Processing the Past via the action steps, 4-12!

 

 

Processing the Past via the actions steps, 4-12!

by alcoholicsguide

How The Alcoholics Anonymous’ program of action helps with emotional dysregulation.

When I first came into recovery I was surprised how much more time I spent embroiled in thinking about past incidents and how I had numerous murderous resentments  about people who had supposedly done me wrong, than I did thinking about drinking.

The thought of drinking terrified me rather than enticed me. Fortunately it also made be nauseous and fortunately still does. A full year of vomiting on an empty stomach, throughout each and every interminable day and night, has had some aversion like effect.

I had literally hundreds of thoughts and negative emotions about the past streaming through and around my aching head and piercing my heart. They were like toxic mind darts that flipped my guts and almost made me physically ill. Even thinking back now makes me feel queasy.

It was a constant state of emotional distress, those early days of recovery.

I was shocked as the weeks trudged on painfully that I seemed to have problems other than the drink. I was reassured by many other AAs in meetings when they shared about how difficult life was on life’s terms – how they struggled with resentments and fears and their “emotional disease”. I was was glad it wasn’t just me.

I had finally found a club where I fitted in! After all these years. In fact most people I drank with were also alcoholic! So I have always sought the company of my own. I thought we could only be found in pubs! And here we had rooms of them talking about trying to stay “emotionally sober”. It wasn’t just sobriety it had to be emotional sobriety. I was, through my fading eyesight and mercifully abating alcoholic psychosis, greatly intrigued by this. My life, and their lives, had become unmanageable, they said,  not just because of the drink, but because of some underlying condition.

I was especially interested in why I was so cursed by memories of my past. Why hadn’t they gone away? Why had they come back so prolifically in early recovery. The alcohol must have keep some of them suppressed, at bay. Now they were teeming through, poisoning my mind just as effectively as any alcoholic withdrawal or rattling hangover ever did. It was difficult not to somehow see these rampant, rampaging negative thoughts and emotions as akin to a disease. When they spoke of spiritual disease, it seemed to describe what was happening in my head.

I have “done” the steps three times and each time has offered more insight into this spiritual malady which I call an emotional disease. Why? Well because the sure sign of a spiritual malady, I believe,  is the expression and lack of control over negative emotions. The emotional lability and volatility. The bad temperedness, the indignition at life’s flaws, the perfectionism, the need to control, the righteous anger. We sin via these negative emotions. Have you ever heard of someone sinning via positive emotions? “Yes he wronged me by being so kind and generous, thoughtful and loving, to hell with that man!” So why are we so scared of the e word, emotion.

We sin via, or have defects of character which are, negative expressions of emotion. Intolerance, or impatience, selfishness, fear based dishonesty and so on. All expressions of distress. A fear based illness?  I like the term defect of character because it suggests sometime intrinsic to alcoholics. I call this inherent aspect of this condition called alcoholism, emotional regulation and processing difficulties.

In this blog I will attempt to explain how the 12 steps of AA, principally the action steps 4 through to 12, have not only connected me with a power greater than myself  but they continue to treat, on a daily basis, my unmanageability.  An  unmanageability caused inherently by my difficulties processing and regulating emotions.

 

12 steps pic

 

I have looked hard for supporting evidence to substantiate what I am about to write and found this link to an interesting piece on the use of EMDR and other therapies in treating the unprocessed emotions caused by emotional dysregulation in those who suffer from trauma. I have used aspects of this to make it applicable to alcoholics. I believe profoundly that steps 4-12 facilitate a profound alteration in our ability to regulate and process emotions.

Steps 4 -7,  in particular help us to embed the numerous unprocessed memories from childhood onwards, that all seem to have been tied together in a terrible mnemonic mesh by aspects of emotional dysregulation such as resentments.  It is in addressing all these that we finally process these associated negative emotions in our memory banks and finally embed all these memories in long term memory.

In short, the Steps allow us to adaptively and healthily process our disturbed pasts. They also allow us to maintain a health and adaptive emotional regulation  on a daily basis and via steps 10-12 in particular allow us to greatly improve our emotional regulation.

I am not rewriting the Big Book of AA here, only to add another angle to understanding it and how it works, so that others in related therapeutic fields can have some insight into how it may work and those who need help feel more inclined to come to AA for help.

http://www.thebody.com/content/art48754.html   – Refer also to the work of Francine Shapiro (1) and her work which shaped development of the EMDR therapy which treats trauma (PTSD) and other disorders. I know it works for PTSD as my wife suffered PTSD after a car accident, and was greatly helped by this type of treatment. It is Shapiro’s insight into the role of unprocessed emotions in causing emotional volatility and a “volcano of unresolved distressing effects” (2) and that  chronic dysfunctional perceptions, responses, attitudes, self-concept, and personality traits are all symptoms of unprocessed memories (3) that shapes my thinking, partly, on how the steps allow us to put the past to bed.

I have to add also that I believe myself to be a sufferer of PTSD also. I have stressed that alcoholism is a psychiatric disorder in it’s own right but would never be silly enough to suggest it does not have co-occurring disorders such as PTSD, as the result of abuse and trauma in earlier life experience. Especially as there as up to 2/3s of dependent people may have had abuse in their early lives and that PTSD sufferers have up to a 50 % co-morbidity with alcoholism and addiction. Perhaps this is why this work by Shapiro strikes a cord with me. I think it is naive to say that abusive early life does not play a role in alcoholism and addition and that this environmental influence on genetic inheritance (alcoholism has a a generic heritability of some 50 – 70% making one of the most inheritable disorders). In other words, some 50 – 70% of alcoholics have alcoholism in their genes.

Throughout our lives, we all experience significant events that impact our perceptions of the world and determine how we interpret and respond to future experiences. These moments represent painful experiences so severe that they overwhelm our ability to cope with the rush of thoughts and feelings they elicit and If left unresolved, these feelings can persist for years in unprocessed emotions.

As a general rule, anything destructive that is left untreated — disease, trauma, stress, psychological disorders, addiction — can become progressively worse over time. Coming to terms with the past is often referred to as “integration,”  of these errant unprocessed emotions and achieving resolution. One way this resolution can be accomplished is by verbally and somatically (by being aware of how they affect one bodily) reprocessing these, like in step 5 when discussing one’s inventory, and the rewards can be transformative.

Mental networks contain visual images of the previous experiences  as well as related thoughts, emotions, and sensations. Previous experiences — including every physical sensation, every emotion, and every perception or interpretation — are encoded and stored in the brain and throughout the body. The processing of information about previous events may be incomplete, perhaps because the person has not developed the emotional or mental faculties to effectively manage or correctly interpret the situation (often the case with children who have faced abuse, trauma, insecure attachment to caregivers) or because processing is hindered by strong negative feelings (such as shame, helplessness, and denial) which I believe may be the consequence of emotional dysregulation.

images (3)

 

The memory of the previous experiences can  therefore be improperly stored without appropriate associative connections and with many elements still unprocessed. This incomplete processing prevents the forging of connections with more adaptive information or new learning which might help the person release the abusive, traumatising, misrepresented, resented, emotionally dysregualted and unprocessed experiences from the past. Finally when we do process these experiences then we can consign them to, embed them, happily in long term memory.

In a previous blog we say how one maladaptive emotional regulations strategies that of self elaboration, where one regulates a negative emotional experience by filtering in through the self and then elaborating on this in a ruminating manner, i.e. only seeing an event in relation to themselves, in self- reference (similar to a resentment)  and that our minds in early recovery are thus filled with these unprocessed memories as the consequence of this type if emotional dysregulation which filtered everything through a self centredness. In many cases we began to see in our step 4 inventory that it was often our emotional dysregultation that caused others to act in certain ways which we interpret, whether for valid reasons or not, in a self centred and distorted way which was base on emotional reasoning. These unprocessed emotions and memories thus lingered on in our minds for decades, festering as resentments and fuelling our drinking and drug use.

Doesn’t Step 4 allow us to record these unprocessed memories, get them down in black and white, with the unprocessed emotions, the resentments and other negative unprocessed emotions, such as anger, fear, selfishness, self-centredness, dishonesty and son on.  Doesn’t it let us use our proper reasoning to see through our purely emotional reasoning?

Don’t we start to process these emotions and thus the attached memories by verbalizing them in a therapeutic sense to our sponsors, mentors, respected religious or spiritual guides, counsellors etc? Don’t we learn to see what has kept us enslaved in feelings of injustice, resentment, of being wronged? Doesn’t it help us see how our emotional dysregulation distorts our perception of reality, and leads to a negative bias in our thinking about life and the people in it? Doesn’t it show us our underlying problem, our underlying psychiatric condition, which the steps helps us then to manage, to help us become manageable. We are not powerless over alcohol when we manage our negative emotions.

The Steps 6 and 7 allow us to have these removed. I believe God remove my many previous unprocessed emotions and memories, helped me consign then to the past and my long term memory. They did not go into ether as i fist thought, but into were processed in long term memory. This is no way lessens the Grace of God or his mercy.  He helps me do what i cannot, He goes deep! Steps 8 and 9 process these emotions even more via making amends for our wrongdoings and getting rid of the potential distress associated with unresolved situations from our past.  The final recognition of the effects our emotional dysregulation has had on our wider community.

Aren’t the steps, primarily to help us manage our emotional dysregulation?

Isn’t this what was unmanageable? Wasn’t it this which gave King Alcohol power over us? Doesn’t the AA program of action help us in a similar way EMDR does with trauma victims?

Step 10 helps us on a daily basis look out for manifestations and examples on how we hurt others with our lack of control over our negative emotional response, our dysfunctional emotional response. It gives us a way to examine and process these emotions and to take action to apologise to those who experienced this emotional volatility. It helps encourage positive, healthy, adaptive emotional expression.

Step 11 helps us self soothe and this helps our emotional regulation, meditation improves  and strengthens the very brain areas which regulate emotion, the dlPFC and ACC, which help control our anxious amygdala, the very the heart of all distress.  And via Step 12 we regulate our emotions in one of the most profound ways possible by helping others. By showing love. There is little dyregulation in love, the most healthy of human  emotional expression. ..and in all our affairs! We do not become intolerance of other is upholding “Principles not personalities”

Love contains the positive assets hopefully also listed in your inventories; selfishness, consideration, patience, tolerance etc  – the aspects of healthy emotional being. Perhaps this is another reason why Step 12 is so profound in helping us manage the unmanageability of our emotional dysregulation.

And fellowship itself, gives us an “earned attachment” especially when many of us had insecure attachments with our parents, grew up in dysfunction, disrupted families, in abuse or trauma. It helps us finally “belong”.  Fellowship  allows us perhaps to express our emotions fully for the first time, allows us to verbalize our concerns and feelings, label them for the first time, regulate and process them. Provides a safe environment in which to emotionally mature. The list goes on and on. AA gives us loving feedback, nurtures us, nourishes us.  Home groups with regular members over many years obviously aid this process of caring and mutual self growth.

It has become more clear while writing this how AA manages this emotional disease we call alcoholism.

The AA program of action helps us change how we feel and think about the world.

References

1. Shapiro, F. EMDR Therapy: Adaptive Information Processing, Clinical Applications and Research Recommendations.

2. Courtois, C. A., & Ford, J. D. (Eds.). (2009). Treating complex traumatic stress disorders: An evidence-based guide. New York, NY: Guilford Press.

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

Some references to follow.

Do you have Emotional Regulation Difficulties!?

Emotions have always troubled me! I have always found them frightening, always had difficulties labeling and controlling them. I have always seemed to put in an extra effort to keep them in check.

I have recently read a very good chapter from a book (1) which looks at emotional regulation and the role it seems to play in psychopathology. In fact, it is my view that emotional dysregulation  lies at the heart of alcoholism, initiates, sustains and perpetuates this chronic disease state.

It was thus illuminating to see that emotional dysregulation is cited as being present in some 75% of disorders listed in The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, DSM-5.

Alcohol Dependence in the DSM has a narrow definition, I believe, of alcoholism as mentioned in previous blogs. It relegates all manifestation of emotional, mood, impulse difficulties to that of “co-morbidities” which means it thinks there is a difficulty with unregulated drinking but the unregulated thinking, emotions and impulsive behaviour it relegates to being the consequence of a co-occurring condition such as anxiety disorder, depression, post traumatic stress disorder and so on. This is not to say that some of these conditions do not co-occur with alcoholism. PTSD and alcoholism co-occur quite frequently.

What I am saying is that a number of conditions/disorders attributed to alcoholism as a co-morbidity may not be co-morbidities at all, for some. They may be aspects of this psychiatric disorder I call alcoholism.

Although the relationship of these psychiatric symptoms with addiction is very close, substance abuse may modify pre-existing psychic structures and lead to addiction as a specific mental disorder, inclusive of symptoms pertaining to mood/anxiety, or impulse control dimensions, decision making difficulties or, as we suggest, the various characteristics of emotional dysregulation.

See blogs for more An Emotional Disease? and Current Definitions of Addiction – how accurate are they?

I do not want to rehash arguments mentioned elsewhere on this blog (especially as I want to discuss some emotional regulation difficulties I find are very pertinent to my alcoholism and maybe to yours?) Particularly “self elaboration” which seems to be at the heart of my alcoholism and appears very similar to the alcoholic mentioned in the Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous.

Emotions are important in readying behavioral, motor,

and physiological responses, in facilitating decision making, in enhancing memory for important events, and for negotiating interpersonal relationships.

But emotions can also hurt as well as help! Emotions are  not always helpful!

Psychopathology is largely characterised by excessive negative emotion.  In those with emotional dysregulation,  emotional regulation strategies helpful in childhood are now unhelpful in adulthood,  such as use of an avoidant coping style where they down play threat and suppress feelings. This may have helped in surviving an abusive childhood but is not conducive to intimate adult relationships.

Another difficulty is not allowing a primary emotional response to proceed but instead suppressing it or resisting it e.g it is not okay for me to feel angry at my dying mother. Thereby, creating a maladaptive secondary emotional response e.g. guilt.

Secondary responses for resisted emotions coming from emotions
are experienced as anxiety producing, as reflected in rigid attentional
processes, lack of acceptance, and the activation of negative beliefs about emotions.

In order to ascertain if your emotional regulation is adaptive answer the questions below (and refer perhaps to your early recovery too!)

Do you not immediately react to the external situation or to one’s internal primary emotional response, but pause for a moment and give oneself some breathing room? Thus allowing  space for the emotion to begin to arise free of immediate avoidance (e.g., cognitive, behavioral, or emotional avoidance), immediate resistance (e.g., “I shouldn’t want to feel this way”), or impulsive behavioural reaction (e.g reacting angrily or fearfully)?

Are you aware of your primary emotional response and be able to identify what emotion one is having in order to effectively control it?

Can you determine how controllable the situation that
caused the emotion is and how controllable one’s internal reaction to the situation?

For situations or internal thoughts or emotions that are out of one’s control, adaptive regulation is to accept the situation and experience . This is common to most therapeutic regimes.

Finally,  how well do you  inhibit/control inappropriate or impulsive behaviors when experiencing negative emotions?

All of the above, from a personal perspective, have improved the longer I have been in recovery. Although tiredness, or distress can prompt a quick return to emotional dysregulation.

Emotion regulatory strategies

The two regualtory strategies are two that most apply to me as an alcoholic. Attentional Deployment and Cognitive Change

See if they relate to you too, or to a loved one.

Attentional Deployment

Specific forms of maladaptive attentional deployment include rumination, distraction and worry.

Rumination typically involves repetitive attentional focus on feelings associated with negative events, along with a negative evaluation of their consequences. It has been associated with increased levels of negative emotion. Rumination is constantly implicated in alcoholism.

We discuss this and catastrophizing in later blogs.

Cognitive Change

Before a situation that is attended to gives rise to emotion, the situation needs to be judged as important to one’s goals (i.e., appraisal).This stage of imbuing a situation with meaning can be influenced if one wishes to change the trajectory of the emotional response.

Cognitive change refers to changing how we appraise a situation to alter its emotional significance.

Two categories of reappraisals associated with psychopathology are (1) self-elaboration (e.g. “Others must think poorly of me”) and (2) emotional resistance/non acceptance of one’s current emotional experience (e.g., “I shouldn’t feel bad” ).

I personally find this “self elaboration” very applicable to myself as an alcoholic,  this ” the self in reference to a situation can substantially increase the duration and complexity of emotional responses.” 

For example, instead of my negative thoughts and feelings being processed and put to bed, they can be reignited throughout the day and can leave me feeling negative for hours afterward rather than just for the period following whatever incident provoked this emotional response initially.

This and other maladaptive emotional regulation strategies like rumination are shared with other disorders such as depression but this doesn’t mean they are the same disorders or that they co-occur. They are disorders which share common emotional dysregulation but ultimately have different behavioural manifestation.

They are not co-morbid but similar in certain ways but not all.

Back to self elaboration  –  Following my lack of appropriate emotional response above, I may feel negative the rest of the day, I may decide to ruminate, or complain  or bitterly gossip with others,  I may exhibit all the “defects of character” that came out in my step four inventory, such as pride, arrogance, intolerance, self-centredness, selfishness, anger, resentment, fear, dishonesty and so, all of which I feel are secondary emotional responding or emotional cascades. In fact, I believe step four through to seven helped me process the various episodes of emotional dysregulation I had running around my head and tearing at my heart for the thirty odd years prior to doing the steps.

The more I gossip and backbite, the more I think the person who “wronged me” is incompetent, it’s all his fault, my feelings are down to him! He caused this distress didn’t he?  The injustice of it all!! These thoughts will reignite other emotions and thoughts – I should have stuck up for my self – guilt and this situation could be serious – fear.  And so the cascade continues.

“I wonder if others think the same way about me, perhaps they don’t like me, perhaps I am not very popular!? – shame, self pity and  maybe I am just not very lovable – despair ” and then it can delve into my distant past to my childhood, “well this is how my mother acted sometimes, maybe it is just me ! I’m the problem!”

It is difficult not to see this self-assassination as anything other than emotional dysregulation. My thinking, based on negative emotions, running away with themselves and increasing these negative emotions which then increased by distorted thinking, until “to hell with it, I’m not worth it, let’s get drunk!”

My emotional dysregulation is linked to a heightened reward sensitivity, I really like things that soothe my emotions like drink and  drugs and I used them to regulate my emotions. I did not ruminate forever as in depression, I fixed it my external means, I consumed things and they change how I felt.

This makes my condition different to depression although plenty of depressives drink and abuse drugs. For me this heightened reward sensitivity meant I enjoyed them a whole lot more, got a whole lot out of them and decided that they would be part of how I dealt with things, emotions, life.

Our abnormal rejection to drink and drugs is a big part of our condition, our psychopathology, our psychiatric disorder. It has similarities with other conditions based on emotional dysregulation but it is also very different, That is why it demands a different treatment.

The wrong treatment will not Work!

The self elaboration means that I would consider many  imagined scenarios all in relation or in reference to my self.  The self has to be involved. Unfortunately this elaborates the meaning of my emotional responses and the emotional responses. All of a sudden  there is a soap opera running in my head, a committee of wrongdoings, soon becoming a psycho drama. A friend of mine in AA calls it travelling via his intergalactic armchair!

Ruminating on things that did not occur as we think, will not occur as we think and have only caused a temporary insanity.

How is this not a psychiatric disorder!?

The emotions get increasing intense and proliferate. A many headed monster.

All usually because of my initial misperception of something that probably did not occur!

 

References

Werner, K., & Gross, J. J. (2010). Emotion regulation and psychopathology: A conceptual framework.