Getting To The Roots of All Our Troubles


Below is my feature article for Keys to Recovery Newspaper.

This article address how 12 step recovery treats the emotional disorder which underpins the “spiritual malady” that drives alcoholism.


“My alcoholism almost killed me. It was only when my wife withdrew from me after she had exhausted all possibilities to try and help me—taking me to mental health professionals but with no success—that I asked her for the first time for help and she took me to my first AA meeting and booked me into a treatment center.

The professionals would treat me for something other than alcoholism, wondering if my drinking was linked to some other mental health issue. They all failed to see that the mental health issue that I was suffering from, and that was going to kill me quicker than any other possible disorder, was my chronic alcoholism.

They had very little idea of what alcoholism is. Most people in the world do not know what alcoholism or addiction is. They do not believe it is a condition that worsens and progresses neurobiologically in the brain over time.

Many in recovery are not completely sure what they suffer from and many coming into recovery are put off by the imprecise definitions they are met with. We still use a definition of alcoholism from 1935. It works—and that is the main thing—in treating alcoholism. It saved my life and gave me all I have but it does not explain all I suffer from and all that has threatened my recovery via relapse.

The professionals thought that by treating my other conditions it would alleviate the severity of my drinking.
They seemed to have little idea that my drinking was also partly the result of my brain having been changed due to the chronically high consumption of alcohol and other drugs.

They appeared to have little awareness that copious amounts of neurotoxic substances alter and damage the brain. They seemed to be of the idea that my ‘alcohol abuse’ was the result of something else, although 50-60 % of alcoholism is genetically inherited, making it one of the most genetically inherited conditions there is! I am
not saying that there aren’t other conditions, co-occurring conditions, which have contributed to the severity of my
alcoholism and addiction, like various tributaries running
into the same river.

In fact, I suffer from other mental conditions that existed
prior to and still run alongside my alcoholism and addiction.
Namely, complex PTSD and attachment trauma.

Mental health professionals do not seem to successfully
treat the most urgent problem very well, the alcoholism
and addiction. They seem, like most of the world I believe,
to be unaware that addiction and alcoholism become
permanently ingrained in the brain.

“Once an alcoholic always an alcoholic,” I have found to be true and science, in particular, neuroscience, which is the study of the brain,
shows this too. Once you have become a pickled gherkin
you will never be a cucumber again!

Science is catching up with what AA and other 12 step
groups and treatment centers have known for decades.

It has caught up with the idea that the condition of addiction
is ‘progressive.’ It only gets worse, not better, over
time. However, it can be managed and treated.

People in recovery are doing this, sometimes very successfully and
have lives they could not have dreamt of, regardless of still having this permanent and ongoing condition of the brain.

I believe my condition of alcoholism and addiction is ingrained in various parts of the brain that are connected to self-regulation such as emotion, motivation, memory and so on. When we are in emotional distress, our addiction becomes activated and acts like a ‘parasite’ on these parts of the brain that deal with ‘self.’ Distress activates addiction like a parasite—via our genes—which activates, for example, our memories to remember the good times when we drank, or activates our motivation to want more, more, more.

It also activates our emotional networks to make us feel bad or our self-schema, to think we are worthless.

This is addiction and it reflects how our brains became conditioned by addiction. Addiction has shaped our brains to do its bidding. Our addiction became a compulsion, which is an automatic behavior to relieve distress. It was not the substance that did the ‘thinking’ at the end of our addiction—it was distress. The thrill had long gone!

In early recovery, in particular, it is distress that leads us back.
We have to find a way of dealing with this distress in recovery.
My way was the 12 step program of recovery.

The longer we are in recovery, the more subtle the addictive voice becomes. Sometimes it lives on via ‘workaholism’ or too much food, porn, shopping, eating. All activated by emotional distress acting like a parasite on the brain networks regulating our ‘self.’

One solution is thus to get out of ‘self,’ to get out of having this distress. This is at the heart of 12 step recovery. I suggest getting out of self is done via a number of methods in 12 step recovery
such as: helping others, prayer, meditation.

There are also some ways of getting out of self which address the condition that seems to underlie our ‘spiritual malady,’ what I
call my ‘emotional disease’ of alcoholism.

In recovery, I have been given a toolkit to deal with me, ‘my self’—a toolkit I never had before. I was never taught by my family how to cope with me, how to deal with my emotions. My emotions have always disturbed me and I have always sought to escape them, to control them externally, via external means such as sweets, cigarettes, girls, and gambling, sport, deviant behavior and
then, in my mid-teens, via drink, drugs, and sex.

I was always fixing my feelings via something outside of myself
and the substituting of negative emotion with positive feelings of pleasure. I had this constant feeling of emotional distress even then, because of not being able to deal with my emotions, which would always impulsively lead me to fix my feelings

I have always had a limited ability to identify, label, process and regulate my emotions. I do not really have the fully developed brain networks that deal with controlling my own emotions.

Emotions can be undifferentiated and distressing to me as I am not sure what I am feeling and this creates an unpleasant feeling I try to escape. I acted out on this through impulsive and then, later in life,
compulsive behaviors. This is also called alexithymia, the impaired ability to identify, label and process emotion.

This alexithymia can be influenced by growing up in a traumatic or abusive environment or it can be genetically inherited
by a combination of both.

The vast majority of alcoholics have alexithymia.

My spiritual malady, as mentioned in 12 step recovery, has always been there too. In fact, I think my spiritual malady grows out of my emotional disease. If I can’t control my emotions it is then difficult
to live life on life’s terms. When I came into recovery I was shocked by how I could not control, or even read, my emotions.

In AA they say that people stay at the same emotional age as when they started drinking. I used to think this about me too but now I am not of this view. I think I never had the ability to read my emotions and tell another person how I feel. Fortunately, much of the program of 12 step recovery can help with this alexithymia
as well as the resultant spiritual malady.

Although I would also recommend outside professional help for co-occurring disorders, as I have benefited from outside therapeutic help for complex PTSD. My co-occurring conditions have threatened
my recovery and needed to be addressed as a result.

The 12 steps clear away the ‘wreckage of the past’ and allow us to make amends for past wrongs which is a massive exercise
in emotion regulation of past events. It emotionally relieves us of the distress we carried from our past lives. It allows us to
forgive which also helps in processing the emotions attached to the wrongs we experienced. It gives us a clear slate emotionally.

Step Ten allows us to regulate emotions by keeping this slate clean on a daily basis.

Another excellent technique for regulating emotion is sharing at meetings which allow us to talk through emotional issues—often to emotional resolution—to trust in a Higher Power and accepting that
things are as they should be (not how we want them to be!) All these are vital to recovery.

‘Wanting’ brings a whole host of emotional difficulties such as distress, selfishness, greed, gluttony, as well as other negative emotions/sins/shortcomings as it activates the ‘parasite’ that feeds on motivation and wanting.

Another very important technique in 12 step recovery is the use of a sponsor.

I will now explain how talking to a sponsor on a regular basis helps perfectly with treating our alexithymia.

In alexithymia, we have only developed two levels out of five in the development of our ability to process emotion.

According to one model, these levels include: awareness of physical
sensations, sensorimotor reflexive (level 1); sensorimotor action tendencies (level 2); single emotions (level 3); blends of emotions (level 4); and the capacity to appreciate complexity in the experiences of self and others, (level 5).

Those with alexithymia are usually stuck on the first two basic levels, being moved into action by emotion, which ties in with me as a young person being compelled to fix unpleasant feelings via action, externally. This was partly because I could not get to level three, identifying emotion—not to mention blends of emotions—and certainly not their complexity.

The magic of recovery is that ringing my sponsor and discussing my feelings allows me to process all these levels. Levels I cannot always do by myself!

When we ring our sponsor it is usually because we have a resentment against someone or something and it has resulted in our thinking going awry. We are usually in emotional distress. When talking to our sponsor, we can often identify an emotion (level
3) or character defects like shame, pride or guilt.

We can explore what we actually feel and this can often be linked to other emotions and feelings we have had about related themes and incidents—incidents we were not aware of as related (level 4).
We can also discuss the other person’s perspective and increase our understanding of self and also of others (level 5). This can help with other matters like empathy and forgiveness.

When we process emotion properly, the events that inspired distress are lodged away in our memory banks and are no longer swirling around in our minds. Most of the 12 step program of recovery is about doing this: processing our troublesome emotions and filing away their related memories (cleaning the slate).

Talking to a sponsor is also like a step 5 or a daily step 10.
Gratitude also helps in the regulation of emotion. We are happy with what we have, not distressed by what we want.
Practically all 12 step recovery is a program for growing emotionally, changing our emotional brains in the process.

Belonging to a 12 step group helps with attachment issues, increasing our sense of belonging, which relieves distress and
helps to regulate our emotions too.

In spiritual terms, 12 step recovery ‘restores us to sanity’ by spiritual and psychological processes which allow us to fully process emotion. It is the emotional distress which activates our spiritual malady and addictive behavior.

Treating this distress via effective processing of emotion allows us to root out the cause of all our troubles.”


About the author

Paul Henry lives in Wales, UK and has been in recovery for over 12 years. He completed various degrees in recovery, including
one in Psychology which led to him being a Ph.D. candidate in Neuroscience.

Paul is a published author in an academic journal and writes for ‘Inside the Alcoholic Brain’ and ‘The Alcoholic’s Guide to Alcoholism.’
He writes about how the brain is altered prior to, and after, addictive behavior; how this alteration remains in recovery and how it needs to be managed by spiritual practices, one day at the time.

For more information
please visit these websites:


He’ll Be Back


This is an oil painting expressing emotional co-dependency in a dysfunctional relationship especially as it pertains to alcoholism.

I think there is a condition called para-alcoholism whereby the partners of alcoholics become emotionally drunk and deluded in their thinking. They believe they are better and more in control than their alcoholic partners whereas in reality the abnormal conditions of living with an alcoholic have existed for so long they become the normal state of affairs. The abnormal becomes normal.

We all get lost in alcoholism, partners, wives, husbands, children, family and friends. It is a fog thrown over many.

The partner in the painting is convinced her partner will return after yet another heated argument. That he has no where else to go.

She clings to this smug realisation. He Needs Her. Without realising he is her addiction.

That is alcoholism, para alcoholism and addiction – another slide into ever  degrading moral, spiritual,  emotional and psychological well being,.

We walk hand and hand into that hell.



This Fleshy Hunger

This Fleshy Hunger refers to that craving that consumes a man and takes up all his thoughts and possesses him with one intent, to satisfy those desires.
The title is a term used to describe sex addiction but it could also describe various pathological yearnings.
The man is no longer in his home, or even in his own mind and body. He is elsewhere, in a manic reverie, in another imagined place.
He looks insane, possessed, in his imaginary relish and exquisite torture.



Do we have to Hit Rock Bottom to Recover?

The Alcoholics Guide to Alcoholism

There has been much recent debate about whether a person has to hit rock bottom in under to surrender and start recovering, whether one has to go to the bitter end before surrendering to the recover process.

My own experience shows  that we have to concede to our inner selves that we are alcoholic and that we need help from others.

For me it was a “last gasper” rock bottom for many it was a low bottom, I had lost practically everything and for some they had lost little compared to me but they had seen the road ahead and realised it was not going to get any better without accepting help.

This shows there is more to alcoholism than alcohol, that these people realised their negative behaviours and their consequences were causing them as much distress as their drinking. They did not like who they were becoming or the…

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Nearly Everything Hari thinks He Knows About Addiction is Wrong!

The Legacy of Vietnam Re-examined

It is clear that the idea of addiction Hari forwards is without any foundation or substance in relation to the research carried out on Vietnam Veterans over the succeeding decades.

The vast majority of Vietnam Veterans did not come back to the US and suddenly give up drugs and their addictions. This is a myth pushed by Hari for whatever reasons, only he can say?

The vast majority of Vietnam veterans came back from Vietnam to a frequently hostile or indifferent homecoming, some 12% and then 25% continued to abuse illegal drugs, while many others suffered PTSD and drug and alcohol use disorders.

Added together, in even a conservative estimate, it appears that the majority of Vietnam veterans continued to not only have addiction issues but also cross addicted to other substances and alcohol and present as having co-morbid conditions such as PTSD. They also suffered more in terms of suicide ideation and actual suicide than the normal population, had more unemployment, divorce and family related difficulties….

Inside The Alcoholic Brain

The Rat Park of Vietnam and Beyond


The videos below have been doing the facebook and twitter rounds, often accompanied by this Ted talk by Johann Hari

Essentially these videos suggest addiction is caused solely by environment.

The idea that addiction is caused solely by environment will be critiqued here principally in relation to the example presented in these videos to support their theory of addiction, namely that the vast majority of Vietnam soldiers returning home to the US after service who were previously “addicted” to narcotics, mainly heroin, stopped using heroin when they returned home, never used heroin again and essentially become de-addicted as the consequence of changing environment.

Their “addiction”, in other words, was contextual and related to the environment in which they abused heroin and became “addicted”.  I put addicted in inverted commas as many people meet diagnostic criterion for substance use disorders at some stage in their life…

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Self Compassion Eases the Distress at the Heart of Addiction

This blog was just linked to by an article in The Huffington Post – so good enough for then, good enough to get a reblog! 🙂

Inside The Alcoholic Brain

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…

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Change of Heart

Just to clarify I will be on a long term break from blogging about research, namely the neuropsychology of addictive behaviour and recovery.

I have found research quite obsessive and difficult not to get kinda addicted to it. I need to step away from it I think.

I have done enough research in 6 years to write three PhDs and a few books.

After a rest period, however, I will be returning to blog about my experience of recovery and helping others in recovery – that is my 6 month project moving forward.

In order to do this properly I have to  lay the ground work.

Basically I have to accept that my recovery has gone off beam and that I need to go back to recovery basics myself in many ways.


It is a rare sign of humility for me, appreciating I need a good tune up.

I need to tighten my belt and start spending more time working with others. Especially those in early recovery. In order to be of service to them I need to get myself in fitter spiritual condition.

I did not realise how much my blogs mean to other people which is very humbling so I will continue with this project say from July to December, so hang in there as there will be lots more blogs on the experience of recovery, coming after a rest period to get back to a fitter spiritual condition.

Thank you


Adieu for Now

Special notice to say that is me for now – I am taking time out.

Six years of constant research has left me tired and in need of a change in my life. I need to get more hands on in helping others.

I am leaving behind a library of info on my blogs which I will maintain long term – all one needs to essentially know about the neuropsychology of addictive behaviour and recovery I believe is there if one roots around – dealing with distress via serenity is the key ultimately.

Hopefully I have helped shine some light on how recovery changes the brain for the better – ultimately long term recovery involves the rational management of our, at times, errant emotions and accompanying cognitive distortions.

Hopefully I have also shown some ways this can be achieved in recovery.

Recovery is possible and even long lasting if one works at it.

We have a distress based condition which requires constant management, a head that can run away with itself and have to be retrieved via letting go of self willed distress and errant thinking. Recovery is a process which can only happen one day at a time.

So we have all only got today.

May this day be filled with serenity, the perfect antidote to distress and with love for the people in your people with hopefully some for yourself too.

Feeling good about yourself, giving yourself a break, are good ways to recover a sense of self that is not distorted and jaundiced by our addiction.

We may have addicted brains but we can have recovering minds which can create for us a life we could never have envisaged

So one step in front of the other and let recovery take you somewhere you have never been before, become a person you have never know nor been before.

God bless all of you on your life journeys, in your recovery discoveries.

Have courage, hope and faith and all will be well!

Thank you for reading, commenting on and following my work. I have enjoyed getting to know some of you and I wish you all well in our lives, your recoveries and in your journeys of discovery.

If you need to contact me I am on facebook and twitter.

Paul x

Powerless over Thinking!

When I first came into recovery I would be plagued by intrusive thoughts about drinking, I would have thoughts about drinking, at certain times of the day in particular, on sunny days etc.

These thoughts used to greatly distress me and I would end fighting with these thoughts which only seemed to make things worse, the thoughts seem to increase rather than decrease and I got increasingly distressed.

I had no control over these thoughts and would get into a terrible emotional state over this. All before I decided it was now a good time to ring my sponsor. I always waited until I was in as much emotional pain as possible before ringing my sponsor!

I thought I could go it alone – that I did not need any help. I was in control of this.

Geez, surely I could control my own thoughts for flips sake!

Hmmm…afraid not!?

In early recovery I was as powerless over thinking as well as my drinking.

It was obvious I had lost control of my thinking like my drinking – it took a lot longer (and I still forget this even today!) to realise I have no  control over my thinking.

It chatters away regardless of my will, my wishes. It I have found is not usually a friend.

So like everything else in recovery I decided to research this! To find out why my thinking seemed out to get me, to negatively affect my recovery. To find out why my thinking did not seem to help me in recovery.

I found out that the idea that abstinence will automatically also decrease alcohol-related intrusive thoughts had been dismissed by research and vast anecdotal evidence.

Practically all therapies for alcoholism e.g  AA, SMART and so on suggest that urges create automatic thoughts about drinking.

This has been demonstrated in research that distress automatically gives rise to intrusive thoughts about alcohol. (1) This reflects emotional dysregulation as these intrusive thoughts are correlated to emotional dysregulation (2).

These thoughts to the recovering/abstinent individual can be seen as egodystonic which is a psychological term referring to behaviors, values, feelings that are not in harmony with or acceptable to the needs and goals of the ego, or consistent with one’s self image.

Other conditions, such as OCD, have these egodystonic thoughts creating the distress that drives a compulsive need to act on them, rather than letting them pass.

In other words, these thoughts are seen as distressing and threatening and compel one to act to reduce this escalating sense of distress. A similar process can happen to those in early recovery.

Thoughts about drinking or using when you now wish to remain in recovery are egodystonic, they are contrary to the view of oneself as a person in recovery.  The main problem occurs when we think we can control these thoughts are that these thoughts mean we want to drink or are going to relapse!

Early recovery is a period marked by heightened emotional dysregulation and the proliferation of intrusive thoughts about alcohol .

In fact,  research demonstrates that alcohol-related thoughts can resemble obsessive-compulsive thinking (3,4).

In fact, one way to measure “craving” in alcoholics is by scale called the Obsessive Compulsive Drinking Scale (5) , thus highlighting certain similarities between alcoholism and OCD.

This finding is also supported by clinical observation and leads to the expectation that among abstinent alcohol abusers, alcohol-related thoughts and intrusions are the rule rather than the exception (6)

Relatively little is known about how alcohol abusers appraise their alcohol-related thoughts. Are they aware that alcohol-related thoughts occur naturally and are highly likely during abstinence?

Or do they interpret these thoughts in a negative way, for example, as unexpected, shameful, and bothersome? Misinterpretations of naturally occurring thoughts or emotional reaction to them  may be detrimental for abstinence (7).




A number of papers and  studies have shown that individuals’ appraisal of their intrusive thoughts as detrimental and potentially out of their control may lead them to dysfunctional and counterproductive efforts to control their thinking.

Alcohol-related thoughts cause an individual to experience strong emotional reactions; however, alcohol abusers will increase their efforts to control their thinking only when they have negative beliefs about these thoughts.

For instance, spontaneous positive memories about alcohol (‘‘It was so nice to hang out at parties and to drink with my buddies’’) may be appraised—and misinterpreted—as ‘‘the first steps toward a relapse’’.

Such an appraisal of one’s thoughts about alcohol as problematic may instigate thought suppression and other efforts to control the thoughts.

These efforts must be assumed to be counterproductive and  will increase rather than prevent negative feelings and thoughts, and they may even demoralize alcohol abusers who are trying to remain abstinent

On the other hand if positive alcohol-related thoughts are not appraised as problematic but as a normal part of abstinence, the awareness of these thoughts might even lead to the selection of more adaptive coping responses, which could help to reduce the risk of relapse, such as talking to someone about them or just simply letting these thoughts go.


In one study (8), participants who reported on their thoughts about alcohol in the previous 24 hours, 92% reported experiencing at least some thoughts about drinking that ‘‘just pop in and vanish’’ without an attempt to eliminate them. This suggests that if both suppression and elaboration can be avoided, many intrusive thoughts will be relatively transient.

An “accept and move on’’ strategy provides an opportunity for the intrusion to remain a fleeting thought.

In other words, just let go.

This means the thoughts go, and the distress which activates them, too.

This is recovery a lo of the time.  Getting embroiled in thinking and then letting go, repeat…

That is why helping others is important  -it takes us out of our crazy heads


1. Zack, M., Toneatto, T., & MacLeod, C. M. (1999). Implicit activation of alcohol concepts by negative affective cues distinguishes between problem drinkers with high and low psychiatric distress. Journal of Abnormal Psychology108(3), 518.

2. Ingjaldsson, J. T., Laberg, J. C., & Thayer, J. F. (2003). Reduced heart rate variability in chronic alcohol abuse: relationship with negative mood, chronic thought suppression, and compulsive drinking. Biological Psychiatry54(12), 1427-1436.

3. Caetano, R. (1985). Alcohol dependence and the need to drink: A compulsion? Psychological Medicine, 15(3), 463–469

4. Modell, J. G., Glaser, F. B., Mountz, J. M., Schmaltz, S., & Cyr, L. (1992). Obsessive and compulsive characteristics of alcohol abuse and dependence: Quantification by a newly developed questionnaire. Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research, 16(2), 266–271.

5. Anton, R. F., Moak, D. H., & Latham, P. (1995). The Obsessive Compulsive Drinking Scale: A self-rated
instrument for the quantification of thoughts about alcohol and drinking behavior. Alcoholism:
Clinical and Experimental Research, 19, 92–99.

6. Hoyer, J., Hacker, J., & Lindenmeyer, J. (2007). Metacognition in alcohol abusers: How are alcohol-related intrusions appraised?. Cognitive Therapy and Research31(6), 817-831.

7. Marlatt, G. A., & Gordon, J. R. (Eds.). (1985). Relapse prevention: Maintenance strategies in the
treatment of addictive behaviors. New York: Guilford Press

8. Kavanagh, D. J., Andrade, J., & May, J. (2005). Imaginary relish and exquisite torture: the elaborated intrusion theory of desire. Psychological review112(2), 446.