Childhood Maltreatment and later Alcoholism/Addiction

One old timer I know often says two things that I often take issue with – 1. there are as many alcoholisms as alcoholics and that 2. we all come to AA in different boats but end up in the same dock.

Thanks to having a wife in Al Anon I have had the benefit of her insight and from other al-anons who state how remarkably similar we alcoholics are in our behaviour, particularly in dealing/coping with distress and stress, our emotional reactivity and at times immaturity (or so-called defects of character), I disagree that we are so different in our addictive behaviours.

All addictive behaviours from alcoholism, substance addiction, eating disorders to hypersexual disorder seem to be based on an inherent problem with emotion and stress dysregulation.

I believe I have a distress based condition. It results in what appear to be distress based reactions such as perfectionism, distress intolerance and frustration intolerance, normally exemplified in my shouting at my PC when it doesn’t work quickly enough or crashes!

I also believe I have distress based impulsivity, I want that thing, whatever it is, NOW. That anything!

In fact I have noticed when I want something, anything, I end up pathological wanting it in no time at all! It seems then like I NEED it. I too think this is based on distress and heighten stress reactivity.

In fact it is through this pathological wanting that my so-called defects of character that my examples  of emotional dysregulation appear.

If I can’t get what I want, all range of negative emotions spill forth such as intolerance, impatience, arrogance, pride, shame, selfishness etc .  They only appear when I want something and you are getting in the way of me having it!!

So there is a link between my motivation (which is dysregulated due to the effects of chronic stress which turns simple wanting into something more akin to “needing”) and my subsequent emotional dysregulation.

So where does this distress come from? Is it purely the effects of chronic stress dysregulation caused by years of neuro toxic brain damage or does it go back further, into childhood?

I do not think we all have separate alcoholisms, I feel we have remarkably similar reactions to life and these centre on an inherent difficulty regulating stress and emotion.

I also believe we have come to recovery in similar boats. In fact the majority of us have come to recovery in a remarkable similar boat so much so that it would resemble a gigantic ship rather than a boat. That boat is the ship of childhood maltreatment.

Child maltreatment has been frequently identified in the life histories of adolescents and adults in treatment for substance use disorders, as well as in epidemiological studies of risk factors for substance use and abuse.

 Child Maltreatment

One study (1) suggests there is ample evidence exists for higher rates of substance abuse and dependence among maltreated individuals.

In clinical samples undergoing treatment for substance use disorders, between one third and two thirds evince child abuse and neglect histories (Dembo, Dertke, Borders, Washburn, & Schmeidler, 1988Edwall, Hoffman, & Harrison, 1989Pribor & DiWiddie, 1992Schaefer, Sobieragi, & Hollyfield, 1988).

In the US a survey of over 100,000 youth in 6th though 12th grade, Harrison, Fulkerson, and Beebe (1997) Harrison, Fulkerson, and Beebe (1997) found that those reporting either physical or sexual abuse in childhood were from 2 to 4 times more likely to be using drugs than those not reporting abuse; the rates were even higher for youth reporting multiple forms of child maltreatment. Similar findings have been reported by Rodgers et al. (2004) and Moran, Vuchinich, and Hall (2004).

Among youth with Child Protective Services documented maltreatment, Kelly, Thornberry, and Smith (1999) reported one-third higher risk for drug use among those with an abuse history. In a large epidemiological study, Fergusson, Boden, and Horwood (2008) have shown physical abuse and particularly sexual abuse to be related to illicit drug use, as well as abuse and dependence.

Another Study (2) study would suggest the figures are much higher –   data were collected on 178 patients–101 in the United States and 77 in Australia–in treatment for drug/alcohol addiction. The purpose of the study was to determine the degree to which a correlation exists between child abuse/neglect and the later onset of drug/alcohol addiction patterns in the abuse victims. The questionnaire explored such issues as family intactness, parental violence/abuse/neglect, parental drug abuse, sibling relationships and personal physical/sexual abuse histories, including incest and rape. The study determined that 84% of the sample reported a history of child abuse/neglect.

A third study (1) stated that, using the Childhood Trauma Questionnaire-Short Form (CTQ-SF; Bernstein & Fink, 1998; Bernstein et al., 2003) to assess childhood maltreatment in a community sample of active drug users, Medrano, Hatch, Zule, and Desmond (2002) found that 53% of women and 23% of men were sexually abused, 53% of women and 43% of men were physically abused, 58% of women and 39% of men were emotionally abused, 52% of women and 50% of men were physically neglected, and 65% of women and 52% of men were emotionally neglected.

Substance abusers, in addition to having higher rates of childhood maltreatment than members of the general population, have been found to have levels of psychological distress that increase with increasing severity of all types of childhood maltreatment (Medrano et al., 2002). This association is important considering that stress increases an individual’s vulnerability to addiction and addiction relapse (Goeders, 2003; Sinha, 2001;Wills & Hirky, 1996).

There is also evidence that the way in which people cope with stress is related to substance use. For example, researchers have found that greater use of avoidance stress-coping strategies (i.e., disengaging from investing effort to cope with a problem) is related to a greater likelihood of drug use initiation, higher levels of ongoing drug use, and a greater probability of relapse, whereas greater use of active stress-coping strategies (i.e., taking steps to deal with a problem) most consistently functions to protect individuals from substance use initiation and relapse (Wagner, Myers, & McIninch, 1999; Wills & Hirky, 1996).

Childhood maltreatment may influence substance use behavior through its effect on stress and coping. There is emerging evidence that childhood maltreatment may negatively affect the maturation of self-regulatory systems that enable an individual to modulate and tolerate aversive emotional states (Cicchetti & Toth, 2005; Hein, Cohen, & Campbell, 2005). Childhood maltreatment may disrupt neurobiological development and elevate subjective stress by biologically altering the brain’s response to stress (Bugental, 2004;DeBellis, 2002; Heim & Nemeroff, 2001; Heim et al., 2000; Sinha, 2005; Wills & Hirky, 1996). Childhood maltreatment may also affect an individual’s characteristic style of coping with stress so that he or she may be more likely to rely upon maladaptive strategies, such as avoidance of problems, wishful thinking, and social withdrawal, rather than active strategies, such as seeking information and advice from others (Bal, Crombez, Van Oost, & Debourdeaudhuij, 2003; Futa, Nash, Hansen, & Garbin, 2003; Krause, Mendelson, & Lynch, 2003; Leitenberg, Gibson, & Novy, 2004; Thabet, Tischler, & Vostanis, 2004).

Elevated stress and maladaptive coping related to childhood maltreatment may translate to greater substance use behavior by making the coping motives of substance use appear more attractive (Wills & Hirky, 1996). Indeed, substance users commonly report using psychoactive substances such as alcohol, cannabis, and cocaine to cope with stress and regulate affect (Boys, Marsden, & Strang, 2001)

Most cocaine dependent inpatients reported multiple types of childhood maltreatment, and only 15% reported no maltreatment at all, (similar figures to study 2).

“Our findings suggest that the severity of overall childhood maltreatment experienced by recently abstinent cocaine dependent adults has a significant relationship with perceived stress and avoidance coping in adulthood.

Our findings suggest that having a more severe childhood maltreatment history may result in a greater sensitivity to stress…basic coping skills training may not be adequate in decreasing distress and avoidant coping in order to decrease substance use and relapse. Additional interventions that focus on stress tolerance, altering appraisals of stress, stress desensitization, and affect and emotion regulation skills may be of particular benefit to patients with childhood maltreatment histories.

The fact that childhood maltreatment is a preventable phenomenon that occurs early in life and affects psychological functioning well into adulthood makes our findings relevant to clinical practice with children as well. Early identification and treatment of maltreated children may help prevent stress sensitivity or the development of a less adaptive style of coping. Assessment of coping ability and the implementation of coping skills and stress tolerance training may also be indicated for maltreated children in an effort to increase their coping efficacy and decrease their vulnerability to stress later in life.”

I may have been in recovery for a number of years now but coping with stress/distress is still central to my recovery. Dealing with the effects of childhood maltreatment not only via negative self esteem and self schema but in the real sense of coping with every day stress/distress, mainly prompted in my interpersonal relationships (other people!) and with my PC!



1. Rogosch, F. A., Oshri, A., & Cicchetti, D. (2010). From child maltreatment to adolescent cannabis abuse and dependence: A developmental cascade model.Development and psychopathology, 22(04), 883-897.

2. Cohen, F. S., & Densen-Gerber, J. (1982). A study of the relationship between child abuse and drug addiction in 178 patients: Preliminary results. Child Abuse & Neglect, 6(4), 383-387.

3.  Hyman, S. M., Paliwal, P., & Sinha, R. (2007). Childhood maltreatment, perceived stress, and stress-related coping in recently abstinent cocaine dependent adults. Psychology of Addictive Behaviors, 21(2), 233.

Forgiving Others is the Number One Healer!?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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

An Emotional Disease?

Is Addiction an Emotional Disease!?

“Addiction”, is widely viewed as a chronic, relapsing, neurobiological disorder, characterized by compulsive use of alcohol or substances, despite serious negative consequences. It involves both physiological and psychological dependence and leads to the emergence of a negative emotional state.  The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, DSM-5, combines DSM-IV categories of substance abuse and dependence into a single disorder, on a continuum from mild to severe.  The previous definition of addiction by the American Society of Addiction Medicine (ASAM) includes the terms, craving, persistent risk, and emphasizes risk of relapse after periods of abstinence triggered by exposure to substance-related cues and emotional stressors . This conceptualisation points to the role of substance-related cues, e.g., environmental stimuli that are strongly associated with the effects of the administration of substances and acquire incentive salience through Pavlovian conditioning, as well as stress (an internal cue), as major determinants of relapse.

For example in terms of the reasons for relapse implicated in much research, alcoholics relapse due to ‘cue-reactivity’ i.e. they see ‘people, places, or things’ associated with their drinking past and they are drawn to it and simply relapse.

 In some years of recovery, we have rarely heard of a committed abstinent alcoholic addict in recovery who relapsed simply because he/she was lured siren like to some cue associated stimuli. That is not to say cue reactivity is not a valid construct, it is obviously. Recovering alcoholics  exhibit an automatic, that is involuntary,  attentional bias towards drug and alcohol-related “cues”. This is a torturous aspect of early recovery thus most therapeutic regimes advise those in early abstinence and recovery to avoid “people, places and things” that act as  cue-associated stimuli. In fact, some in early recovery do challenge this only to learn painfully as the result by thinking they can spend time, like before, in drinking establishments,  only to find that it is “like sitting in a hairdressors  all day and not expecting to eventually get a haircut!”

A more recent  ASAM definition includes “Addiction is a primary, chronic disease of brain reward, motivation, memory and related circuitry. Dysfunction in these circuits leads to characteristic biological, psychological, social and spiritual manifestations. Addiction is characterized by inability to consistently abstain, impairment in behavioral control, craving, diminished recognition of significant problems with one’s behaviors and interpersonal relationships, and a dysfunctional emotional response.”

We appreciate the role now afforded to “dysfunctional emotional response” in this new definition as we believe it is dysfunctional emotional response which is at the heart of alcoholism and addiction.

Our own experience of recovery, coupled with our neuroscientific research over several years, has  made us curious as why the ways addicts and alcoholics talk about their condition or the explanations they forward all generally point to what they would call an “emotional disease” or “a parasite the feeds on their emotions”, an “emotional cancer” or a “fear based disease” yet these are rarely countenanced in any theory of addiction, whether neurobiological, psychological, psycho-analytical (although there have been very interesting ideas based on attachment within this methodology).

How could addicts and alcoholics be so wrong about themselves and what ails them? Especially when they see it also in hundreds of others with the same condition? We doubt that they are wrong, in fact, we have in recent years taken the opposite approach and started to explore, in terms of research, if addiction and alcoholism, especially, have their roots in emotional dysregulation and emotional processing deficits

In even more recent times, we have been encouraged that these difficulties also shape decision making difficulties, distress based impulsivity (leading to compulsivity) lack of inhibition across various psychological domains, as well as more revealingly the cognitive and executive dysfunctions and ‘flight or flight’ reactions which seem common to this group, over reacting in other words.

There appears to be a short term decision making profile which we suggest is distress based, which implicates more emotive-motoric “automatic,compulsive”regions of the brain rather than goal-directed. A more “let’s do it NOW!”way of making decisions.  This is also seen in children of alcoholics.

Could this be an important vulnerabilty to alcoholism? In order to get this debate going we will now consider whether there are possibilities for re-defining the DSM criterion in relation to the manifest difficulties observed in these clinical groups in relation to emotional dysregulation. The “official” nosology (e.g. DSM IV) is largely limited to physical manifestations of addiction although addicted individuals display additional psychiatric symptoms that affect their well-being and social functioning but which have been relegated to the domain of psychiatric “comorbidity.” 

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. All of which suggests the current DSM based nosology of addiction-related mental comorbidity does not consider the overlap of the biological substrates and neurophysiology of addictive processes and psychiatric symptoms associated with addiction, so fails to include specific mood, anxiety, and impulse control dimensions and decision making difficulties in the psychopathology of addictive processes.

Addiction reaches beyond the mere result of drug-elicited effects on the brain and cannot be peremptorily equated only with the use of drugs despite the adverse consequences produced. Addiction is a relapsing chronic condition in which these psychiatric manifestations play a crucial role. Thus it may be that the aetiology of addiction cannot be severed from its psychopathological underpinning, it’s roots.  In may have been initiated by these mechanisms and also the addiction cycle may be continually perpetuated by them. Particularly in view of the undeniable presence of symptoms, of their manifest contribution to the way addicted patients feel and behave, and to the role they play in maintaining the continued use of substances.

In other words, the latter symptoms frequently precede the addictive process constituting a predisposing psychological background on which substance effects and addictive processes interact, leading to a full-fledged psychiatric disorder. Within the frame of the current DSM, numerous relevant psychiatric issues in substance abuse disorders may have been overlooked.   Even in the absence of psychiatric diagnosis, specific psychological vulnerabilities may constitute a background for the development of  disorders. The neural circuitry implicated in affective reactivity and regulation is closely related to the circuitry proposed to underlie addictive behaviours.  Affect is related to dysfunctional decision-making processes and risky behaviours,  In fact, we suggest these affective processing difficulties cause inherent decision making difficulties and constitute a premorbid vulnerability.

Substance dependence is associated with significant emotional dysregulation that influences cognition via numerous mechanismsThis dysregulation comes in the form of heightened reward sensitivity to drug-related stimuli, reduced sensitivity to natural reward stimuli, and heightened sensitivity of the brain’s stress systems that respond to threats. Such disturbances have the effect of biasing attentional processing toward drugs with powerful rewarding and/or anxiolytic effects. 

Emotional dysregulation can also result in impulsive actions and influence decision-making. It appears clear in addiction and alcoholism (substance dependence)  and that emotional processing significantly impairs cognition in substance dependence. Emotionally influenced cognitive impairments have serious negative effects with both the resultant attentional bias and decision-making deficits being predictive of drug relapse. 

The influence of emotion is clearly detrimental in substance dependence, and many of the detrimental effects observed are due to the ability of drugs of abuse to mimic the effects of stimuli or events that have survival significance. Drugs of abuse effectively trick the brain’s emotional systems into thinking that they have survival significance!

They trick the alcoholic into thinking he needs to drink to survive! 

It is important to note that the neural mechanisms implicated in neurobiological accounts of the transition to endpoint addiction from initial use are also experienced emotionally in human beings, in addicted individuals. That human beings, addicted individuals have to live with these profound alterations and impairments of various regions and neural networks in the brain. And that it is in treating these human manifestation of this neurobiological disease, i.e. one’s “dysfunctional emotional responses” in every day life that is required for long term recovery. We have to manage the emotional difficulties which perpetuate this disease, this “parasite on our emotions”, otherwise these dysfunctional overwhelming emotions manage us.   

It is through this emotional dysregulation that the addiction cycle is experienced and via emotional means perpetuated! It is through living “emotionally light” and spiritually aware lives which help manage our emotions that perpetuate our long term recovery.

Emotional distress is at the heart of addiction and alcoholism, and relief from it on a continually, daily basis is at the heart of recovery.    


American Psychiatric Association (2013). Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (Fifth ed.). Arlington, VA: American Psychiatric Publishing. pp. 5–25.

Pani, Pier Paolo, et al. “Delineating the psychic structure of substance abuse and addictions: Should anxiety, mood and impulse-control dysregulation be included?.” Journal of affective disorders 122.3 (2010): 185-197.

Murphy, A., Taylor, E., & Elliott, R. (2012). The detrimental effects of emotional process dysregulation on decision-making in substance dependence. Frontiers in integrative neuroscience6.

Cheetham, A., Allen, N. B., Yücel, M., & Lubman, D. I. (2010). The role of affective dysregulation. in drug addiction. Clinical Psychology Review30(6), 621-634.