to consciousness) .
A structural MRI study (6) showed that experienced mindfulness meditators also had increased grey matter the right interior insula and PFC as well as, in unpublished data, in the hippocampus, which is implicated in memory but also in stress regulation. Thus mindfulness meditation and the fMRI and MRI studies show it is possible to train the mind to change brain morphology and functionality through the neuroplastic behaviour of meditating.
Brain regions consistently strengthen or which grow additonal “neural muscles” are those associated with emotional regulation and processing such as the dlPFC, ACC, insula and amgydala. Thus if we want, as recovering individuals, to shore up our early recovery, by strengthening the brain regions implicated in recovery success we meditate on a regular basis, daily, so that we can also improve those underlying difficulties in emotional regulation and processing.
By relieving emotional distress we greatly lessen the grip our condition has on us on a daily basis, We recover these functions. We will discuss the role of meditation on reducing emotional distress in later blogs.
1. Cahn, B. R., & Polich, J. (2006). Meditation states and traits: EEG, ERP, and neuroimaging studies. Psychological bulletin, 132(2), 180.
2, Lutz, A., Slagter, H. A., Dunne, J. D., & Davidson, R. J. (2008). Attention regulation and monitoring in meditation. Trends in cognitive sciences, 12(4), 163-169.
3. Analayo. (2003). Satipatthana: The Direct Path to Awakening. Birmingham, UK: Windhorse Publications.
4. Creswell, J. D., Way, B. M., Eisenberger, N. I., & Lieberman, M. D. (2007). Neural correlates of dispositional mindfulness during affect labeling.Psychosomatic Medicine, 69(6), 560-565.
5. Lazar, S. W., Kerr, C. E., Wasserman, R. H., Gray, J. R., Greve, D. N., Treadway, M. T., … & Fischl, B. (2005). Meditation experience is associated with increased cortical thickness. Neuroreport, 16(17), 1893.
6. Hölzel, B. K., Ott, U., Hempel, H., Hackl, A., Wolf, K., Stark, R., & Vaitl, D. (2007). Differential engagement of anterior cingulate and adjacent medial frontal cortex in adept meditators and non-meditators. Neuroscience letters, 421(1), 16-21.
see also Hijacking the Brain
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