Alcoholics Anonymous and Reduced Impulsivity: A Novel Mechanism of Change

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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

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



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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The trouble it has caused is quite staggeringly really?

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


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

Among individuals with alcohol use disorders (AUD), Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) is linked to improved functioning across a number of domains [1, 2]. As the evidence for the effectiveness of AA has accumulated, so too have efforts to identify the mechanisms of change associated with participation in this mutual-help group [3]. To our knowledge, however, there have been no efforts to examine links between AA and reductions in impulsivity-a dimension of personality marked by deficits in self-control and self-regulation, and tendencies to take risks and respond to stimuli with minimal forethought.

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

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

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

Substance use-focused mutual-help groups may promote such changes, given that they seek to bolster self-efficacy and coping skills aimed at controlling substance use, encourage members to be more structured in their daily lives, and target deficits in self-regulation [26]. Such “active ingredients” may curb the immediate self-gratification characteristic of disinhibition and provide the conceptual grounds to expect that AA participation can press for a reduction in impulsive inclinations.

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

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


Blonigen, D. M., Timko, C., & Moos, R. H. (2013). Alcoholics anonymous and reduced impulsivity: a novel mechanism of change. Substance abuse, 34(1), 4-12.

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.

Do emotional processing problems run in the family?

Throughout our blogs so far we have looked at who the vulnerability to later alcoholism is transmitted genetic via family members.

The task for science is answering the question – “What exactly is inherited in this vulnerability?”

Again via various blogs we have looked at certain vulnerabilities that we believe contribute to the aetiology of alcoholism (and possible other addictive disorders). These relate to specific emotional processing and regulation problems which we feel not only make alcohol more rewarding for various reasons but also seem to create a decision making profile whereby the inability to properly use emotions to guide decisions making, via not properly recruiting the goal-directed, reflective and evaluative areas of the brain – areas of the prefrontal cortex – and instead recruiting, reactionary, sub-cortical parts of the brain such as the amgydala and dorsal striatum in decision making, to relieve emotional unpleasantness rather than guide adaptive behaviour.

This may be a fundamental difference between those vulnerable to later alcoholism and those who are not, even those in the same family.

If there is a fundamental deficit in decision making this will have numerous knock on effects  obviously and right from the beginning of alcohol use.

So is this borne out in studies? Do studies suggest emotional processing deficits are linked to a family  history of alcoholism. In other words, is this emotional processing deficit, which may lead to later alcoholism, inherited?

One study in particular (1), high alexithymic (50%) patients suffering alcohol use disorders (AUDs)  were more likely to have fathers with alcohol problems…

” Sifneos first described the notion of alexithymia in 1973 [1] as the inability to express emotions or feelings. Alexithymia is mostly seen as a personality construct characterized as a deficit in the ability to cognitively process and regulate emotions [2]. Whereas the prevalence of alexithymia in population-based studies varies between 8% and 15% [3], rates of up to 67% have been reported in patients with alcohol use disorders (AUD) [4] and up to 50% in patients with other substance use disorders (SUD) [5] and [6].

Based on genetic and familial influence, a higher percentage of alexithymia is expected in parents and other family members of alexithymic patients. As alexithymia and alcohol use disorders are related, this could be a reason for more alcohol problems in the relatives of alexithymic patients [4] and [15]. However, in alexithymic patients with SUD or AUD, other genetic, environmental or familial mechanisms could of course have an important role in the alcohol problems of their relatives [19].

As part of an often shared environmental or familial mechanism, problems with alcohol in parents could result in neglecting their child’s emotional states, leading to emotional self-regulation deficits, such as alexithymia. The latter has been shown in a recent meta-analysis on parental bonding and alexithymia [20].

In line with this, a disturbed family functioning has been found to relate to the development of alexithymic characteristics [21]. Similar finding was observed for a history of neglect or sexual abuse, regardless of whether it occurred within the family [22], [23] and [24].

We found that high alexithymic SUD-patients were more likely to have fathers or both fathers and mothers  with alcohol problems compared to low alexithymic SUD-patients. Next, we found that especially paternal family history of alcoholsim (FHA) relates to the degree of alexithymia, independent of disturbed family functioning. The high degree of alexithymia in our abstinent SUD sample is consistent with previous reports [4],[10] and [34]The relationship between alexithymia and these symptoms suggests that the high baseline alexithymia score can at least partially be interpreted as a state phenomenon [4] and [34].




de Haan, H. A., Joosten, E. A., de Haan, L., Schellekens, A. F., Buitelaar, J. K., van der Palen, J., & De Jong, C. A. (2013). A family history of alcoholism relates to alexithymia in substance use disorder patients. Comprehensive psychiatry, 54(7), 911-917.