Impulsivity is an Independent Predictor of 15-Year Mortality Risk among Individuals Seeking Help for Alcohol-Related Problems

In yesterday’s blog we looked at how AA membership and the 12 step program of recovery helped reduce impulsivity in recovering alcoholics.

We mentioned also that impulsivity was present as a pathomechanism of alcoholism from vulnerability in “at risk” children from families, were there was a history of alcoholism, right the way through to recovering alcoholics in long term recovery (i.e. many years of recovery).

We cited and used excerpts from a study written by the same authors as the study we cite now (1).

This study shows and highlights how, if untreated, by recovery programs such as AA’s 12 steps, that “trait” impulsivity can lead to increased mortality in alcoholics.

This study interestingly shows there is a difference from “state-like” impulsivity in early recovery when recovering people are still distressed and “trait-like” which is after Year 1 of recovery when some of the severity of withdrawal from alcohol has long since abated and some recovery tools have been learnt.

The fact that this impulsivity continues to contribute to relapse and mortality may suggest it is a trait state in alcoholics and possibly a vulnerability to later alcoholism also.

In effect, it illustrates the role impulsivity plays as a pathomechanism in alcoholism, i.e. it is a psychological mechanism that drives addiction and alcoholism forward to it’s chronic endpoint.

Again research shows us how we can learn about a pathology from the recovery from it!


impulse control.preview



Although past research has found impulsivity to be a significant predictor of mortality, no studies have tested this association in samples of individuals with alcohol-related problems or examined moderation of this effect via socio-contextual processes. The current study addressed these issues in a mixed-gender sample of individuals seeking help for alcohol-related problems.


…higher impulsivity at baseline was associated with an increased risk of mortality from Years 1 to 16; higher impulsivity at Year 1 was associated with an increased risk of mortality from Years 1 to 16, and remained significant when accounting for the severity of alcohol use, as well as physical health problems, emotional discharge coping, and interpersonal stress and support at Year 1. In addition, the association between Year 1 impulsivity and 15-year mortality risk was moderated by interpersonal support at Year 1, such that individuals high on impulsivity had a lower mortality risk when peer/friend support was high than when it was low.


The findings highlight impulsivity as a robust and independent predictor of mortality.


…personality traits related to impulsivity (e.g., low conscientiousness) have been identified as significant predictors of poor health-related outcomes including mortality (Bogg and Roberts, 2004; Roberts et al., 2007). Although there is a well-established association between disinhibitory traits and alcohol use disorders (AUDs) (Labouvie and McGee, 1986; McGue et al., 1999;Sher et al., 2000), to our knowledge, no studies have tested these traits as predictors of mortality among individuals with alcohol-related problems or examined moderation of this effect via socio-contextual processes.

Predictors of Mortality Risk among Individuals with Alcohol Use Disorders

Relative to the general population, individuals with AUDs are more likely to die prematurely (Finney et al., 1999; Johnson et al., 2005; Valliant, 1996). Accordingly, several longitudinal studies have aimed to identify the most salient risk factors for mortality in this population (for a review, see Liskow et al., 2000)

…more reliance on avoidance coping, less social support, and more stress from interpersonal relationships increase the risk of mortality among individuals with AUDs (Finney and Moos, 1992; Holahan et al., 2010; Mertens et al., 1996; Moos et al., 1990).

Impulsivity and Risk for Mortality: Relevance for Individuals with Alcohol Use Disorders

Despite the litany of variables that have been examined as predictors of mortality among individuals with AUDs, tests of the significance of individual differences in personality are noticeably absent from this literature. In the clinical and health psychology literatures, however, personality traits have long been identified as possible risk factors for mortality (Friedman and Rosenman, 1959), with low conscientiousness emerging as one of the most consistent, trait-based predictors of poor health and reduced longevity (Kern and Friedman, 2008; Roberts et al., 2007). Conscientiousness is a broad domain of personality reflecting individual differences in the propensity to control one’s impulses, be planful, and adhere to socially-prescribed norms (John et al., 2008).

(previously) no studies in this literature have tested impulsivity as an independent predictor of mortality in a sample of individuals with alcohol-related problems. This is a surprising omission, given that impulsivity is a well-established risk factor for alcohol misuse (Elkins et al., 2006; McGue et al., 1999; Sher et al., 2000) and therefore may be an especially potent predictor of mortality among individuals with AUDs. Furthermore, the role of impulsivity as an independent predictor of mortality risk among individuals with AUDs is relevant from the standpoint of the stage of the alcohol recovery process.

Thus, we sought to examine the impulsivity-mortality link at baseline and one year after participants had initiated help-seeking for their alcohol use problems. At baseline, participants were in a state of distress due to their problematic alcohol use, whereas at Year 1 most participants had obtained help for their alcohol-related problems and reduced their drinking (Finney and Moos, 1995).

Given prior research on acute clinical states and self-report assessments of personality (e.g., Brown et al., 1991; Peselow et al., 1994;Reich et al., 1987), we hypothesized that individuals’ self-reports of impulsivity at Year 1 would be less a reflection of their alcohol problems – and therefore more likely to be independently linked to mortality risk – than their reports at baseline, which may be more closely associated with concurrent alcohol use and problems (i.e., state effects).


…impulsivity at baseline was a significant predictor of mortality risk from Years 1 to 16; however, this effect was accounted for by the severity of alcohol use at baseline. In contrast, impulsivity at Year 1 was associated with an increased risk of mortality over the subsequent 15 years…

In addition, a significant interaction was observed between impulsivity and peer/friend support at Year 1, which suggested that, among individuals high on impulsivity, the mortality risk may be reduced for those high on support from peers/friends. Collectively, these findings highlight impulsivity as an independent risk factor for mortality in AUD samples…

…It is also conceivable that, given participants were in a state of crisis at baseline, their reports of their impulsive tendencies at that time partly captured “state” effects (e.g., psychiatric distress from concurrent substance use; withdrawal symptoms) and therefore were less an indication of their typical or “characterological” pattern of impulsivity, independent of alcohol use. However, at Year 1, most participants had reduced their drinking and were not in a state of crisis; thus, their reports at that time may have been a better reflection of their “trait-like” pattern of impulsivity, which in turn may be a more robust independent predictor of long-term outcomes such as mortality. Accordingly, future studies that seek to test impulsivity as an independent predictor of mortality among individuals with AUDs should consider the stage of the alcohol recovery process.

Moderation of the Impulsivity-Mortality Link via the Social Context

The results of the moderator analyses suggest that the effects of impulsivity on mortality may become manifest through interactions between traits and socio-contextual process (Friedman, 2000). That is, the dire effects of impulsivity on risk for mortality may not reach fruition for individuals who are able to maintain a strong peer support network. Conceivably, by virtue of their strong bond with a high-risk individual, such peers may have sufficient leverage to discourage expression of the individual’s impulsive tendencies and encourage consideration of the long-term consequences of his/her actions.

Such a perspective is consistent with evidence from the AUD treatment-outcome literature that social support networks are a key mechanism by which Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) and other psychosocial treatments can improve long-term drinking-related outcomes (Humphreys and Noke, 1997; Kaskutas et al., 2002).

Furthermore, from the standpoint of treatment, the present findings suggest that interventions for AUDs may benefit from an ecological perspective that considers the contexts in which dispositional tendencies, such as impulsivity, become expressed in individuals’ everyday lives. Notably, based on prior work with this sample, longer duration in AA and alcohol treatment was associated with a decline in impulsivity (Blonigen et al., 2009). In combination with the present findings, it appears that formal and informal help for AUDs may include “active ingredients” that can help curtail expression of impulsive tendencies (e.g., social integration, peer bonding; Moos, 2007,2008) and buffer the otherwise deleterious impact of such tendencies on health and longevity.


1. Blonigen, D. M., Timko, C., Moos, B. S., & Moos, R. H. (2011). Impulsivity is an Independent Predictor of 15-Year Mortality Risk among Individuals Seeking Help for Alcohol-Related Problems. Alcoholism, Clinical and Experimental Research, 35(11), 2082–2092. doi:10.1111/j.1530-0277.2011.01560.x

Alcoholics Anonymous and Reduced Impulsivity: A Novel Mechanism of Change

Impulsivity or lack of behaviour inhibition, especially when distressed, is one psychological mechanisms which is implicated in all addictive behaviour from substance addiction to behaviour addiction.

It is, in my view, linked to the impaired emotion processing as I have elucidated upon in various blogs on this site.

This impulsivity is present for example in those vulnerable to later alcoholism, i.e. sons and daughters of alcoholic parents or children  from a family that has a relatively high or concentrated density of alcoholics in the family history, right through to old timers, people who have decades of recovery from alcoholism.

It is an ever present and as a result part of a pathomechanism of alcoholism, that is it is fundamental to driving alcoholism to it’s chronic endpoint.

It partly drives addiction via it’s impact on decision making – research shows people of varying addictive behaviours choose now over later, even if it is a smaller short term gain over a greater long term gain. We seem to react to relieve a distress signal in the brain rather than in response to considering and evaluating the long term consequences of a decision or act.

No doubt this improves in recovery as it has with me. Nonetheless, this tendency for rash action with limited consideration of long term consequence is clearly a part of the addictive profile. Not only do we choose now over then, we appear to have an intolerance of uncertainty, which means we have difficulties coping with uncertain outcomes. In other words we struggle with things in the future particularly if they are worrying or concerning things, like a day in court etc. The future can continually intrude into the present. A thought becomes a near certain action, again similar to the though-action fusion of obsessive compulsive disorder. It is as if the thought and possible future action are almost fused, as if they are happening in unison.

Although simple, less worrying events can also make me struggle with leaving the future to the future instead of endless and fruitlessly ruminating about it in the now. In early recovery  especially I found that I had real difficulty dealing with the uncertainty of future events and always thought they would turn out bad. It is akin to catastrophic thinking.

If a thought of a drink entered into my head it was so distressing, almost as if I was being dragged by some invisible magnet to the nearest bar. It was horrendous. Fortunately I created my own thought action fusion to oppose this.

Any time I felt this distressing lure of the bar like some unavoidable siren call of alcohol I would turn that thought into the action of ringing my sponsor. This is why sponsees should ring sponsors about whatever, whenever in order to habitualize these responses to counteract the automatic responses of the addicted brain.

I think it is again based on an inherent emotion dysregulation. Obsessive thoughts are linked to emotion dysregulation.

My emotions can still sometimes control me and not the other way around.

Apparently we need to recruit the frontal part of the brain to regulate these emotions and this is the area most damaged by chronic alcohol consumption.

As a result we find it difficult to recruit this brain area which not only helps regulate emotion but is instrumental in making reflective, evaluative decisions about future, more long term consequence. As a result addicts of all types appear to use a “bottom up” sub-cortical part of the brain centred on the amgydala region to make responses to decisions instead of a “top down” more cortical part of the brain to make evaluative decisions.

We thus react, and rashly act to relieve the distress of undifferentiated emotions, the result of unprocessed emotion rather than using processed emotions to recruit the more cortical parts of the brain.

Who would have though emotions were so instrumental in us making decisions? Two parts of the brain that hold emotions in check so that they can be used to serve goal directed behaviour are the orbitofrontal cortex and the ventromedial prefrontal cortex.



These areas also keep amgydaloid responding in check. Unfortunately these two areas are impaired in alcoholics and other addictive behaviours so their influence on and regulation of the amgydala is also impaired.

This means the sub cortical areas of the amgydala and related regions are over active and prompt not a goal directed response to decision making but a “fight or flight” response to alleviate distress and not facilitate goal directed behaviour.



Sorry for so much detail. I have read so much about medication recently which does this or that to reduce craving or to control  drinking but what about the underlying conditions of alcoholism and addictive behaviour? These are rarely mentioned or considered at all.


We always in recovery have to deal with alcoholism not just it’s symptomatic manifestation of that which is chronic alcohol consumption. This is a relatively simple point and observation that somehow alludes academics, researchers and so-called commentators on this fascinating subject.

Anyway that is some background to this study which demonstrates that long term AA membership can reduce this impulsivity and perhaps adds validity to the above arguments that improved behaviour inhibition and reducing impulsivity is a very possible mechanism of change brought about by AA membership and the 12 step recovery program.

It shows how we can learn about a pathology from the recovery from it!

Indeed when one looks back at one’s step 4 and 5 how many times was this distress based impulsivity the real reason for “stepping on the toes of others” and for their retaliation?

Were we not partly dominated by the world because we could not keep ourselves in check? Didn’t all our decisions get us to AA because they were inherently based on a decision making weakness? Isn’t this why it is always useful to have a sponsor, someone to discuss possible decisions with?

Weren’t we out of control, regardless of alcohol or substance or behaviour addiction? Isn’t this at the heart of our unmanageability?

I think we can all see how we still are effected by a tendency not to think things through and to act rashly.

The trouble it has caused is quite staggeringly really?

Again we cite a study (1) which has Rudolf H. Moos as a co-author. Moos has authored and co-authored a numbered of fine papers on the effectiveness of AA and is a rationale beacon in a sea of sometimes quite controversial and ignorant studies on AA, and alcoholism in general.


Reduced impulsivity is a novel, yet plausible, mechanism of change associated with the salutary effects of Alcoholics Anonymous (AA). Here, we review our work on links between AA attendance and reduced impulsivity using a 16-year prospective study of men and women with alcohol use disorders (AUD) who were initially untreated for their drinking problems. Across the study period, there were significant mean-level decreases in impulsivity, and longer AA duration was associated with reductions in impulsivity…

Among individuals with alcohol use disorders (AUD), Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) is linked to improved functioning across a number of domains [1, 2]. 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 [3]. To our knowledge, however, there have been no efforts to examine links between AA and reductions in impulsivity-a dimension of personality marked by deficits in self-control and self-regulation, and tendencies to take risks and respond to stimuli with minimal forethought.

In this article, we discuss the conceptual rationale for reduced impulsivity as a mechanism of change associated with AA, review our research on links between AA and reduced impulsivity, and discuss potential implications of the findings for future research on AA and, more broadly, interventions for individuals with AUD.

Impulsivity and related traits of disinhibition are core risk factors for AUD [5, 6]. In cross-sectional research, impulsivity is typically higher among individuals in AUD treatment than among those in the general population [7] and, in prospective studies, impulse control deficits tend to predate the onset of drinking problems [811]

Although traditionally viewed as static variables, contemporary research has revealed that traits such as impulsivity can change over time [17]. For example, traits related to impulsivity exhibit significant mean- and individual-level decreases over the lifespan [18], as do symptoms of personality disorders that include impulsivity as an essential feature [21, 22]. Moreover, entry into social roles that press for increased responsibility and self-control predict decreases in impulsivity [16, 23, 24]. Hence, individual levels of impulsivity can be modified by systematic changes in one’s life circumstances [25].

Substance use-focused mutual-help groups 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 [26]. 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.

…the idea of reduced impulsivity as a mechanism of change…it is consistent with contemporary definitions of recovery from substance use disorders that emphasize improved citizenship and global health [31], AA’s vision of recovery as a broad transformation of character [32], and efforts to explore individual differences in emotional and behavioral functioning as potential mechanisms of change (e.g., negative affect [33,34]).

Several findings are notable from our research on associations between AA attendance and reduced impulsivity. First, consistent with the idea of impulsivity as a dynamic construct [18, 19], mean-levels of impulsivity decreased significantly in our AUD sample. Second, consistent with the notion that impulsivity can be modified by contextual factors [25], individuals who participated in AA longer tended to show larger decreases in impulsivity across all assessment intervals.


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.

Participation in Treatment and Alcoholics Anonymous

So keep taking the medicine…

“A 16-Year Follow-Up of Initially Untreated Individuals


This study focused on the duration of participation in professional treatment and Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) for previously untreated individuals with alcohol use disorders. These individuals were surveyed at baseline and 1 year, 3 years, 8 years, and 16 years later. Compared with individuals who remained untreated, individuals who obtained 27 weeks or more of treatment in the first year after seeking help had better 16-year alcohol-related outcomes. Similarly, individuals who participated in AA for 27 weeks or more had better 16-year outcomes. Subsequent AA involvement was also associated with better 16-year outcome…some of the association between treatment and long-term alcohol-related outcomes appears to be due to participation in AA.

We focus here on participation in professional treatment and AA among previously untreated individuals after these individuals initially sought help for their alcohol use disorders and address three sets of questions:

  1. Is the duration of treatment obtained in the first year after seeking help, and the duration of subsequent treatment, associated with individuals’ long-term (16-year) alcohol-related and psychosocial outcomes? Is participation in treatment in the second and third years … after initiating help seeking associated with additional benefits beyond those obtained from participation in the first year?
  2. Is the duration of participation in AA in the first year, and the duration of subsequent participation, associated with individuals’ long-term (16-year) outcomes? Is participation in AA in the second and third years associated with additional benefits beyond those obtained from participation in the first year?
  3. Many of the individuals who participate in one modality of help (professional treatment or AA) also participate in the other modality. Accordingly, we focus on whether the associations between the duration of participation in treatment and AA and 16-year outcomes are independent of participation in the other modality of help. We also consider interactions between the duration of treatment and AA in that, for example, one modality could compensate for or amplify the influence of the other.


Independent Contribution of Treatment and Alcoholics Anonymous

Patients who participate in both self-help groups and treatment tend to have better outcomes than do patients who are involved only in treatment (Fiorentine, 1999;Fiorentine & Hillhouse, 2000). According to Moos et al. (2001), patients with substance use disorders who attended more self-help group meetings had better 1-year outcomes.

Similarly, among patients discharged from intensive substance use care, participation in self-help groups was associated with better 1-year (Ouimette et al., 1998), 2-year, and 5-year (Ritsher, Moos, & Finney, 2002; Ritsher, McKellar, et al., 2002) outcomes, after controlling for outpatient mental health care. We focus here on whether the duration of participation in one modality of help (treatment or AA) contributes to long-term outcomes beyond the contribution of participation in the other modality.

Prior Findings With This Sample

In prior work with the current sample, we found that individuals who entered treatment or AA in the first year after seeking help had better alcohol-related outcomes and were more likely to be remitted (in recovery) than were individuals who did not obtain any help. Individuals who participated in treatment and/or in AA for a longer interval in the first year were more likely to be abstinent and had fewer drinking problems at 1-year and 8-year follow-ups (Moos & Moos, 2003; 2004a; 2005b; Timko, Moos, Finney, & Lesar, 2000).

In this article, the distinctive focus is on associations between the duration of participation in treatment and AA and 16-year outcomes. We also consider the independent contribution of participation in treatment and AA to 16-year outcomes.


Compared to individuals who did not enter treatment in the first year after they sought help, individuals who obtained treatment for 27 weeks or more experienced better 16-year alcohol-related outcomes. Individuals who participated in AA for 27 weeks or more in the first year, and in years 2 and 3, had better 16-year outcomes than did individuals who did not participate in AA. Some of the contribution of treatment reflected participation in AA, whereas the contribution of AA was essentially independent of the contribution of treatment.

Participation in Treatment and 16-Year Outcomes

About 60% of individuals who sought help for their alcohol use problems entered professional treatment within one year. These individuals obtained an average of 20 weeks of treatment. Compared to untreated individuals, individuals who obtained 27 weeks or more of treatment in the first year were more likely to be abstinent and less likely to have drinking problems at 16 years than were individuals who remained untreated. These findings extend earlier results on this sample (Moos & Moos, 2003; 2005b; Timko et al., 1999) and are consistent with prior studies that have shown an association between more-extended treatment and better substance use outcomes (Moos et al., 2000, 2001;Ouimette et al., 1998).

Participation in Alcoholics Anonymous and 16-Year Outcomes

The findings extend earlier results on this sample (Moos & Moos, 2004a; 2005b) and those of prior studies (Connors et al., 2001; Fiorentine, 1999; Ouimette et al., 1998;Watson et al., 1997) by showing that more extended participation in AA is associated with better alcohol-related and self-efficacy outcomes. The results support the benefit of extended engagement in AA, in that a longer duration of participation in the first year, and in the second and third years, was independently associated with better 16-year outcomes. In addition, our findings indicate that attendance for more than 52 weeks in a 5-year interval may be associated with a higher likelihood of abstinence than attendance of up to 52 weeks.

 Part of the association between AA attendance and better social functioning, which reflects the composition of the social network, is likely a direct function of participation in AA. In fact, for some individuals, involvement with a circle of abstinent friends may reflect a turning point that enables them to address their problems, build their coping skills, and establish more supportive social resources (Humphreys, 2004; Humphreys, Mankowski, Moos, & Finney, 1999). Participation in a mutual support group may enhance and amplify these changes in life context and coping to promote better long-term outcomes.

Independent Contribution of Treatment and Alcoholics Anonymous

Consistent with prior studies (Fiorentine, 1999; Fiorentine & Hillhouse, 2000; Moos et al., 2001; Ritsher, McKellar, et al., 2002; Ritsher, Moos, & Finney, 2002), longer participation in AA made a positive contribution to alcohol-related, self-efficacy, and social functioning outcomes, over and above the contribution of treatment.

An initial episode of professional treatment may have a beneficial influence on alcohol-related functioning; however, continued participation in a community-based self-help program, such as AA, appears to be a more important determinant of long-term outcomes.

Moreover, compared with individuals who participated only in treatment in the first year, individuals who participated in both treatment and AA were more likely to achieve 16-year remission (i.e. still be in recovery) (Moos & Moos, 2005a).

In interpreting these findings, it is important to remember that participation in treatment likely motivated some individuals to enter AA; thus, some of the contribution of AA to 16-year outcomes should be credited to treatment. Another consideration involves the differential selection processes into treatment versus AA. Individuals with more severe alcohol-related problems tend to obtain longer episodes of treatment, but this selection and allocation process is much less evident for AA.

These divergent selection processes may help to explain the finding that AA is more strongly associated with positive long-term outcomes than is treatment.”

…keep making the meetings!


Moos, R. H., & Moos, B. S. (2006). Participation in Treatment and Alcoholics Anonymous: A 16-Year Follow-Up of Initially Untreated Individuals. Journal of Clinical Psychology, 62(6), 735–750. doi:10.1002/jclp.20259


A Brief History of Controlled Drinking – the Irrationality of Science

In a recent blog a few days ago I challenged some of Gabrielle Glaser’s “evidence” in her article   “The Irrationality of Alcoholics Anonymous “, which purported to demonstrate the so-called effectiveness of “controlling drinking”.

Glaser cited the following in her article

“ To many, though, the idea of non-abstinent recovery is anathema. No one knows that better than Mark and Linda Sobell, who are both psychologists. In the 1970s, the couple conducted a study with a group of 20 patients in Southern California who had been diagnosed with alcohol dependence.

Over the course of 17 sessions, they taught the patients how to identify their triggers, how to refuse drinks, and other strategies to help them drink safely. In a follow-up study two years later, the patients had fewer days of heavy drinking, and more days of no drinking, than did a group of 20 alcohol-dependent patients who were told to abstain from drinking entirely.”

I responded to this as follows

” What Glaser failed to mention was that in a subsequent study (4) 10-year follow-up of the original 20 experimental subjects showed that only one, who apparently had not experienced physical withdrawal symptoms (thus possibly not alcoholic), maintained a pattern of controlled drinking;

eight continued to drink excessively–regularly or intermittently–despite repeated damaging consequences;

six abandoned their efforts to engage in controlled drinking and became abstinent;

four died from alcohol-related causes;

and one, certified about a year after discharge from the research project as gravely disabled because of drinking, was missing.

Why did Glaser failed to mention this research, a follow up study to the one she mentions and cites?”

The authors attempted to justify this choice in a statement that seems to clearly demonstrate their bias: “we are addressing the question of whether controlled drinking is itself a desirable treatment goal, not the question of whether the patients directed towards that goal fared better or worse than a control group.. .” (Pendery et al., 1982, 172-173)

The interesting aspect about her article for me (and most worrying) was that it highlighted a controversy that goes back to the 1960s – can alcoholics ever control their drinking?

In this blog we will address the origins of this “controlled drinking debate” and demonstrated how it is a castle built on sand.

The original study which supposedly demonstrated so-called controlled drinking or asymptomatic drinking in it’s alcoholic participants did no such thing.

So we now have an ongoing debate about controlled drinking when it has continuously been based on dubious research, bogus findings and bad science.

It is the researchers that Glaser champions that could be accused of irrationality.

The methodological madness started way back in the 1960s.

 While scattered reports of controlled drinking outcomes had occasionally appeared in the scientific literature before 1962, most commentators date the beginning of the controlled drinking controversy to the publication that year of a paper entitled “Normal Drinking in Recovered Alcohol Addicts.” In this paper, D.L. Davies, a British psychiatrist, reports that, in the course of long-term follow-up of patients treated for “alcohol addiction” at Maudsley Hospital in London, 7 of the 93 patients investigated “have subsequently been able to drink normally for periods of 7 to 11 years after discharge from the hospital.” (Davies, 1962, p. 94).

At least two different studies have challenged the findings of Davies:-

“Evidence suggests that five subjects experienced significant drinking problems both during Davies’s original follow-up period and subsequently, that three of these five at some time also used psychotropic drugs heavily, and that the two remaining subjects (one of whom was never severely dependent on alcohol) engaged in trouble-free drinking over the total period”

“A subsequent follow-up of these cases suggested that Davies had been substantially mislead”

So four decades of research into controlled drinking were inspired by a study which did not actually demonstrate controlled drinking in the first place!

In addition to the Sobells, Glaser also mentioned the Rand Report of the 1970s.

“In 1976, for instance, the Rand Corporation released a study of more than 2,000 men who had been patients at 44 different NIAAA-funded treatment centers. The report noted that 18 months after treatment, 22 percent of the men were drinking moderately. The authors concluded that it was possible for some alcohol-dependent men to return to controlled drinking. Researchers at the National Council on Alcoholism charged that the news would lead alcoholics to falsely believe they could drink safely. The NIAAA, which had funded the research, repudiated it. Rand repeated the study, this time looking over a four-year period. The results were similar.”

The first Rand Report was attacked as being methodologically weak  – e.g  it suffered from sample bias (80% of subject dropped out).

The Rand Corporation did a follow up 4 years later.  This time they reported that a smaller figure of 14% of the sample  continued to drink in an unproblematic manner  but other researchers reanalyzing the data arrived at a corrected estimate of 3-4% of the sample were drinking in a nonproblematic manner.

3% is somewhat less than the 22% – why does Glaser not cite these other follow up studies again?  It is difficult to accept any of her arguments as  she picks only studies that support her biased arguments.


It was also noted that alcoholics can often be expected to drink in a non problematic manner for brief periods. In my own experience, I have often heard of alcoholics share about a relapse and state that they thought they had their alcoholic problem licked as they started off drinking in what appeared to be a controlled manner only to find in a matter of weeks that their alcoholism had progressed far beyond it’s original severity prior to the relapse. In other words it can take a relapse some weeks to kick start into even more profound alcoholism than previously.

Researchers need to spend more time around alcoholics to observe what we have learnt through very painful experience, instead of theorising about this reality from academic ivory towers.

As the Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous states in Chapter 3  “Most of us have been unwilling to admit we were real alcoholics. No person likes to think he is bodily and mentally different from his fellows. Therefore, it is not surprising that our drinking careers have been characterized by countless vain attempts to prove we could drink like other people. The idea that somehow, someday he will control and enjoy his drinking is the great obsession of every abnormal drinker. The persistence of this illusion is astonishing. Many pursue it into the gates of insanity or death. We learned that we had to fully concede to our innermost selves that we were alcoholics. This is the first step in recovery. The delusion that we are like other people, or presently may be, has to be smashed. We alcoholics are men and women who have lost the ability to control our drinking. We know that no real alcoholic ever recovers control. All of us felt at times that we were regaining control, but such intervals –usually brief—were inevitably followed by still less control, which led in time to pitiful and incomprehensible demoralization. We are convinced to a man that alcoholics of our type are in the grip of a progressive illness. Over any considerable period we get worse, never better.”


Why Alcoholics Anonymous Works

A journalistic piece entitled,  “The Irrationality of Alcoholics Anonymous “, written by  Gabrielle Glaser, also harshly criticizes Alcoholics Anonymous. AA and similar 12-step programs.

I cite a blog on her criticisms here (1)

Why Alcoholics Anonymous Works

“Glaser’s central claim is that there’s no rigorous scientific evidence that AA and other 12-step programs work.

First, she writes that “Unlike Alcoholics Anonymous, [other methods for treating alcohol dependence] are based on modern science and have been proved, in randomized, controlled studies, to work.” In other words, “modern science” hasn’t shown AA to work.”

Glaser appears to lessen her argument by suggesting that AA is difficult to study (so how can she be so sure it is not effective then?).

” Alcoholics Anonymous is famously difficult to study. By necessity, it keeps no records of who attends meetings; members come and go and are, of course, anonymous. No conclusive data exist on how well it works.”

Equally there, in her world view, would also be no conclusive data to suggest if doesn’t work? So why make bold claims either way?

” In 2006, the Cochrane Collaboration, a health-care research group, reviewed studies going back to the 1960s and found that “no experimental studies unequivocally demonstrated the effectiveness of AA or [12-step] approaches for reducing alcohol dependence or problems.”

According to (1), Glaser is simply ignoring a decade’s worth of science, not only here but throughout the piece.

“No, that’s not true,” said Dr. John Kelly, a clinical psychologist and addiction specialist at Massachusetts General Hospital and Harvard Medical School. “There’s quite a bit of evidence now, actually, that’s shown that AA works.”

Kelly, alongside Dr. Marica Ferri and Dr. Keith Humphreys of Stanford, is currently at work updating the Cochrane Collaboration guidelines (he said they expect to publish their results in August).

” Kelly said that in recent years, researchers have begun ramping up rigorous research on what are known as “12-step facilitation” (TSF) programs, which are “clinical interventions designed to link people with AA.”

Dr. Lee Ann Kaskutas, a senior scientist at the Alcohol Research Group who has conducted TSF studies, suggest that TSF outperforms many alternatives.

“They show about a 10 to 20 percent advantage over more standard treatment like cognitive behavioral therapy in terms of days abstinent, and typically also what we find is that when people are engaged in a 12-step-oriented treatment and go to AA, they have about 30 percent to 50 percent higher rates of continuous abstinence,” said Kelly.”

The original Cochrane paper that Glaser cites came out before the latest round of studies did, so that research wasn’t factored into the conclusion that there’s a lack of evidence for AA’s efficacy. In a followup email, Kelly said he expects the next round of recommendations to be significantly different:

Although we cannot as yet say definitively what the final results will bring in the updated Cochrane Review, as it is still in progress, we are seeing positive results in favor of Twelve-Step Facilitation treatments that have emerged from the numerous NIH-sponsored randomized clinical trials completed since the original review published in 2006. We can confirm that TSF is an empirically-supported treatment, showing clinical efficacy, and is likely to result also in lowered health care costs relative to alternative treatments that do not link patients with these freely available recovery peer support services. Another emerging finding is that a central reason why TSF shows benefit is because it helps patients become actively involved with groups like AA and NA, which in turn, have been shown to enhance addiction recovery coping skills, confidence, and motivation, similar to professional interventions, but AA and NA are able to do this in the communities in which people live for free, and over the long-term.

In other words, the most comprehensive piece of research Glaser is using to support her argument will, once it takes into account the latest findings, likely reverse itself.”

In other words, it will also help contradict Glaser’s arguments.

“In an email and phone call, Glaser said that TSF programs are not the same thing as AA and the two can’t be compared. But this argument doesn’t quite hold up: For one thing, the Cochrane report she herself cites in her piece relied in part on a review of TSF studies, so it doesn’t make sense for TSF studies to be acceptable to her when they support her argument and unacceptable when they don’t.

For another, Kelly, Katsukas, and Humphreys, while acknowledging that TSF programs and AA are not exactly the same thing, all said that the available evidence suggests that it’s the 12-step programs themselves that are likely the primary cause of the effects being observed (the National Institutes of Health, given the many studies into TSF programs it has sponsored, would appear to agree).”

“It’s worth pointing out that while critics of AA point it as a bit cultlike…to the researchers who believe in its efficacy, there’s actually very little mystery to the process. “We have been able to determine WHY these 12-step facilitation interventions work,” said Kaskutas in an email. “And we have also been able to determine WHY AA works.”

Simply put, “People who self-select to attend AA, or people who are randomized to a 12-step facilitation intervention, end up having people in their social network who are supportive of their abstinence,” she said.

Reams of research show that social networks…are powerful drivers of behavior, so to Kaskutas — who noted that she is an atheist — the focus on AA’s quirks and spiritual undertones misses the point.

“When you think about a mechanism like supportive social networks, or the psychological benefit of helping others… they have to do with the reality of what goes on in AA, with people meeting others in the same boat as they are in, and with helping other people (are but two examples of these mechanisms of action),” she said.”

At the heart of recovery via 12 step groups may be because it “works for a lot of people, simply by connecting them to others going through the same struggles.”



France - Alcoholic Anonymous celebrates its 75th year




Your Heart is in Your Own Hands!

Easy Does it…on yourself!

I give myself a hard time,  it is a habitual response I have when things go “wrong” or don’t go my way. One of the first words  that pop into my head is “idiot!”. It is a lack of distress tolerance borne out of a reducee ability to deal with fristration. This appears in the brain as a distress signal prompting an automatic response rather than an evaluative response. A reaction rather than a reflective action.

It is the consequence of a distress state and in itself distressing. It can also be distressing for those around me. It seems like perfectionism which is also a product of distress.

I believe it is also the product of my upbringing, trauma and insecure attachment which has led to a low self esteem and a lack of self soothing combined with the reality that chronic alcoholism leaves us with an allostatic brain, i.e. the stress systems in the brain are impaired.

It is only recently in recovery, after some years of recovery, that I have started to feel real compassion for myself as someone recovering from alcoholism and various addictive behaviours.

When I look at photos of me in active addiction and in the first years of recovery my heart goes out to that younger, more distressed version of myself.

Compassion is a Latin word that which can be translated as meaning suffer together with. It can also be described as a feeling of empathy for the suffering of other people.

I have always found it easier to have compassion for others more than myself. I practiced Buddhist mediation for a number of years and have often felt at one with the world and it’s people. I have nonetheless always struggled with being compassionate towards myself.

I have somehow found myself undeserving of a compassionate attitude towards my own struggles. I know my God loves me but I have often felt it difficult to love this person that God loves.

Again, this could be a legacy of how ambivalent attachment and how my mother saw and reacted. I sometimes have more time and consideration for others rather than myself.

Ultimately however, how react to the world is a function of how I treat myself and the attitudes I have collected in my negative self schema or the neural responses ingrained in my brain over decades. As the image below shows, my heart is in my own hands, by this I mean the distress I experience in life is the consequence of my own attitudes towards me and my fellow human beings.



I can change my brain and behaviour via neuroplasticity by behaving differently towards myself!

Here we look at one study on self compassion in relation to those who have alcohol  use disorders.

It will be a first in a series of blogs about the role of the heart in addiction and recovery.

Why the heart?

I thought this blog was about neuroscience and the brain which is the head? Not completely true. The heart has a role to play in stress and emotion regulation and in craving and helps prompt neuro transmission of various brain chemicals. The heart has a reciprocal relationship with the brain as we will see in later blogs.

We have had a neuroscientific “decade of the brain” so perhaps we need a “decade of the heart”? As we say in recovery circles, recovery is a journey from the head to the heart, which is so true whatever way you care to look at it.

This study (1)  looked at “Self-Compassion Amongst Clients with Problematic Alcohol Use”.

“Self-compassion is a topic of growing research interest and is represented by six facets including selfkindness, self-judgement, mindfulness, over-identification, common humanity and isolation. Recent research interest has begun to examine the use of self-focused compassion and mindfulness as a way of alleviating the distress associated with psychological disorders.

Recent research interest has begun to examine the use of self-focused compassion and mindfulness as a way of alleviating the distress associated with psychological disorders.

The self medication hypothesis (Khantzian 2003) suggests that substance addiction functions to self-soothe and to modulate the effects of distressful psychological states (Suh et al. 2008).

Other research has found that experiencing stressful life events significantly predicts the amount and frequency of alcohol consumed (Dawson et al. 2005) and the onset of alcohol dependence (Lloyd and Turner 2008) indicating that stress plays a key part in the development of alcohol use disorders.

Low self-esteem has also been found to pose a high risk for substance abuse (Baumeister 1993; Bushman and Baumeister 1998) and alcohol dependence (Chaudhury et al. 2010,).

Self-compassion does not involve an unrealistic self view, it should be stable unlike self-esteem, which often fluctuates (Kernis et al. 1993). Self-compassion involves being kind and understanding to oneself, awareness that pain and failures are unavoidable common experiences among humanity and a balanced awareness of one’s emotions (Neff, Rude and Kirkpatrick 2007).

Kelly et al. (2010) suggested that the trait of self-compassion promotes adaptive functioning and appears to provide a buffer from emotional distress. Neff (2003a) has also reported that self-compassion was strongly inversely related to psychological health such as depression, anxiety, rumination, thought suppression, self-criticism and neurotic perfectionism. Neff, Kirkpatrick and Rude (2007) found that increased self compassion resulted in reduced depression, anxiety, thought suppression, rumination and self-criticism.

Neff (2003a, b) suggests that there are three main components to self-compassion including self-kindness versus self-judgement, common humanity versus isolation and mindfulness versus over-identification. Self-kindness is being kind to oneself rather than judging harshly or being self– critical. Common humanity is viewing one’s experiences as part of larger human experience and not viewing them as isolating or separating. Mindfulness is paying attention in a particular way involving a conscious direction of awareness (Kabat-Zinn 1994). Neff (2003a, b) describes mindfulness as taking a balanced approach to negative emotions and neither suppressing not exaggerating emotions.

The self-kindness facet represents an alternative to rumination, blaming, self-condemnation and self-criticism.

Common humanity appears to be related to general well-being and Mindfulness represents a state of mental balance with a stance of composure towards difficult and painful thoughts and feelings, therefore suggesting mindfulness may play an important role in adaptive and maladaptive emotion regulation (Van Dam et al. 2011). Self-compassion can be thought of a coping strategy that assists one to remain emotionally balanced when in a stressful situation (Rendon 2007) and provides emotional resilience (Neff 2011).

This study is among the first to examine the self-compassion of people with alcohol dependence, who were currently using alcohol at hazardous levels.

The results indicated that the (alcohol dependnet) participants in this study were significantly lower in mindfulness, common humanity and self-kindness than what would be expected in the general population.

Participants were also significantly higher in over-identification, perceived isolation and self judgement than the norms for general population.

Stress was found to be significantly negatively correlated to the overall score for self-compassion (e.g., the higher the level of stress reported by the individual, the lower the self compassion). Stressed individuals judged themselves more harshly, felt more isolated from others and felt overly responsible for negative events that occurred in their lives.

The results ,taken together, indicated that participants in this study reported a significant increase in self-compassion, mindfulness, common humanity and self-kindness between baseline and 15-week follow-up and involvement in treatment with a Drug and Alcohol Clinical Service.

Additionally, there was a significant decrease in self-judgement, isolation and over-identification. The reduction in self-judgement and isolation was such that at the 15-week follow-up stage, participant scores for these subscales were equivalent to what other research has suggested is representative of the general population.

The change in participant’s stress was found to be significantly associated with self- kindness, self-judgement, isolation and the number of sessions in which meditative practice (which may have incorporated mindfulness-based approaches) was used by clinicians. These results provide support for the notion that significant increases in participant’s overall self-compassion, self-kindness, mindfulness and common humanity can be observed in people with alcohol dependence over a 3-month treatment period.”


This study is useful in that it shows how the emotional distress at the heart of addiction, itself a manifestation of altered stress responding or heightened stress responses in alcoholics, was greatly reduced by self compassion or simply have a more compassionate view of one’s suffering.

It is in taming the distress of the heart that lowers stress chemicals swirling around the brain and which influences our subsequent attitudes and behaviour.

Recovery is in the heart, in the now, in not reacting but acting. Even if that action is just of observing, paying attention to, having compassion for.

After years of being our own worst enemy, perhaps recovery is the process of becoming our own best friend. 


1. Brooks, M., Kay-Lambkin, F., Bowman, J., & Childs, S. (2012). Self-compassion amongst clients with problematic alcohol use. Mindfulness, 3(4), 308-317.



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.

res images (42)

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.



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?



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

The Family Afterwards…

Today we listen to the research wisdom of William White in relation to family recovery, especially long term.

Family recovery is much overlooked and not adequately supported long term in terms of “after care” which is incredible when one considers that interpersonal factors such as family relationships contribute in a major way to  relapse?

Instead of spending millions upon millions on cue reactivity and attentional bias studies which look at how recovering people are supposedly constantly drawn to alcohol and substance cues in the environment like lemmings to a cliff (when this does not seem particularly evident in the literature, particularly in relation to being relapse factors) or on anti-craving medication when me and scores of other alcoholics and addicts in recovery rarely have these once they have ultimately accepted in our innermost selves that they are alcoholic/addict (and if we do, we can deal with them via our support networks), why does research funding via various funding bodies and various universities not look at the efficacy of supporting families in long term recovery, certainly to around the 3-5 year mark, at the very least?

I suspect one would find that support of family recovery long term, possibly in extended recovery communities, may be the most potent way to assist long term recovery?

Why doesn’t research address what works, and why it works rather than trying to develop the next miracle pill? 

Craving is also a symptom of an underlying condition, it is this condition that recovery should be treating?

We have the solution already? Why not support it to increase it’s efficacy long term?  We, via research and funding, could very possibly increase long term recovery, period.

Just a couple of ideas to put out there?

Back to William White and …

The Ecology of Recovery –  there appears to be a historical shift in recovery away from intrapersonal dynamics to a more interpersonal dynamic. From a recovery within with self, looking at the self,   to a fuller recovery involving others in one’s recovery life such as families and recovery communities.

Family Recovery – if we attend to families at all in recovery, it is brief and very short term. Unfortunately,   research suggests that recovery is actually “horribly destabilising” for families. 

The Trauma of Recovery

Families are at a high risk of disintegrating in the early stages of recovery. So we need to build “support scaffolding” for these families. Recovery  does little to prepare or support families in recovery. Stephanie Brown refers to this as the “trauma of recovery”!  We still do not know the extent of what that means or the extent of our roles in recovery in guiding families, according to William White.

Please also click to this link to watch a series of videos on family recovery by SAMHSA which are very illuminating about the process of recovery and describe a process of recovery I have gone through myself with both my  wife, nuclear and extended families.

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!



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.



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.




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]

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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.

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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]

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