The Distress at the Heart of Addiction and Alcoholism
This blog is written for alcoholics and those who love and live with them, by alcoholics in recovery. For those who know what it is like to live with alcoholism but would also like to know why alcoholism affects the alcoholic and those around him in the way it does.
We write this blog to help us and you understand how the alcoholic brain works; why they do the things the do, why they act the way they do. Why is it everything is going great and suddenly the alcoholic in your life “flies off the handle’ and acts in an emotionally immature way, which can often cause hurt to others around them? What is the reason behind this “Jekyll and Hide” emotional responding?
Why do they suddenly cut off their emotions so profoundly it leaves your emotions in limbo, confused and upset?
In this blog we seek to explain, as researchers, in terms of the processes of the brain, why alcoholics, particularly those in recovery, do the things the way they do, act the way they do.
We hope to explain this disease state, which alcoholics themselves call a “emotional disease’, a “cancer of the emotions’, a “parasite that feeds on the emotions” or quite simply “a fear based illness”. It appears that alcoholics in recovery are aware to a large extent of what they suffer from. But why do they do what they do sometimes if they know what is going on? Why do they not seem to be able to help themselves from engaging in certain responses and behaviours?
Why do they endless engage in self defeating resentments, taking “other peoples’ inventory” or criticizing, why do they project into future scenarios and then get emotionally paralyzed by doing so, why do they run through the list of cognitive distortions on a daily basis, why do they get self absorbed and engage in “me, me, me” behaviour!? Why do they indulge in self pity to the extent they end up in full blown depression?
More importantly, perhaps, how do various therapeutic strategies deal with these behaviours and seek to challenge and address them? And do these therapies, in time through practice and the neuroplasticity (neural reshaping of the brain via behaviour) change how they act, feel and live in this life. In short, how does recovery change the brains of alcoholics for the better?
As we are personally well aware, self knowledge does not bring recovery – only action does. But this action can be based solidly on a better understanding of what goes on in the brain of an alcoholic for example, why should I mediate? What beneficial, adaptive change will that bring, how will that “help me recover”? What is the point of doing the steps, how exactly do they effect change in one’s alcoholic brain? Is there a good healthy neurobiological reason for going to mutual aid group meetings like AA or SMART?
We also believe that academic research definitions of alcoholism are inadequate – the latest DSM V equates the emotional difficulties we highlight here as ‘co-morbidities’, conditions that occur alongside the condition of alcoholism. We disagree, we suggest these ‘co-morbidities’ (co-occurring psychiatric disorders) are a main reason why we become alcoholics, they are what make us vulnerable, along with genes and environment to becoming alcoholic.
Most alcoholics feel they never fitted in, were emotionally hyper “sensitive”, engaged in risky behaviours, got into trouble without intending to, and other impulsive behaviours which we believe are illustrative of an emotional dysregulation which makes certain individuals vulnerable to becoming alcoholic.
Science tells us there are many such vulnerabilities in children of alcoholics. The alcohol regulated, medicated these errant emotions which caused such distress, even at an early age. It is these emotional processing deficits and emotional dysregualtion (i.e. poor control of emotions, especially when distressed!) which lie at the heart of the this psychopathology or if you like this psychiatric disorder called alcoholism.
It is a distress-based condition, day in day out, and we formally believe that various therapeutic regimes like the 12 steps, DBT, ACT or CBT, etc all treat this inherent distress state in some way. It is this distress state that activates this “fear-based illness”, that makes one hyper aware of cues, alcohol, it is this distress that provokes memories of drinking, alcohol use schemata, that trains one attention on people places and things from the past. Without this distress our illness barely gets activated!
For example, does your loved alcoholic, “over do things”on a regular basis, do they engage in short term thinking, or “quick fix ” thinking. Do they resist your attempts at sensible long term , goal directed, “thought through thinking”?
Does your alcoholic work himself to a frazzle, do they easily become exhausted by overdoing it, whatever it is? Do they have a series of new addictions? Are they perfectionist doing too much, or nothing anything at all? Perfectionism is distress based.
Does your alcoholic fear the future, but continually project their thinking into the future? Do they have an intolerance of uncertainty, do they endless ruminate about things, do they react rather than act? Do the most simple decisions provoke a “fight or flight” response? Do they frequently come up with “I know how to do this, I have a great idea!” Only for it to be the opposite of a great idea! Do they give people “rent free room in their heads” because of resentments – replying the same old tape in their minds, over and over and over again? All distress based?
“Fear based” is distress based.
A recent study showed that alcoholics have a part of the brain that helps process emotions but it doesn’t work properly so is overactive all the time; it is exhausting being on red alert, all the time , living on a state of emergency. Hence step 11 in the the 12 steps.
The problem with this hyperactive brain region, called the ventromedial prefrontal cortex, is that it also cuts out , hypo-activates, when more or excessive stress is applied and another compulsive area of the brain, the basal ganglia, takes over. This part is automatic, habitualized, automatic, compulsive! It results in more more more, and is driven by distress not goal directed consideration. It simple does, does, does, without consideration of future consequence. Sound familiar??
How did your loved alcoholic get to be this way? What happened to your own alcoholic brain? We believe there is a vulnerability to these aforementioned emotional difficulties as certain brain areas which regulate emotion not working properly. This means they are smaller, impaired and do not function optimally or are not connected properly.
Do you know an alcoholic who does not accurately know how he is feeling properly, does not know what emotion he is experiencing? Cannot label to emotion properly which makes processing of it difficult? Can’t rely on a neural feedback to tell himself when he is tired, angry, hungry and that he should HALT? This is the insular cortex not working properly.
Does your alcoholic see error everywhere (and worse still give a running commentary on it!?), always whinging about that not being right, or that being wrong. Why can’t they do things properly, be more perfect!! That is partly to do with impairment of the anterior cingulate cortex which monitors error in the environment.
This fear based stuff? That is a hyperactive amgydala, the “anxious amgydala”, and it also acts as a switch between memory systems, from explicit to implicit memory, and recruits the compulsive “go,go, go” area of the dorsal striatum from the always “on the go”, hyperactive, ventromedial cortex.
The amgydala is at the heart of alcoholism and addiction. It not only switches memory but also reward/motivation/ and emotional response so that distress provokes a habitualised “fight or flight response” in the dorsal striatum.
It is said that alcoholics are emotional thinkers, but this region is also an emotional “do” area which means emotional distress acts as a stimulus response. The brain responds to the stimulus of distress in other words. As addiction and alcoholism progress the ways addicts and alcoholics react become limited in line with addiction severity. The further the alcoholic gets in alcoholism the more he will react out of distress, the more automatic his behaviours become, the more short term his decision making will be, the more he has to fight automatic urges and automatic drink-related thoughts, the more he has to contend with “fight or flight” thinking and feeling.
Add to this a brain that is out of balance, does not have homeostasis, natural neurochemical balance, but has a state called allostasis, where the brain constantly attempts to finding stability via constant change, and the fact that the alcoholic brain has too much Glutamate, an excitatory neurotransmitter, the “go neurochemical”, and not enough GABA, an inhibitory neurotransmitter, the brains’ natural brakes”, (and which is increased by drinking alcohol) the stop or slow down chemical and that this also helps slow down an abnormal heart rate variability (HRV) found in alcoholics.
Alcoholics have a different heart rate variability meaning we have a heart rate more suited to being ready for the next (imagined) emergency. The effects of alcohol are thus more profound on this group, and this HRV is also seen in children of alcoholics so represents a profound vulnerability to later alcoholism.
Add to that depleted levels of of dopamine, which is very important in the addiction cycle. The problem with dopamine supplies is that our excessive levels of stress reduce our amount of dopamine, that we are always on the look out for more dopamine. Add to this that stressful states increase our brain in “dopamine seeking” in an attempt at transient allostasis and you have a brain that is always trying to get a buzz out of something, especially when in distress states.
Then there is other deficits to the serotonin system, to the natural opioids system, to oxytocin, all of which take a beating and are reduced by excessive stress systems. But all are increased via love and looking out for our fellow man, our families, loved ones and other’s in recovery. We can manipulate our brain chemistries, this is what happens in recovery in fact!
Too much stress on the brain spreads like a forest fire throughout the brain, lowering levels of essential neurotransmitters, impairing memory and turning one from a goal directed action to a compulsive reaction type of guy. The alcoholic brain is always primed to go off!!
Chronic stress also impairs the prefrontal cortex, the cognitive, conscious “top down” controller of the brain’s emotions and urges, instincts and so on. It doesn’t help that it doesn’t work too well in alcoholics. The brain of an alcoholic is a “spillover” brain, it is a brain that spills over into various types of disinhibition, impulsivity and compulsivity . It often acts before considering, speaks before thinking. decides this is a great idea with out consulting, reacts without sufficient reason or cause.
It needs help, this alcoholic brain. From another brain, from someone other than himself.
Recovering alcoholics need an external prefrontal cortex to help with the top down cognitive control of the subcortical emotional and motivational states. The problem with emotions are they, in the alcoholic brain, have become entwined with reward. We feel a certain way, negative for example, and fix this negative feeling, with something rewarding, makes us feel better, more positive, less self reflective, and it seems this has been the case with certain alcoholics since childhood. Dealing with emotions by the granting of treats.
Feeling better by consuming. Fixing feelings via external substances. Sub contracting our emotional regulation. Finding different feelings in a bottle, or a pill, or a syringe or snorting them up one’s nose. Alcoholics need a spiritual awakening, a psychic change, a change in consciousness, in self schema; this sudden change in how we feel about the world (including memories of our past life) because the old feeling about the world will lead to the sane old behaviours. Plus alcohol and drugs were crude approximates of this change in consciousness, this spirit awakenings, they dramatically and very instantaneously helped change our feelings, thoughts, perceptions about the world around us. They helped us fit in.
This is the purpose of a spiritual awakening too, a sudden change of consciousness. We believe the best and most sudden way to achieve this is to let go of the thing that causes all the suffering in the first place, the self. It appears we can live without the “self” . It also appears helping others brings a bigger buzz than even helping ourselves.
Helping others reduces our distress. and many many other therapeutic benefits to brain chemistry. This brain also needs some one outside of self, outside the self regulation network in the brain which is so impaired and cannot be relied on because at times it is maladaptive. Can’t be counted on the make the right decision because it favours short term over the long term, is based on “fight or flight “thinking and rational, hence is distorted by fear.
If we have been thinking in this maladaptive way all our lives it is no wonder we ended up where we have. We used alcohol to deal with our errant and quite frightening emotions. I positively ran away from my own emotions.
I used to say to my wife, the main reason for my drinking is “to get away from my self”. Now we have to find a solution to living with oneself, these sometimes torturous alien state of emotional sobriety.
I remember being asked by a counsellor to sit with my emotions for half on a hour. I felt I was being possessed by some poltergeist, the feelings associated with emotional regulation were so alien to me, so frightening. I didn’t know what they were even. I had to have by wife label them for me and help me process them.
I believe steps 4 and of 12 step programs help one emotional regulation hundreds and hundreds of unresolved, unprocessed emotions from the past otherwise they will continue to be in there, haunting us like “neural ghosts” from the past, adding emotional distress to our conscious daily experience and encouraging relapse. This is the case for many newly recovering alcoholics. Being haunted by a million thoughts produced by rampant emotional dysregulation.
Resentments swirling around the mind and driving the newcomer back to relapse. What the newcomer finds is that the drink stops working, and the emotional difficulties remain, in fact much worsened by years and years of sticking a neurotoxin down our throats and in into our brains. Havoc is then further reaped on an already not fully functioning brain.
In AA they often they say that they are stuck at the emotional age of when they started drinking which is usually around the early teens when the cognitive part of the brain that controls emotions is still developing. But we act much more immaturely than that, we act like the terrible twos or children. Our emotional brains never really grew up. This emotional dysregulation apparent as teens then shaped all our future decisions and eventually our alcoholism. That is what they mean in AA, when they say all your best thinking got you here. So there you have it . Sound familiar? Recognize anyone here?