Forgiving Others is the Number One Healer!?

“Resentment is the “number one” offender. It destroys more alcoholics than anything else… In dealing with resentments, we set them on paper. We listed people, institutions or principles with whom we were angry… The first thing apparent was that this world and its people were often quite wrong. To conclude that others were wrong was as far as most of us ever got. The usual outcome was that people continued to wrong us and we stayed sore. Sometimes it was remorse and then we were sore at ourselves. But the more we fought and tried to have our own way, the worse matters got…It is plain that a life which includes deep resentment leads only to futility and unhappiness…If we were to live, we had to be free of anger. The grouch and the brainstorm were not for us. They may be the dubious luxury of normal men, but for alcoholics these things are poison…We saw that these resentments must be mastered, but how?… (1)”

Later, p.77, it suggests  “a helpful and forgiving spirit.”

In the 12 Steps and 12  Traditions, p.78, in reference to step 8 it suggests “why shouldn’t we start out by forgiving them, one and all?

These truncated passages from the Big Book (1)  and the 12 and 12 (3) illustrates how resentments cause relapse and that they need to by treated with the antidote of forgiveness.

We suggest also that the myriad of resentments which swirl around our minds in early recovery are also negative emotions unprocessed and thus unregulated from the past. They continually haunt us because we have not put them “to bed” in long term memory.

We have not dealt with them, by clearly identifying, labelling, sharing via verbalising them with others and then by letting go of them via forgiveness. “Letting go” is another emotional regulatory strategy that healthy people use.

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Instead of constantly holding on to memories and incidents from the past, endlessly ruminating on them we maturely face up to them and consign them to the past.

We were thus interested in a study which was not using 12 step recovery but which came to the same conclusion but via another route (2).

“Anger and related emotions have been identified as triggers in substance use. Forgiveness therapy (FT) targets anger, anxiety, and depression as foci of treatment. Fourteen patients with substance dependence from a local residential treatment facility were randomly assigned to and completed either 12 approximately twice-weekly sessions of individual FT or 12 approximately twice-weekly sessions of an alternative individual treatment based. Participants who completed FT had significantly more improvement in total and trait anger, depression, total and trait anxiety, self-esteem, forgiveness, and vulnerability to drug use than did the alternative treatment group. Most benefits of FT remained significant at 4-month follow-up.

The levels of anger and violence observed among alcohol and other substance abusers are far higher than the levels found in the general population.

Alcohol and other substance abusers administered the State-Trait Anger Expression Inventory typically have been shown to have higher state and trait anger, to be more likely to express anger to others, and to have less control of their anger.

Reducing levels of anger and its related emotions is now seen as an important feature of recovery programs. For example, according to the Project Match 12-step facilitation therapy manual, “Anger and resentment are pivotal emotions for most recovering alcoholics. Anger that evokes anxiety drives the alcoholic to drink in order to anesthetize it. Resentment, which comes from unexpressed (denied) anger, represents a constant threat to sobriety for the same reason” (Nowinski, Baker, & Carroll, 1999, p. 83).

Marlatt (1985) emphasized the importance of anger and frustration as triggers for relapse in both the intrapersonal and interpersonal domains. He noted that 29% of relapses are related to intrapersonal frustration and anger and that 16% are related to interpersonal conflict and associated anger and frustration.

Litt, Cooney, and Morse (2000) reported that those alcoholics who had urges to use after treatment had higher degrees of alcohol dependence, anxiety, and trait anger than those without such urges.

Forgiveness is an important way to resolve anger and restore hope (Enright & Fitzgibbons, 2000). In helping clients move toward forgiveness, it is essential to differentiate forgiving from condoning, pardoning, reconciling, or forgetting.

Forgiveness is a personal decision to give up resentment and to respond with beneficence toward the person responsible for a severe injustice that caused deep, lasting hurt. FT helps the wronged person examine the injustice, consider forgiveness as an option, make a decision to forgive or not, and learn the skills to forgive.

Findings – Our clients came to the program with trait anxiety and trait anger scores substantially above the published norms for adults; after treatment, however, FT participants exhibited scores comparable to the average.  In other words, the treatment did not lead simply to a change in anxiety and anger (particularly the reportedly more stable trait anxiety) but to a change toward normal profiles. In contrast, patients in the alternative treatment condition had anxiety scores well above average, especially in terms of trait anxiety, which showed little change at post test and only minimal improvement at follow-up.

FT did not focus on drug vulnerabilities, whereas the alternative treatment did. Urges to use substances are not necessary for relapse, they are important indicators.

FT  treatment is centered more on clients’ thoughts, feelings, and behaviors about someone other than themselves: an offender who hurt them deeply and unfairly. In FT, a potential reason for substance use is examined, that of avoiding painful memories of betrayal, violence, or abuse. When patients are allowed to heal, their motivation to abuse substances may be substantially reduced…(it) is worth considering as a way to address core issues of emotional pain.

resentment

 

This can lead to a reduction in negative emotions and increases in self-esteem and forgiveness… it moves to the heart of the matter for some clients. Deep hurts borne out of unfair treatment seem to play a part in substance use and abuse. Even when clients have many people to forgive…we find that they seem to know which person is most crucial to forgive first before moving to other offenders. Substance use, from this perspective, is a symptom of underlying resentments and related emotional disruptions.

If we fail to realize this, we may end up treating only symptoms rather than underlying causes. ”

 

This process seems practically the same as the inventory of Step 4 and the forgiveness implicit to steps 8 and 9. This study also highlights that we through forgiveness we actually tackle the underlying condition of emotional dysregulation. It is this emotion dysregulation (or spiritual disease) which appears to drive addiction so needs to be fundamentally addressed. By addressing these issues via the steps especially step 4 we begin to see how it works!

It was interesting that forgiveness led to higher self esteem, as if being tied to the past was akin to being tied to a former negative self schema, that people from our pained past did actually have the power to control us! Especially how we feel about ourselves. We change how we feel about ourselves and our past by simply forgiving, it is such a powerful tool in recovery.

Importantly by viewing studies like this (2)  we get beyond negative views of 12 step recovery to show that the recovery program’s effectiveness is clearly highlighted by the success of other psychological treatments getting the same positive results by using exactly the same strategies.

12 step groups provide a battery of the most profoundly effective psychological therapies for addiction ever contained within one treatment philosophy.

Don’t we all need to re-appraise how we see 12 step recovery?

Can’t we all benefit from stepping to one side and looking via a different angle to see why 12 step recovery is effective?

 

Reference

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

2. Lin, W. F., Mack, D., Enright, R. D., Krahn, D., & Baskin, T. W. (2004). Effects of forgiveness therapy on anger, mood, and vulnerability to substance use among inpatient substance-dependent clients. Journal of consulting and clinical psychology, 72(6), 1114.

3.   Twelve steps and twelve traditions. (1989). New York, NY: Alcoholics Anonymous World Services

So What is Recovery?

So, what does recovery mean? It is total abstinence? Is recovery strictly a question of substance use or is there more to it than that?

This study (1) addressed two primary research questions: (1) Does recovery require total abstinence from all drugs and alcohol? and (2) Is recovery defined solely in terms of substance use or does it extend to other areas of functioning as well?

Many of those in this study who defined recovery as abstinence went on to express the idea that using any mood altering substance would lead back to full-blown relapse.

Recovery meant  in descending order: a new life (22%), well-being (13%), a process of working on yourself (11.2%), living life on life’s terms (accepting what comes – 9.6%), self-improvement (9%), learning to live drug free (8.3%), recognition of the problem (5.4%), and getting help (5.1%).

“I’m in recovery myself because I want to stay clean. And I want to be a responsible person or responsible human being. To do what I was … what I should do or what God put me here to do. And, you know, I got to – I got to remain sober to do these things.”

“To me recovery means getting back what I lost. Myself. I am not talking about materialistic things. I am talking about me.”

“Recovery, I just.. What is it for me? It’s going back to me…

“My definition of recovery is life. Cause I didn’t have no life before I got into recovery.”

 

Qualitative data on recovery definitions provided by the 20.4% of individuals who did not consider themselves in recovery are particularly noteworthy as they echo some of the popular connotations the term ‘recovery’ carries in the general public. Some of the answers were expected, including those of individuals who may have never considered themselves in recovery (e.g., “I wouldn’t know how to define recovery because I’ve never been in it,” “I’ve heard of the term, but I don’t know. What is it? I guess, it’s being committed to being straight”), and individuals who may have relapsed (e.g., “it used to feel free and happy without using”).

About one third of the answers from individuals not in recovery echo the public’s perception that recovery means people are ‘trying’ to remain abstinent: “Someone who is currently on guard about falling off the wagon at any moment.” The idea that for some, recovery suggests a struggle with drugs and/or alcohol is further supported by a number of respondents who indicated that they are not in recovery because they are not experiencing drugs and/or alcohol problems; for example: “RecoveryI don’t know, a glass of wine ain’t nothing to me” and “it’s not a battle for me- I don’t have to recover from anything.” The connotation of recovery as a struggle with substance abuse problems and statements from participants who felt they had overcome their problem suggest that recovery is understood by some as having had a severe problem. This is consistent with the image of AA being a place only for ‘skid row drunks.’

The majority of qualitative recovery definitions among participants who didnot consider themselves in recovery indicated that a specific action … was a necessary part of recovery.

The bulk of the answers implying a specific recovery requirement, however, concerned needing or seeking help – getting treatment and/or participating in 12-step recovery: “Being in treatment and not using drugs or alcohol,” “Abstaining and seeking outside help.” Several answers suggested that recovery implies needing to seek outside help because you cannot quit on your own: “Having trouble quitting, needing help,” “when you get some help, like detox, a program or something-not when you just stop on your own,”…

Benefits of recovery – While participants’ definitions of recovery may speak as much to semantics (i.e., the use of the term ‘recovery”) as to their experience, answers about what is or would be good about being in recovery illuminate the recovery experience itself. Regardless of the term used,significant behavior change takes time, it is challenging and stressful.

The most frequently cited benefit of recovery, mentioned by one third of participants, is that it is a new life, a second chance (“like being born again, not living a state of denial, enjoying life better, whole new wonderful feeling, health, financially”); one quarter (23%) cited being drug-free; other benefits cited in were: self-improvement (22.7%), having direction, achieving goals (17.5%), improved/more positive attitude (17.2%), improved finances/living conditions (16.2%), improved physical and/or mental health (16.1%), improved family life (13%) and having friends/a support network (11%).

Recovery: Process or endpoint? –

One of the more controversial issues when speaking of ‘recovery’ is whether it is process (with no specific endpoint) or a state (i.e., whether one is ever ‘recovered”). This question has potentially critical ramifications especially in terms how recovery is perceived by the public and indirectly, in terms of stigma and discrimination (e.g., prospective employers who view recovery as a lifelong process may be more likely to not hire a prospective worker in recovery for fear he/she will relapse or be unreliable). Findings were reviewed earlier suggesting that the public defines recovery as an attempt to stop using drugs and alcohol, suggesting that it may not be attainable.

Thus while maintaining recovery may be a lifelong process (e.g., maintaining certain practices), it is important to determine whether or not the process is lived as having an end (being recovered). In the US, the view of addiction as a chronic disorder, paired with the strong 12-step influence (“once an addict always an addict”) would suggest that recovery is a never-ending process.

Participants made qualitative statements that speak to whether one ever ‘gets there” – i.e., becomes recovered, suggesting that consistent with the disease model of addiction, recovery is a process with no fixed end point, and that it requires ongoing work

“Recovery is getting back some sort of order in your life, the disease is in remission- it’s not a cure- it has to be maintained daily.”

“Recovery is somewhere people think they’re going to get to and you’ll never get there.”

“I don’t think you ever recover from it, it’s learning how to manage it, stay abstinent & become a productive member of society.”

“you’re never recovered, I mean, it’s always ‘gonna be back there.”

“I think recovery’s a process. Um… for me, it’s just always trying to better myself. Um… and realizing that there may not be an end point, but just a… you know, they always say, like, sometimes it’s better to go through it than to get there.”

“I’m still on this journey because there is hope, you know. There is not a cure. But there is hope.”

“And I keep myself in the right, atmosphere or attitude or what not because there is a whole lot to recovery, you know. It ain’t just getting sober and staying clean. It is like you gotta do a lot of work.”

 

Discussion

Prior exposure to treatment and to 12-step fellowships, both of which encourage embracing abstinence as recovery goal, was significantly associated with defining recovery as total abstinence. Interestingly, both individuals who do and do not consider themselves in recovery embraced abstinence as their definition of recovery. While substance users are often ambivalent about quitting drugs, individuals with a long and severe history of substance use who seek remission may come to the conclusion that total abstinence is required from personal experience with relapses and attempts at controlled use. Most failed remission attempts are based on moderation and abstinence proves more successful (e.g., Burman, 1997; Maisto, et al., 2002). Greater lifetime addiction severity was associated with endorsing abstinence, and some participants who did not consider themselves in recovery indicated that recovery implies struggling and/or needing outside help.

BACK TO ME: DISCOVERY AND RECOVERY

With respect to scope, recovery goes beyond substance use for most. This is consistent with 12-step tenets (e.g., “but sobriety is not enough,Alcoholic Anonymous, 1939/2001, p. 83). Frequently used expressions to define recovery were ‘a new life,’ ‘a second chance,’ or, life itself. The verb “to recover” is defined as (1) to get back : REGAIN; (2) to bring back to normal position or condition; (3) to make up for; (4) to find or identify again; and (5) to save from loss and restore to usefulness: RECLAIM (Merriam Webster).

Several participants framed this notion as regaining something that was lost – the opportunity of becoming what they were meant to be before they started using drugs and alcohol (section 3.4.2). The Big Book expressed this as “We were reborn” (AA, 1939/2001, p. 63).

NO SUCH THING AS GRADUATING: RECOVERY IS A PROCESS RATHER THAN AN ENDPOINT

Reclaiming oneself is a process of growth and a process of change in attitudes, thinking and behaviors consistent with the rich descriptions and experiences documented by Stephanie Brown (1985).

Recovery as a process should not be interpreted as inconsistent with recovery as abstinence; rather abstinence (a state) is viewed as a requirement of the ongoing process of recovery.

The work of change is what distinguishes recovery from mere abstinence (“You could stop doing anything that you want. It’s about the change that comes in—into it, that’s the recovery part.”). The process aspect of recovery has been reported previously in studies conducted among alcohol- and drug-dependent samples both in the US and abroad (e.g., Blomqvist, 2002; Flynn et al., 2003).

A small-scale study of drug-dependent persons abstinent for an average of 9 years sheds light on the stages of the process(Margolis et al., 2000). Participants reported first passing through a phase almost solely focused on staying abstinent, particularly the first year. Only once this foundation (abstinence) was established could they concentrate on “living a normal life,” where abstinence was no longer the main focus.

Finally, following that transitional period, the individual enters late recovery, a time of individual growth and search for meaning. Our findings on the focus of recovery definitions are consistent with these stages: individuals in remission 18 to 36 months (the transition phase) were more likely to define recovery as a process whereas those in remission three years or longer were more likely to focus on the ‘new life’ aspect of recovery and less likely to define recovery in terms of substance use.

Recovered?

Conceptualizing recovery as a process leads to the question of whether one ever ‘gets there” – whether one is ever “recovered.” This is rarely discussed in scientific literature. Most participants regard recovery as “an ongoing process. There’s no such thing as graduating.” This is consistent with the disease model and with prevalent view of addiction as a ‘chronic’ condition (McLellan, Lewis, O’Brien, and Kleber, 2000; White, Boyle and Loveland, 2002); it is also consistent with reports that resolving addiction often takes multiple attempt and treatment episodes (e.g., Dennis et al, 2005; Laudet & White, 2004).

Other biomedical fields have reached consensus about what clinical ‘remission’ means (e.g., five years disease free in oncology). Whether and when SUD remission ever becomes ‘stable’ in terms of substance use (i.e., when the risk of return to drug use is minimized) remains somewhat unsettled.

Three to five years is the timeframe most commonly used (Finney and Moos, 1991; Flynn et al, 2003; Longabaugh & Lewis, 1988; Timko et al., 2000; Vaillant, 1983/1995) and it corresponds to the experiences of persons in long-term recovery (Margolis et al., 2000). While the risk of relapse does not completely disappear after three or even five years of continuous abstinence (e.g., Hser et al., 2001), it appears to be minimal (e.g., Vaillant, 1983/1995).

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Addiction is a chronic condition; there may not be a complete or permanent solution (i.e., the risk of relapse may remain for multiple years) but it can be treated and managed. There are many paths to recovery (e.g., Moos & Moos, 2005) but treatment is most often needed when dependence is chronic and severe.

Our findings suggest that for severely dependent individuals, recovery is a process of change and growth for which abstinence from alcohol and others drugs is a prerequisite.

McLellan and colleagues (2005) have made the argument that “Typically, the immediate goal of reducing alcohol and drug use is necessary but rarely sufficient for the achievement of the longer-term goals of improved personal health and social function and reduced threats to public health and safety—i.e. recovery” (p. 448). This conceptualization of clinical outcome is consistent with the World Health Organization’s conceptualization of health as “a state of complete physical, mental, and social well-being, not merely the absence of disease” (1985, p.34).

The question remains : whether we are willing to pay for positive health (wellness) oriented services for substance dependent populations is unclear.

Present findings suggest that the benefits of recovery are many (improved health, life conditions, social life etc.) and they are highly valued. Quality of life (QOL) among active users is poor and abstinence, especially sustained abstinence, is associated with QOL improvements (e.g.,Donovan et al., 2005; Foster et al., 1999; Laudet et al., 2006; Morgan et al., 2003).

Higher life satisfaction prospectively predicts sustained remission (Laudet, Becker & White, in press; also see Rudolf & Priebe, 2002) and low QOL may heighten relapse risk (Claus, Mannen & Schicht, 1999; Hoffmann & Miller, 1993). Thus the clinical goal of addiction treatment must go beyond fostering reduction in substance use to improving personal and social health.

The addiction field can seek guidance from the mental health field where…in a working definition set forth in the New Freedom Commission on Mental Health:Recovery refers to the process in which people are able to live, work, learn, and participate fully in their communities” (2003, p.5).

How do clinicians foster recovery? Vaillant (1983/1995) described the conditions necessary to the recovery process as abstinence, substitute dependencies, behavioral and medical consequences, enhanced hope and self-esteem and social support in the form of unambivalent relationships. Persons in recovery consistently cite the support of family and peers (and the need to seek and accept support), spirituality, inner strength and the desire to get better as critical sources of strength (e.g., Blomqvist, 2002;Flynn et al., 2003;Laudet et al., 2002,).

Many clients initiate treatment due to external pressures (family, legal, employment) and may not be initially motivated for change; however, once in the therapeutic environment, even externally motivated clients (e.g., legally mandated) may reflect on their situation and accept the need for treatment (Kelly, Finnney & Moos, 2005). The cessation of substance use is often preceded by a period of cognitive preparation (akin to the contemplation stage Prochaska & DiClemente, 1992 – e.g., Burman, 1997and2003; Sobell et al., 2001); participating in treatment during this period may significantly enhances motivation for change by introducing the notion that behaviors and activities that are not drug-related could have healthier consequences and provide more satisfying reward possibilities (Burman, 2003), thus ‘raising the price’ of subsequent substance use and enhancing the likelihood of abstinence.”

 

There are also the financial implications of spending money on effective treatment for those who wish to recover rather than counting the cost of increased crime, prison sentences, extensive medical care,  etc etc. It makes economic sense to spend money in a preventative sense in addiction, as well as being simply a moral decision  to medically treat those who are chronically ill. First do no harm is part of the Hippocratic Oath. Can we say that spending huge amounts of money on harm reduction, controlled use programs, methadone scripts etc etc is actually “treating” alcoholics and addicts?

To quote Russell Brand, that is “like putting a sticking plaster on a broken soul” – it only sustains the problem not alleviating or treating the underlying conditions.

We can help society and families recover also from the effects of alcoholic and addict behaviour. Recovery involves improved well being for family and society members too.

We have to offer a chance to start over, to have access to a new life much better than we could ever have imagined.

Recovery cannot really be about giving you reduced amounts of whatever is poisoning you, ailing you. It cannot be about substituting one drug for another. Substituting one addictive behaviour for another. It cannot be about yet another chemical straight-jacket or prison.

Recovery has to be about getting better. Improving well being. This is what increased in health when a treatment is successful so why should it be different for addicts and alcoholics.

Many millions of people recover from their addictive behaviours, that is fact! We need to start getting this message out,  “We do recover!”

Recovery is much much better than drinking and drugging ever where. This is what we need to get across.

To be in a fairly constant state of contentment is priceless and something no drug could ever achieve!  

References

1. Laudet, A. B. (2007). What does recovery mean to you? Lessons from the recovery experience for research and practice. Journal of Substance Abuse Treatment, 33(3), 243–256. doi:10.1016/j.jsat.2007.04.014

 

Why a spiritual solution?

The Alcoholics Guide to Alcoholism

In the first in a series of blogs we discuss the topic of why does the solution to one’s alcoholism and addiction require a spiritual recovery.

This is a much asked question within academic research, although the health benefits of meditation are well known and life styles incorporating religious affiliation are known to increase health and span of life.

I guess people are curious as to how the spirit changes matter or material being when it should perhaps be rephrased to how does application of the ephemral mind affect neuroplasticity of the brain. Or in other words how does behaviour linked to a particular faith/belief system alter the functions and structure of the brain. We have discussed these points in two blogs previously and will do so again in later blogs. Here I just want to highlight in a short summary why spiritual practice helps alcoholics and addicts with with…

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Are Alcoholics Emotionally Immature?

Concerted attempts have been made to relate personality factors to alcohol dependence.

In fact, for many years, research attempted to define the so-called alcoholic personality. Attempts to do so have dwindled in recent years.

Potential alcoholics tend to be emotionally immature, expect a great deal of the world, require an inordinate amount of praise and appreciation, react to failure with marked feelings of hurt and inferiority, have a low frustration tolerance, and feel inadequate and unsure of their abilities to fulfil expected male or female roles.1

Although the obvious emotional immaturity often seen in alcoholics seems to cover a number of the more recent findings on bio-psychologcal aspects a alcoholism.

For example, if we partly defined emotional immaturity as containing some of the following, then we appear to be covering a number of much researched and demonstrated aspects of alcoholism. Do these then not come under an umbrella term of emotional immaturity? This list was complied by Psych Central

Dimensions of Emotional maturity

  1. The ability to modulate emotional responses.  Addicts tend to have an all or nothing emotional response.  When they respond they become overly emotional and take a longer time to return to baseline.  They are easily flooded with emotion to the point of impairing functioning.
  1. The ability to tolerate frustration.  Addicts tend to respond to frustrating situations as disasters rather than having any perspective.
  1. The ability to delay gratification.  Emotionally immature people have trouble planning and working toward goals.  The ability to give up immediate gratification is necessary for anyone to go about life in a successful way.
  1. The ability to control impulses.  The mature self has the ability to see that feeling the urge to do something is not the same as doing it.  The recovering addict has a level of control over his or her behavior and can put boundaries around what is inappropriate to say or do.
  1. The ability to be reliable and accountable.  Addicts are often self centered and not good at dealing with the everyday requirements of life like being on time, fulfilling obligations and telling the truth.  As they gain emotional maturity they gain the ability to get out of themselves and think about the impact of their actions on others and on their own lives as well.

 

 photo-for-emotional-maturity

 

According to a list drawn up by alcoholrehab.com

If people are emotionally immature, they may exhibit some of the following symptoms:

* Such individuals will often find it hard to deal with the normal challenges of life. When they are faced with problems they feel unable to cope. They may have developed a psychological state known as learned helplessness.

They struggle to develop meaningful relationships with other people. They may appear too needy or a bit overbearing.
* Those people who are emotionally immature will tend to have a pessimistic outlook on life. They may see the future as a threatening and hostile place.
* This type of person will usually have low self-esteem. This means that they do not value themselves highly so will be willing to accept very little in life as being all they deserve.
* They find it almost impossible to live in the present moment. They are either reliving the past or worrying about the future.
* They can easily lose their temper at the slightest provocation. When they are dealing with uncomfortable emotions they will tend to take things out on other people.

* People who are emotionally immature can have unrealistically high expectations. This means that they are frequently disappointed. Such and individual can have impossibly high expectations for other people yet low expectations for themselves.
* Such individuals can suffer from severe mood swings. This instability of mood can make life a bit uncomfortable.
* If people are emotionally immature, they find it much harder to control their own behavior.

Recognize any of these symptoms?

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We were completely like this before doing the 12 steps.

We, however, do not think that anyone, alcoholics or otherwise choose to behave in this emotional immature way.

We have already looked at the emotional distress accompanies alcoholism and addiction, and will be examining more in the months ahead and it is difficult not to see the above emotional immaturity as all being products of a distress state.

In the course of addiction the alcoholic in particular grows in emotional distress as the stress and emotional dysregulation associated with addiction increases.

This means the brain “collapses” from more cortical, goal-directed (and emotionally regulated) areas of the brain to more sub-cortical areas which are more automatic, unthinking and compulsive.

Emotional distress activates these areas of habit-like compulsive behaviour, acting as a stimulus response, distress the stimulus and compulsive (unthinking)  responding as the response.

This is like a distress based or “fight or flight” reality or a heightened emotional state or “emergency” state. It seems to us that alcoholics live in this region more than cortical regions. They are primed to go off!

They then have a tendency to either run away from situations or to fight “everybody and everything”, to be intolerant of uncertainty, to catastrophize, to be fear-based people to be over reactive, hypervigilant, perfectionist etc These are all distress based states.

Are aspects of the  apparent emotional immaturity mentioned above not also not  a surface manifestation of these deep subcortical processes?

It is this state of heightened uncertainty and fear that whittles away at the alcoholic psyche. This amount of stress/distress promotes implicit, do, memory, over explicit, reflective, evaluative, memory. Distress makes one act without much thought of consequence, it makes one choose short term over greater long term gain, it makes one want to act impulsively or compulsively to alleviate distress. It is this distress that is in charge of action and emotional behaviour. It calls the shots.  A state of emergency has been called in the brain of the alcoholic.

I know it is widely shared at AA meetings that we got stuck in the emotional age of our first drink, in the early teens and never developed our emotional selves or capacity to regulate and process emotions. We are not sure this is completely true as the stress that accompanies alcoholism, as alcohol is literally classified as a pharmacological stressor,  not only causes chronic stress dysregulation but also the emotional dysregulation which accompanies this. It is emotional parts of the brain and the cortical areas that are supposed to keep them in check that are most impaired via chronic alcoholism.

Dr. Stephanie Brown (2) has explored these developmental changes in cognition, which lead to “alcoholic thinking.” She states that these changes refer “not only to rationalization, denial and frame of mind, but also to character traits that frequently accompany drinking. These include grandiosity, omnipotence and low frustration tolerance.” (3) These traits appear to be directly associated with the addictive process rather than with the individual’s personality prior to establishing this abusive cycle.

As alcohol becomes more dominant, the need to deny these changes becomes greater. It appears that there is an interaction between physiological changes and psychological defenses which creates emotional immaturity, self-centeredness and irresponsibility. Alcoholism becomes a thought disorder as well as an addiction to alcohol.

This is the consequence we believe of prefrontal atrophy and subcortical hypertrophy caused by chronic alcohol consumption, a constant injection a pharmacological stressor into the brain, wrecking the ability to maturely deliberate and instead rely on “I want it now!”  type of thinking.

We firmly believe this progression is to a state of constant distress signal in the brain and a cortical hyperarousal.

The alcoholic may not be emotionally distressed all the time but his brain is never satisfied, it constantly needs more, it finds only transient balance, via allostasis, it never finds true balance, i.e. homeostasis. it is always seeking, never reaching satiety, never completely at rest. This is emotionally exhausting.

It may represent, on superficial observation to some, the “emotional immaturity, self-centeredness and irresponsibility” (4) but is it really this simple, seeing these as the primary defenses and interpersonal style typical of normal development in the first three years of life or to characterize the addictive part of self as a “two-year-old child”?

Isn’t it more apt to say instead of  a “two-year-old wounded part of self begins to “drive the bus” and create havoc for all concerned” to say chronic stress manifest  as emotional distress “driving the bus”?

Thus a valid question remains for us and we ask it to our normies or earthling friends (i.e. non-alcoholics), wouldn’t you act in a childish if you were this distressed most of the time, having to rely on impaired emotional regulation and processing parts of the brain?

 

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In fact, to all those normies or earthlings who are reading this blog, how well do you think or consider others when in a state of persistent and daily distress? In this heightened anxiety how good is your action outcome memory, goal-directed planning and awareness of future consequence?

Are you ever moody, emotionally volatile and over reactive in this state of high anxiety? Hyper sensitive? Ever strike out unthinkingly at others although you had not intended to? Leading to guilt and shame, and remorse and self pity which can in the fullest of time lead to depression? This is called a transient emotional dysregulation, distress leading to an emotional cascade. This is the brain of an alcoholic all the time. It can lead to dejection and relapse.

In this sate of nauseating anxiety, how well do you consider the consequence, negative or otherwise, or your fear-based decision making?  Do you choose the short term answer in these anxiety-filled moments just to simply relieve this distress this unpleasant feeling of doom? So do alcoholics!

It is not enough to call the alcoholic emotional immature or stuck in the “terrible twos”, although let’s face it the evidence for it is compelling at times!! Let’s instead understand the reasons for it. Would you like to be in a state of distress most of the time? It’s not a whole lot of fun!

The 12 steps help solve these issues, there is a solution to emotional immaturity – it leads to emotional maturity or emotional sobriety which is blogged about here also.

The next time the alcoholic is your life acts in an immature way don’t ask them why they are acting that way, ask them how they feel. instead. Get them to identify, label and process their feelings  by verbalizing them.

When the anxious amgydala has quelled and  it’s feverish responding quietened,  get them to an AA meeting where many tens of thousands of alcoholics are doing the same, “sharing”, processing their emotions by talking about them and how they really feel.

 

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Not running away from them or intellectualizing about them, not fighting them. Simply saying in words how they feel.

It is a miracle awakening for us in recovery, the emotional regulation normies and earthlings take for granted.

The age of miracles is amongst us and it starts by opening your mouth, asking for help, getting help and getting real about what you are really feeling.

It is through sharing our deepest feelings that we start to mature and grow up.

 

maturity-grown-up-300x225

 

References

1. Chaudhury, S.K. Das, B. Ukil,  Psychological assessment of alcoholism in males Indian J Psychiatry. 2006 Apr-Jun; 48(2): 114–117. doi: 10.4103/0019-5545.31602

2. Brown S. (1985). Treating the Alcoholic: A Developmental Model of Recovery. New York: John Wiley & Sons, Spring.

3. Brown, S. (1988). Treating Adult Children of Alcoholics: A Developmental Perspective. New York: John Wiley and Sons.

4. http://www.cairforyou.com/alchoholdrugs/alcoholcharacter.htm

 

Processing Emotions by verbalising them!?

The Therapeutic Benefits of “Sharing”

In early recovery I did not have a clue what emotions I was experiencing. I was not able to identify, label or process them. As a result of his failure to process emotions I seemed to be constantly distressed and and, as we seen in previous blogs, this distress leads to a distress-based impulsivity and a negative urgency to either engage in “fight or flight” behaviour, i.e. running away from fearful situations or ignoring the Big Book of AA’s recommendation not to fight anybody or anything.

The only way I could handle these troublesome and frightening emotions was by talking about them to my sponsor or my wife or other people in recovery.

In recent years it has become evident to that what I have been doing all these years have been using a technique of verbalising my emotions to actually process them. I now believe this is a fundamental part of my recovery and that I sometimes need to verbalise my emotions in order to process them. How does this work?

I recently came across an article (1) which might shed some light on this process.

Putting feelings into words (affect labeling) has long been thought to help manage negative emotional experiences. Affect labeling or naming emotions diminishes the response of the amygdala and other limbic regions to negative emotional images.  A  brain imaging study by UCLA psychologists reveals why verbalizing our feelings makes our sadness, anger and pain less intense.

When people see a photograph of an angry or fearful face,they have increased activity in a region of the brain called the amygdala, which serves as an alarm to activate a cascade of biological systems (including stress chemicals) to protect the body in times of danger. Scientists see a robust amygdala response even when they show such emotional photographs subliminally, so fast a person can’t even see them.

But does seeing an angry face and simply calling it an angry face change our brain response? The answer is yes, according to Matthew D.Lieberman, UCLA associate professor of psychology.

“When you attach the word ‘angry,’ you see a decreased response in the amygdala,” said Lieberman, lead author of the study. The study showed that while the amygdala was less active when an individual labeled the feeling, another region of the brain was more active: the right ventrolateral prefrontal cortex.

This region is located behind the forehead and eyes and has been associated with thinking in words about emotional experiences. It has also been implicated in inhibiting behavior and processing emotions.

“What we’re suggesting is when you start thinking in words about your emotions —labeling emotions — that might be part of what the right ventrolateral region is responsible for,” Lieberman said.

If a newcomer to recovery one is sad or angry or resentful , getting them person to talk or write may many have benefits.

In Lieberman’s study  participant’s viewed images of individuals making different emotional expressions. Below the picture of the face they either saw two words, such as “angry” and “fearful” and chose which emotion described the face, or they saw two names,such as “Harry” and “Sally,” and chose the gender-appropriate name that matched the face.

“When you attach the word ‘angry,’ you see a decreased response in the amygdala,” Lieberman said. “When you attach the name ‘Harry,’you don’t see the reduction in the amygdala response.

“When you put feelings into words, you’re activating this prefrontal region and seeing a reduced response in the amygdala,” he said. “In the same way you hit the brake when you’re driving when you see a yellow light,when you put feelings into words, you seem to be hitting the brakes on your emotional responses.”

As a result, an individual may feel less angry or less sad.

“This is ancient wisdom,” Lieberman said.

Putting our feelings into words helps us heal better and if we can get newcomers to talk about them, that  will make them feel better. They will experience part of the “solution” right way and be encouraged to come back for more.

So putting feelings into words helps with not only regulating and modulating the intensity of emotions, but helps with processing them, reduces distress and distress based impulsivity and shows there is a solution to unruly negative  emotions.

In my experience this process has been a fundamental part of how it works!

 

 References

Lieberman, M. D., Eisenberger, N. I., Crockett, M. J., Tom, S. M., Pfeifer, J. H., & Way, B. M. (2007). Putting feelings into words affect labeling disrupts amygdala activity in response to affective stimuli. Psychological Science, 18(5), 421-428.

 

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AA helps to reduce Impulsivity

 

One constant in studies on addiction and in alcoholism, in particular is the  fundamental role played by impulsivity in these disorders. It is seen to be present in early use but appears to be more distress based (i.e. more negative urgency based) as the addiction cycle becomes more chronic. This impulsivity has obvious consequences for propelling these disorders via impulsive behaviours and decision making difficulties.

Thus it then follows that any treatment of these addictive disorders must have treatment of impulsivity at the core as it appears to a fundamental pathomechanism.

 

Here, we review a study that on links  AA attendance and reduced impulsivity using a 16-year prospective study of men and women, who were initially untreated for their drinking problems. Across the study period, there were significant l decreases in impulsivity, and longer AA duration was associated with reductions in impulsivity.

Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) is linked to improved functioning across a number of domains [2,3]. As the evidence for the effectiveness of AA has accumulated, so too have efforts to identify the mechanisms of change associated with participation in this mutual-help group [4].

This study concluded that help-seeking and exposure to the “active ingredients” of various types of help (i.e., AA principles/practices, sponsors), which, in turn, leads to improvements in reduced impulsivity.

Impulsivity is typically higher among individuals in AUD treatment than among those in the general population [5] and, impulse control deficits tend to predate the onset of drinking problems [6-9].

Contemporary research has revealed that traits such as impulsivity can change over time [10]. Mutual-help groups like AA may promote such changes, given that they seek to bolster self-efficacy and coping skills aimed at controlling substance use, encourage members to be more structured in their daily lives, and target deficits in self-regulation [11].

 

impulse control.preview

 

Such “active ingredients” may curb the immediate self-gratification characteristic of disinhibition and provide the conceptual grounds to expect that AA participation can press for a reduction in impulsive inclinations. In turn, given the range of outcomes related to impulsivity (e.g., legal, alcohol-related, and psychosocial problems), decreases in impulsivity may account for part of the association between AA participation and improvements in these outcomes.

AA’s vision of recovery as a broad transformation of character [12], and  explores individual differences in emotional and behavioural functioning as potential mechanisms of change (13,14).

Such groups encourage members to be more structured and goal-directed, which may translate into greater efforts to delay gratification of one’s impulses and  to improve clients’ general coping skills (e.g., reduce avoidance coping).

Given that impulsivity is a risk factor for a host of problematic behaviors and outcomes beyond drinking-e.g., criminality [15], drug abuse [16], reckless driving and sexual practices [17],  lower quality of interpersonal relationships [18], and poor health [19] this reduced impulsivty is beneficial in other aspects too.

Notably, this effect was buffered by a higher quality of social support-a probable active ingredient of AA. Thus, the impact of reducing impulsivity may be widespread across a range of outcomes that are critical for long-term sobriety.

 

Our main caveat on this study is that it does not distinguish between different types of impulsivity and does not mention negative urgency (or distress-based impulsivity) which is more commonly seen is this sample group.

AA’s “active ingredients” may reduce distress, via a new found emotional regulation gained via the steps and use of a sponsor (acting as an external prefrontal cortex to help us inhibit our impulsive and distress based responses)  which in turns reduces our tendency to impulsive decision making and behaviour.

 

It would have been interesting in this study to have also measure how emotional dysregulation changed in the time span of 16 years (using the DERS scale) and to have used a different impulsivity scale i.e. used the UPPS-P scale which would both have helped more specificallylook  at the interaction of how emotional regulation and impulse control changed over the 16 year period.

 

References

 

1.  Blonigen, D. M., Timko, C., & Moos, R. H. (2013). Alcoholics anonymous and reduced impulsivity: a novel mechanism of change. Substance abuse, 34(1), 4-12.

2. Humphreys, K. Circles of recovery: Self-help organizations for addictions. Cambridge Univ Pr; 2004.

3.. Tonigan JS, Toscova R, Miller WR. Meta-analysis of the literature on Alcoholics Anonymous: Sample and study characteristics moderate findings. Journal of Studies on Alcohol. 1995

4. Kelly JF, Magill M, Stout RL. How do people recover from alcohol dependence? A systematic review of the research on mechanisms of behavior change in Alcoholics Anonymous. Addiction Research & Theory. 2009; 17(3):236–259.

5. Conway KP, et al. Personality, drug of choice, and comorbid psychopathology among substance abusers. Drug and alcohol dependence. 2002; 65(3):225–234. [PubMed: 11841894]

6. Caspi A, et al. Behavioral observations at age 3 years predict adult psychiatric disorders: Longitudinal evidence from a birth cohort. Archives of General Psychiatry. 1996; 53(11):1033. [PubMed: 8911226]

7. Cloninger CR, Sigvardsson S, Bohman M. Childhood personality predicts alcohol abuse in young adults. Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research. 1988; 12(4):494–505.

8. Elkins IJ, et al. Personality traits and the development of nicotine, alcohol, and illicit drug disorders: Prospective links from adolescence to young adulthood. Journal of abnormal psychology. 2006; 115(1):26. [PubMed: 16492093]

9. Sher KJ, Bartholow BD, Wood MD. Personality and substance use disorders: A prospective study. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology. 2000; 68(5):818. [PubMed: 11068968]

10. Caspi A, Roberts BW, Shiner RL. Personality development: Stability and change. Annual Review of Psychology. 2005; 56:453–484

11. Moos RH. Active ingredients of substance use focused self help groups. Addiction. 2008; 103(3):387–396. [PubMed: 18269361]

12. White WL. Commentary on Kelly et al. (2010): Alcoholics Anonymous, alcoholism recovery, global health and quality of life. Addiction. 2010; 205:637–638. [PubMed: 20403015]

13. Kelly JF, et al. Mechanisms of behavior change in alcoholics anonymous: does Alcoholics Anonymous lead to better alcohol use outcomes by reducing depression symptoms? Addiction. 105(4):626–636. [PubMed: 20102345]

14. KELLY JF, et al. Negative Affect, Relapse, and Alcoholics Anonymous (AA): Does AA Work by Reducing Anger? Journal of studies on alcohol and drugs.

15. Krueger RF, et al. Personality traits are linked to crime among men and women: Evidence from a birth cohort. Journal of abnormal psychology. 1994; 103(2):328. [PubMed: 8040502]

16. McGue M, Slutske W, Iacono WG. Personality and substance use disorders: II. Alcoholism versus drug use disorders. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology. 1999; 67(3):394. [PubMed: 10369060]

17. Caspi A, et al. Personality differences predict health-risk behaviors in young adulthood: Evidence from a longitudinal study. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. 1997; 73(5):1052. [PubMed: 9364760]

18. Ozer DJ, Benet-Martinez V. Personality and the prediction of consequential outcomes. Annu. Rev. Psychol. 2006; 57:401–421. [PubMed: 16318601]

19. Bogg T, Roberts BW. Conscientiousness and Health-Related Behaviors: A Meta-Analysis of the Leading Behavioral Contributors to Mortality. Psychological Bulletin. 2004; 130(6):887. [PubMed: 15535742]

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Measuring the “Psychic” Change

Prolonged Abstinence and Changes in Alcoholic Personality?

When I came into AA I remember hearing the words “the need for a psychic change” which was the product of a spiritual awakening (as the result of doing the 12 steps).

The big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous clearly states this need “The great fact is just this, and nothing less: That we have had deep and effective spiritual experiences* which have revolutionised our whole attitude toward life, towards our fellows and toward God’s universe.”

This is the cornerstone of AA recovery; thinking, feeling and acting differently about the world to when we were active drinkers. Otherwise one does the same things and ends up in the same places, doing the same things, namely drinking. It is a behavioural revolution; a sea change in how we perceive and act.

In line with this thinking, we came across this French study which measured via questionnaire the very same changes that occur in recovery. The French study uses different term for alcoholics and recovery but is saying the same things – it is we that need to change, not the world.

This study aimed to examine whether personality traits were modified during prolonged abstinence in recovering alcoholics. Groups of both recovering and recently detoxified alcoholics were asked via questionnaire to  see if they differed significantly from each other in three personality domains: neuroticism, agreeableness and conscientiousness   The recovering alcoholics were pooled from self help groups and treatment centres and the other group, the recently detoxified drinkers were pooled from various clinics throughout France.

Patients with alcohol problems who were administered the NEO PI-R had previously obtained a high “neuroticism” score (emotions, stress), associated with a low “agreeableness” score (relationship to others; Loukas et al., 2000). In the same vein, low “conscientiousness” scores (determination) were reported in patients who had abstained from alcohol for short periods (6 months to 1 year; Coëffec, Romo, & Strika, 2009)

In this study, recently detoxified drinkers scored high on neuroticism. They experienced difficulty in adjusting to events, a dimension which is associated with emotional instability (stress, uncontrolled impulses, irrational ideas, negative affect). Socially, they tend to isolate themselves and to withdraw from social relationships.

This also ties in with what the Big book also says “We were having trouble with personal relationships, we couldn’t control our emotional natures, we were prey to misery and depression, we couldn’t make a living, we had a feeling of uselessness, we were unhappy, we couldn’t seem to be of real help to other people-“

In contrast, regarding neuroticism, they found that recovering persons did not necessarily focus on negative issues. They were not shy in the presence of others and remained in control of their emotions, thus handling frustrations better (thereby enhancing their ability to remain abstinent).

Regarding agreeableness (which ties back into social relationships), the researchers also found that recovering persons cared for, and were interested in, others (altruism). Instead, recently detoxified drinkers’ low self-esteem and narcissism prevented them from enjoying interpersonal exchanges, and led them to withdraw from social relationships.

Finally, regarding conscientiousness, they observed that, over time, recovering persons became more social, enjoyed higher self-esteem (Costa, McCrae, & Dye, 1991), cared for and were interested in others, and wished to help them. They were able to perform tasks without being distracted, and carefully considered their actions before carrying them out; their determination remained strong regardless of the level of challenge, and their actions are guided by ethical values. Instead, recently detoxified drinkers lacked confidence, rushed into action, proved unreliable and unstable. As a result, lacking sufficient motivation, they experienced difficulty in achieving their objectives.

Recovering persons seemed less nervous, less angry, less depressed, less impulsive and less vulnerable than recently detoxified drinkers. Their level of competence, sense of duty, self-discipline and ability to think before acting increased with time.

 

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The authors of the study concluded that “these results are quite encouraging for alcoholic patients, who may aspire to greater quality of life through long-term abstinence”.

However, in spite of marked differences between groups, their results did not provide clear evidence of personality changes. While significant behaviour differences between the two groups were revealed, they were more akin to long-term improvements in behavourial adequacy to events than to actual personality changes.

This fits in with the self help group ethos of a change in perception and in “taking action” to resolve issues. In fact, 12 steps groups such as AA are often referred to as utilising a “program of action” in recovering from alcoholism and addiction and in altering attitudes to the world and how they act in it.

The authors also noted the potential for stabilization over time by overcoming previous behaviour weaknesses, i.e. in responding to the world.  Hence, this process is ”one of better adequacy of behaviour responses to reality and its changing parameters.”

In fact, treatment-induced behaviour changes showed a decrease in neuroticism and an increase in traits related to responsibility and conscientiousness.

In line with our various blogs which have explained alcoholism in terms of an emotional regulation and processing disorder, as the Big Book says ““We were having trouble with personal relationships, we couldn’t control our emotional natures”  the authors here concluded that  “rational management of emotions appears to be the single key factor of lasting abstinence”

 

References

Boulze, I., Launay, M., & Nalpas, B. (2014). Prolonged Abstinence and Changes in Alcoholic Personality: A NEO PI-R Study. Psychology2014.

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

 

Why erase addiction memories when they can help others?

According to one UK newspaper The Independent, dated the 9th July 2014 “Substance abusers could have their memories of drug addiction wiped in a bid to stop them using illegal narcotics, an award-winning neuroscientist has said.

According to new research by Cambridge University’s Professor Barry Everitt: disrupting the memory pathways of drug users could weaken powerful “compel” cravings, reduce “drug seeking behaviour” and open a new field of addiction therapy.

Professor Everitt  told this week’s Federation of European Neuroscience Societies (FENS) how his research in rodents had found that targeting “memory plasticity” in rats was able to reduce the impact of maladaptive drug memories.

He added that this knowledge could offer a radical new method of treatment of drug addiction in humans, where researchers have already established that the path to addiction operates by shifting behavioural control from one area of the brain to another. This process sees drug use go from a voluntary act to a goal directed one, before finally becoming an compulsive act.

It was this process that Professor Everitt’s research is trying to “prevent” by targeting “maladaptive drug-related memories” to “prevent them from triggering drug-taking and replaces”.

In humans this could potentially be done by blocking brain chemicals.

“It’s the emotional intrusiveness of drug and fear memoirs that can be diminished, rather than an individual’s episodic memory that they did in the past take drugs or had a traumatic experience,” he told The Independent. “Conscious remembering is intact after consolidation blockade, but the emotional arousal [that] leads to drug seeking or distressing feelings of fear that are diminished.”

His research group discovered that when drug memories are reactivated by retrieval in the brain, they enter a pliable and unstable state. By putting rats in this state Professor Everitt was able to prevent memory reconsolidation by blocking brain chemicals or inactivating key genes.

In one study, the team diminished drug seeking behaviours by obstructing a brain chemical receptor linked to learning and memory, thus erasing memories, while in another study it found they could weaken drug use memories by altering a particular gene in the amygdala, a brain area processing emotional memory.

“Of course, inactivating genes in the brain is not feasible in humans,” the professor told FENS. “So we’re directing our research to better identify the underlying brain mechanisms of memory reconsolidation.”

He added: “We specifically examined how we could target these maladaptive drug-related memories, and prevent them from triggering drug-taking and relapse.”

So to recap, this new treatment is based on altering genes in rats!

There is no need to actually wipe an alcoholics’ addiction memories.

In fact it may be very counter productive to recovery from alcoholism. One 80 year old and hyper ecologically valid experiment into the mnemonics of “treating addiction memories”  has shown that by honestly looking at the consequences of one’s actions as the result of one’s alcoholic drinking that the positive associations of previous drinking were reappraised in light of the damage done to oneself, one’s loved ones and family and society at large.

Addiction memories via this profound reappraisal were then more accurately processed in long term explicit memory. Implicit schematic memory was also altered fro a self schema in which one is a drinking alcoholic to one in which one is a recovering alcoholic.

So-called positive associations in long term episodic and explicit memory were,  when labile via recall, then challenged and replaced by more accurate negative associations in long term memory – no memories needed to be erased just reappraised more accurately.

 

mad scientist

 

This type of ongoing experiment is happening on a daily basis at an AA meeting near you.

AA groups have found that memories need not be erased, with possible deleterious knock on effects on fear processing and amgydaloid performance, but rather memories simply need to be faced up to, and via honesty appraisal reprocessed more adaptively in long term memory.

This also means alcoholics in recovery can use their addiction memories in not only clearing away the wreckage of the past, repairing broken relationships with loved ones and society as a whole by  making amends to those involved in this wreckage and also put the memories of the past to excellent therapeutic use by using it to help others with similar memory difficulties.

In fact even academic researchers have found and have demonstrated that abstinent, treatment seeking individuals also have a different cognitive or/and memory bias to active alcoholics. This has been illustrated in findings that the greater “accessibility” for positive vs. negative alcohol- associations in heavy vs. light drinkers was not found to be generalized to alcoholics in treatment vs. social drinkers (2). Rather, there was a trend for treated inpatients, motivated to attain abstinence, to show greater availability and accessibility for negative alcohol-related information.

This is how to use memories of addiction to the best possible use, instead of erasing them, wiping them our and hoping for the best, memories of our addiction can be used to great purpose in helping others. Also “addiction memory” is often activated by those who have not come to terms with their alcoholism and still want to drink. Unless some one has come to terms with their alcoholism little can be done, by erasing memories or otherwise. These are sticking plasters on a gaping wound. They will be replaced with other “addiction memory” as there an underlying condition to alcoholism ( we believe it to be emotional regulation and processing deficits) and it is this that drives this fear-based condition called alcoholism, memories are the result of this malady. Address the underlying conditions and the rest takes care of itself.

It is not brain regions which are the problem either such as activation of the amgydala, it is how this sometimes errant and overactive brain region in alcoholics is tamed via the serenity found in the AA program of recovery.

The compel parts of the brain, Everitt mentions,  are activated by emotional distress, so treat the distress not the symptom of it. He also confuses implicit, automatic memory, with explicit, conscious memory. Either way they are both activated by stress/distress, and are thus both emotional memories.  Again treat the emotional dysregulation, the primary problem not the secondary manifestation of the problem.

As I mentioned above, there has been an ongoing experiment into recovery from alcoholism going on for nearly 80 years now, there is a lab in most areas of town.

It would benefit the world and science, in particular, if neuroscientists would pop in for a coffee and check our our findings.

 

References

2. McCusker CG  Cognitive biases and addiction: an evolution in theory and methodAddiction 2001;96:4756.

 

Why a spiritual solution?

In the first in a series of blogs we discuss the topic of why does the solution to one’s alcoholism and addiction require a spiritual recovery.

This is a much asked question within academic research, although the health benefits of meditation are well known and life styles incorporating religious affiliation are known to increase health and span of life.

I guess people are curious as to how the spirit changes matter or material being when it should perhaps be rephrased to how does application of the ephemral mind affect neuroplasticity of the brain. Or in other words how does behaviour linked to a particular faith/belief system alter the functions and structure of the brain. We have discussed these points in two blogs previously and will do so again in later blogs. Here I just want to highlight in a short summary why spiritual practice helps alcoholics and addicts with with regulating themselves especially when the areas of their brains which govern self regulation have been taken over by the action of drugs and alcohol, so that they have very limited control over their own selves and their own behaviour.

This seems to be at the heart of addiction and alcoholism, this increasingly limited self control over addictive behaviors. In addressing this need for a spiritual solution we also hope to address choice versus limited control arguments. As we will see, the addicted or alcoholic brain is usurped to such a profound extent by effects of drugs and alcohol and this brain acts so frequently without conscious awareness of the negative consequences of these actions that it is appears undoubtedly the case that addicts and alcoholics have profoundly diminished control over their choices of behaviour.

This is especially pertinent in chronic addicts and alcoholics were the thrill is long gone so why would they continue doing something which has little reward other than because they are compelled to.

In addiction, vital regions of the brain and processes essential to adaptive survival of the species become hijacked or usurped or “taken over” by the combination of the effects of alcohol or drugs or addictive compulsive behaviours (acting as pharmacological stressors)  on pre-existing impairment in certain parts and functions of the brain. The actions of drugs and alcohol lead to a hyperactive stress system which enhances the rewarding aspects of drugs and alcohol in initial use, especially in those with maladaptive stress response such as individuals who have altered stress systems in the brain due to abusive childhood experiences (1-3).

In the second abusing phase, stress interacts with various neurotransmitters especially dopamine to drive this abusive cycle. In this phase of the addiction cycle  stress heightens attention towards cues and creates an  heightened attentional bias towards drugs and alcohol (4,5). Stress chemicals also increase activation of “addiction memory” (6,7). Thus there is multi-network usurping of function in the brain as the addiction cycle progresses (8). Recruited of attention, reward and memory networks are enhanced by the effects of stress chemicals.

Stress also enhances the rewarding effects of alcohol and drugs so makes us want them more (9). Enjoy them more. These are the so-called “good times” some of us look back on, in our euphoric recall.

In the final endpoint phase of addiction, stress incorporates more compulsive parts of the brain, partly by the stimulus response of emotional distress which automatically activates a compulsive response to approach drug and alcohol use while in distress, which is a common reality for chronic addicts and alcoholics.

 

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Thus stress chemicals acting on mainly dopamine  circuits in the brain and other neurotransmitters eventually take over control of the brain in terms of the control of behaviour (8).

In usurping  “survival” or self regulation networks in the brain, control over behaviour “implodes” or collapses inwards, from control over behaviour moving inwards from the action outcome, or goal directed, conscious prefrontal cortex to the unconscious automatic, motoric, subcortical  parts of the brain (10).

This greatly limits one’s conscious self control over one’s own behaviour  if one is addicted or chronically alcoholic. Control of behaviour appears to have becomes a function of hyperactive stress systems in the brain and their manifestation as emotional distress (11,12).

This emotional distress constantly activates a “flight or flight” response in the brain and this means behaviour is carried out without reflection or without explicit knowledge of consequences, usually negative in the case of addiction (13,14).

The alcoholic or addicted brain becomes a reactionary brain not a forward thinking, considering of all possible options type of brain. The addict or alcoholic becomes driven by his brain and to a great extent a passenger in his own reality. Automatic survival networks act or react continually as if the addicted brain is on a constant state of emergency, constantly under threat.

There is a profoundly reduced conscious cognitive control over behaviour. This heighted, excessive and chronic stress and distress cuts off explicit memory of previous negative consequences of our past drinking and drug use and recruits implicit memory systems which are mainly habitual and procedural, they are “do” or “act” without conscious deliberation systems of the brain (14) .

It is as if our alcoholic or addicted brains are doing the thinking for us. Or not as the case may be. Alcoholics are on automatic pilot, fuelled by distress.  This neuroscientific explanation fits almost perfectly with the description of alcoholism in the Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous, “The  fact is that most alcoholics…have lost choice in drink. Our so-called will power becomes practically nonexistent. We are unable , at certain times,  to bring into our consciousness with sufficient force the memory of the suffering and humiliation of even a week or month ago. We are without defense against the first drink”

The” suffering and humiliation” are now called “negative consequences” in current definitions of addiction…”continued use despite negative consequences”. (15)

images (15)

 

We “cannot bring into our consciousness with sufficient force the memory” because this is an explicit memory cut off by the effects of excessive stress which “offlines” the prefrontal cortex and hippocampal memory in favour of unconscious habitual, implicit or procedural memory (14,16). The memory of drinking not the memory of the “ situations surrounding this drinking”. How is this not a disorder  that has placed us “ beyond human aid” and beyond our own human aid” ? 

The “unable at certain times” are possibly times of great distress or emotional dysregulation and they leave the alcoholic and addict vulnerable to  relapse.

“Once more: The alcoholic, at certain times, has no effective mental defence against the first drink.”

“His defence must come from a Higher Power”

In later blogs we will discuss, in terms of the brain, why we need to recruit parts of the brain, via selfless behaviours, which activate areas outside those implicated in self regulation.

The cited  power greater than ourselves in AA meetings, for example, often follows an experiential trajectory – first it is the first person an alcoholic asks for help whether a family member, loved one or a G.P. – this often leads to an AA meeting or a treatment centre – then they are presented with other alcoholics who suffer from the same disorder – in AA parlance this is the first, and for many alcoholics in recovery, their only experience or attempt to find G.O.D. – this Group. of. Drunks. is like all that preceded it, a power greater than ourselves, regardless on whether we attain a spiritual connection with God after that.

A sizable minority in AA remain agnostic or atheist. This does not mean they have not performed essentially “spiritual” acts such as asking for help, accepting powerless over their life at that present moment. These are all acts of humility of accepting one needs help from beyond oneself. They also attend meetings where no one is in charge apart from God as He may express Himself in our group conscience.

Our first sponsors (mentors) in AA are also a power beyond ourselves as are their sponsors and their sponsors and the people in all their lives who advise and support. From the moment one has wholeheartedly accepted the need for help, one has accepted that help will come from a power greater than themselves.  It is a humbling and I believe spiritual act. A new breath filling one’s life.

All these people are already doing something for us which we could not do ourselves, they are helping us recruit the prefrontal cortex and explicit memories of the disasters alcohol or drug addiction has wrought on our lives – they move, eventually, activity in the brain from the unthinking dorsal striatal to the reasoning prefrontal cortex, helped also by sharing our stories in meetings. They give us a new recovery alcoholic self schema to replace the former drinking alcoholic self schema and stores it in implicit memory.

These people helps us change positive memory association of alcohol with negative associations. They overturn old ideas about the good times with a deep awareness of how bad these so-called good times were. The attentional bias is avoided or is rarely activated as the distress and stress are greatly reduced so as not to activate it.

We find recovery rewarding in the way we formerly (but not latterly) found drinking. In fact we find recovery better than drinking even at it’s best. The worst day in recovery seems much better than the worst day in drinking. We learn how to regulate our emotions so as to avoid prolonged bouts of distress, we ring our sponsors when such moments arise, talk to a loved one.

Again an external prefrontal cortex helps us climb out of the sub-cortical “fear” areas of the dorsal striatum and the anxious amgydala. The solution  is in the prefrontal cortex, in it’s control over emotions, in it’s clear appraisal of our past, in it’s activation of negative, realistic  memories of the past and  in avoiding the people, places and things which remind us of drinking.

The prefrontal cortex becomes more in charge rather than our illness doing the thinking. The prefrontal also gets strengthened by us sharing our experience strength and hope at meetings, it uses a recovery narrative to reconcile the drinking self with the recovering self, making us whole,  it embeds in our mind the truth of the progressive nature of this illness. It helps us see what it was like, what happened and what it is today. It gives us the tools to help others.

In the follow up blog to this we will further explore how this works – this spiritual solution.

 

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