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.
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.
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.
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.