How Far Have We Come In Understanding this “Spiritual Malady” of Alcoholism?

In our previous blog we wondered if some commentators, who have co-occurring disorders may be puzzled at how having a “spiritual malady” could be related in any way to have a co-occurring condition?

This is a pretty valid question?

In fact this may be at the heart of the issue in many cases  of feeling the need to take medication  for so-called co-occurring conditions?

Seeing alcoholism as partly the product of a spiritual malady, instead of the affective disorder I believe it to be, may influence certain AAs to seek additional help for supposed additional conditions when the manifestation of these conditions may actually be part of the emotional disorder of alcoholism?

It is at least worth considering?

For me sometimes there is a confusion with what is perceived to be a spiritual malady?

I do not believe I have the same type of spiritual malady as my wife for example who is an normie, earthling, normal person (whatever that is?) I believe, if any thing I have a super enhanced, at times turbo-charged,  spiritual malady, often fuelled by stress/distress, as the result of my alcoholism.

I do not believe I have the same spiritual malady as other normal people such as those people who were in the Oxford Group.

That is not to say that normal people cannot be full of sin –  a cursory look around the work and it’s events will soon confirm this is the case. What I am saying is that they do not have the emotion dysregulation or fear based responding that I seem to have which often prompts “sin”.

By sin I mean negative emotions that cause distress to me and others.

For example, false pride, intolerance, impatience, arrogance, shame, lust, gluttony, greed. Yes these all create distress.

The spiritual principles of AA and the 12 steps in particular were drawn from the 4 absolutes of the Oxford group, via initially the 6 steps  and the idea of a spiritual malady is also borrowed from the Oxford group.

I have for several years wondered if the spiritual malady described in the Big Book adequate or accurate enough in describing what I suffer from.

I believe others have difficulties in reconciling the spiritual malady of the Big Book with their own alcoholism, addiction and  co-occurring conditions?

Part of the problem may lie in not being specific enough about what   alcoholism is.

It may be that research and the world have not progressed far enough to give a comprehensive account of what alcoholism is. Also the spiritual malady concept of AA has for 80 years helped millions of people recover from this most profound of conditions? So why change it if it’s not broke?

That is a good point? I am not advocating changing anything, I hope AA recovery remains as it is for 80 more years and much more years. I would not change one word in the first 164 pages of the BB.

However, many AAs ignore the spiritual malady thing completely, or do not do the steps, so, in my opinion, they often do not properly understand what they suffer from?

The magic of the the steps is that they seem to reveal  the patterns of behaviour that our actions have prompted over the course of our lives.  Maladaptive behaviours I should add. It helps us see ourselves and our condition of alcoholism and how it effects us and others.

It shows the areas of behaviour and attitudes that can be treated by working the steps. It shows us how our approach to life can possibly be transformed for the better.

For me personally it often showed a pattern of emotional responding to events that do not go my way!!?

As Bill Wilson once wrote we suffer when we cannot not get what we want or others seem to prevent us getting what we want.

My inventory of steps 4/5 showed me that my long lists of resentments were mainly the product of emotional immaturity and responding in an immature manner to not getting my way.

My inventory showed me also that I did not seem to have the facility previously to emotionally respond to the world in a mature way. As the world dominated me.

My recovery has thus since been about “growing up” a bit, however unsuccessful I am in this pursuit on occasion.

I have often written that this inherent emotional immaturity may even be linked to the possibility that the areas of my brain that regulate emotions have not matured properly  as alcoholic seem to have different connectivity, functionality and morphology (size/volume)  in this emotion regulation  circuit/network to healthy normal people.

Alcoholics seem not to be able to fully process emotional information externally, i.e reading emotion expression of faces accurately, or internally reading what emotions we are having, or even whether we are hungry or tired!

So we have issues with emotions and somatic/body feeling states. This is perhaps compounded by most of us having experienced abuse or maltreatment which can also lead to alexithymic characteristics such as not being able to label or describe, verbally, emotional states we are experiencing – although we can be good at intellectualising these emotions – which is not the same as processing them.

Alcoholics and children of alcoholics have a tendency to avoid emotions (use avoidant coping strategies) in fact and to use emotional reasoning when arguing a point.

These emotion processing deficits also appear to make us more impulsive, and to choose lesser short term gain over greater long term gain in decision making. It can lead to a distress feeling state that can make us fear based, perfectionist, have catastrophic thoughts, intolerance of uncertainty, low frustration and distress tolerance, be reactionary, moody, and immature in our emotional responding.

But how has any of this got anything to do with the so-called spiritual malady we are suppose to suffer from?

I believe the spiritual malady mixed with the ancedotal evidence throughout the BiG Book hints at these emotional difficulties as being an intrinsic part of our alcoholism, “We were having trouble with personal relationships, we couldn’t control our emotional natures, we were a prey to misery and depression, we couldn’t make a living, we had a feeling of uselessness, we were full of fear, we were unhappy…”

It was 80 years ago, so our knowledge base has moved on greatly from when the Big Book was written. Hence I believe we should appreciate that this definition of our condition has been updated by research into emotions especially in the last 20 years.

I am happy to say a spiritual malady is what we suffer from, as the steps provide a solution to my emotion disorder by treating it as a spiritual malady but  I do not think it is the straightforward spiritual malady adopted by AA from the Oxford Group, mainly because in the majority of situations I do not choose to sin, the sinning seems to happen to me. In other words it is the consequence of my fear based condition, this affective disorder.

The Oxford Group explain a general spiritual malady that all people can have. I do not think alcoholics are like all people. We are human beings, but extreme versions of human beings. I believe, even when I try my best to be virtuous and holy, I could sin at the sinning Olympics for my country. I am that naturally good at it!

I sin so naturally, effortlessly  and usually without even trying. I believe my so-called defects of character are linked to my underlying emotional disorder of alcoholism.

Sins I believe are the poisoned fruit of fear, often  helped along in alcoholics by false pride, shame and guilt. These defects are related to me being an alcoholic, they are intrinsic to my condition.

In order to illustrate how I believe my spiritual malady is the consequence of my emotional disorder, called alcoholism/addiction first let’s  go back to where this idea of spiritual malady came from.

According to a wonderful pamphlet “What is the Oxford Group”   written by The Layman With a Notebook ” Sin can kill not only the soul but mind, talents, and happiness as surely as a malignant physical disease can kill the body…

Sin is a disease with consequences we cannot foretell or judge; it is as contagious as any contagious disease our bodies may suffer from. The sin we commit within this hour may have unforeseen dire consequences even after we have long ceased to draw living breath…

…Like physical disease Sin needs antiseptics to prevent it from spreading; the soul needs cleaning as much as the body needs it…

Unhappiness to us and others, discontent, and, frequently, mental and bodily ill health are the direct results of Sin.

…Morbidity of mind must affect the physical health. If we can be absolutely truthful to ourselves we can analyse our sins for ourselves and trace their mental and physical effects. Sins can dominate us mentally and physically until we are their abject slaves. We cannot get rid of them by deciding to think no more about them; they never leave us of their own accord, and unless they are cut out by a decided surgical spiritual operation which will destroy them, roots and all, and set us free from their killing obsession, they grow in time like a deadly moss within us until we become warped in outlook not only towards others but towards ourselves….”

One can see how this concept of sin disease or in other words spiritual malady could be and was applied to early AA and incorporated into the Big Book of AA.

However, it is equally stating, I believe, that alcoholics suffer from the same spiritual malady as other people but our spiritual malady has led to chronic alcoholism, this is the manner in which sin has dominated  “mentally and physically until we are their abject slaves”.

In fact the Big book’s first chapters look more at the manifestation of this malady, problem drinking,    than the malady.  It suggests that there is more than this malady, there is also a physical reason for alcoholism- an allergy (or abnormal reaction) to alcohol. So this is a departure from the Oxford Group as it clearly states that alcoholism is more than a spiritual malady.   It is not simply the consequence of this spiritual malady although this malady may contribute.  So is this saying some of us are spiritually ill while also having an abnormal reaction to alcohol?

In the foreword The Doctor’s Opinion suggests  that “the body of the alcoholic is quite as abnormal as his mind.” and  a first mention of a disorder more than “spiritual” is suggested, “It did not satisfy us to be told that we could not control our drinking just because we were maladjusted to life, that we were in full flight from reality, or were outright mental defectives. These things were true to some extent, in fact, to a considerable extent with some of us. (my emphasis)

“The doctor’s theory that we have an allergy to alcohol interests us…as ex-problem drinkers, we can say that his explanation makes good sense. It explains many things for which we cannot otherwise account.”

“the action of alcohol on these chronic alcoholics is a manifestation of an allergy; that the phenomenon of craving is limited to this class and never occurs in the average temperate drinker.”

Here we have an abnormal reaction to alcohol and for some alcoholics a maladjustment to life.

For me this maladjustment to life is not exactly the same as the spiritual disease mentioned in the Oxford Group pamphlet.

All of my academic research in the last 6 years has explored the possibility that this “maladjustment to life” is more than a spiritual malady, i.e. it is not simply the consequence of Sin but the result of abnormal responding, emotionally (which has obvious consequences for sinning) to life.

This emotion dysregulation, as I name it, has consequences for how we feel about ourselves, how we interact with people, how much we feel we belong, how rewarding alcohol and drugs are, how much these substances make us feel better about ourselves (fix our feelings ) and how they turn off the internal critic of maladaptive and negative self schemas.

 

In fact our first “spiritual” wakening was probably the result of drinking as it transformed how we felt about ourselves and the world in which we lived. I know it did for me. In fact, I felt “more me” when I drank, it was like I escaped a restrictive sense of self to be a more expansive, people loving self.  I had a connection with the world I could not generate myself, when sober.

I was a “spirit awakening” if nothing else? It is interesting that a common definition of “spiritual” as it relates to AA, is a sense of connection with others.

As the BB states “Men and women drink essentially because they like the effect produced by alcohol. The sensation is so elusive that, while they admit it is injurious, they cannot after a time differentiate the true from the false. To them, their alcoholic life seems the only normal one. They are restless, irritable and discontented, unless they can again experience the sense of ease and comfort which comes at once by taking a few drinks—”

For me this section is saying our emotion dysregulation leads to feelings of being “restless, irritable and discontented” which prompt a return to drinking.

The Doctor’s Opinion even offers some classifications of alcoholics “The classification of alcoholics seems most difficult, and in much detail is outside the scope of this book. There are, of course, the psychopaths who are emotionally unstable… the manic-depressive type, who is, perhaps, the least understood by his friends, and about whom a whole chapter could be written.”

This section would appear to be stating clearly that there alcoholics who have other (co-occurring) conditions or conditions appearing as co-occurring?

I contend that alcoholism is an emotional disorder which results in chemical dependency on the substance of alcohol. However in order to treat it we have to first contend with the symptomatic manifestation of this disorder, chronic alcohol use, as it is the most life threatening aspect of this disorder when we present our selves at AA.

What we used once to regulate negative emotions and a sense of self has eventually come to regulate our emotions to such an extent that any distress leads to the compulsive response of drinking. Alcoholics had become a compulsive disorder to relief distress not to induce pleasure.

The “spiritual malady” of the Oxford group seems enhanced in me, I believe I sin more than normal people because of my emotional immaturity and reactivity. My “loss of control” over drinking is also linked to emotion processing difficulties as it prompted  impulsive, uninhibited drinking.

This emotional immaturity is referenced throughout the Big Book I believe.

“… He begins to think life doesn’t treat him right. He decides to exert himself more. He becomes, on the next occasion, still more demanding or gracious, as the case may be. Still the play does not suit him. Admitting he may be somewhat at fault, he is sure that other people are more to blame. He becomes angry, indignant, self-pitying. ”

“Whatever our protestations, are not most of us concerned with ourselves, our resentments, or our self-pity? Selfishness—self-centeredness! That, we think, is the root of our troubles. Driven by a hundred forms of fear, self-delusion, self-seeking, and self-pity, we step on the toes of our fellows and they retaliate. ”

“So our troubles, we think, are basically of our own making. They arise out of ourselves…”

“…Our liquor was but a symptom…”

“Resentment is the ”number one“ offender. It destroys more alcoholics than anything else. From it stem all forms of spiritual disease, for we have been not only mentally and physically ill, we have been spiritually sick.”

For me this is saying that out of my emotion dysregulation  “stem all forms of spiritual disease”.

It then talks of the fear that “was an evil and corroding thread; the fabric of our existence was shot through with it. ”

The list of emotional difficulties continues throughout the Big book’s first 164 pages.

One of the earliest studies on AA members concluded that  they were linked in commonality by two variables, emotional immaturity and grandiosity! I would contend that grandiosity is a part of emotional immaturity. I also contend that our “maladjustment to life” is based on emotional immaturity which is in itself a function of emotion regulation and processing deficits.

A book titled Matt Talbot by Morgan Costelloe has cites this reference –  “American authorities on alcoholism hold that the following psychological traits are commonly found in alcoholics:

> 1. A high level of anxiety in interpersonal relations
> 2. Emotional immaturity
> 3. Ambivalence towards authority
> 4. Low frustration tolerance
> 5. Low self-esteem
> 6. Perfectionism
> 7. Guilt
> 8. Feelings of isolation”

The list is  almost word-for-word identical with one in Howard Clinebell’s
“Understanding and Counseling the Alcoholic” p 53 of the revised edition of 1968 (the original edition appeared in 1956), the only difference being that Clinebell included grandiosity and compulsiveness.

Years after the Big Book Bill Wilson wrote about this emotion immaturity in the guise of discussing emotional sobriety, for me what he is saying that our emotional difficulties are present in long term recovery and need to be addressed – in other words there is more to alcoholism than sinning and drinking. What we are left with after the steps is ongoing and underlying difficulties with living life on life’s terms because we are emotionally immature. This I believe also preceded our drinking, for many of us anyway?

For many recovering alcoholics this may be another unpalatable truth, that they have issues with emotional responding, with being emotionally mature. If further validation is required I suggest a frank conversation with  a loved one, wife, husband, child, parent, etc.

Here is what Bill Wilson wrote ” Those adolescent urges that so many of us have for top approval, perfect security, and perfect romance—urges quite appropriate to age seventeen—prove to be an impossible way of life when we are at age forty-seven or fifty-seven.      Since AA began, I’ve taken immense wallops in all these areas because of my failure to grow up, emotionally and spiritually”. (my emphasis) 

Bill continues “Suddenly I realized what the matter was. My basic flaw had always been dependence – almost absolute dependence – on people or circumstances to supply me with prestige, security, and the like. Failing to get these things according to my perfectionist dreams and specifications, I had fought for them. And when defeat came, so did my depression.”

” Emotional and instinctual satisfactions, I saw, were really the extra dividends of having love, offering love, and expressing a love appropriate to each relation of life… I was victimized by false dependencies…       For my dependency meant demand—a demand for the possession and control of the people and the conditions surrounding me.”

For me this is emotional immaturity, regulating ones emotions and distress via external dependencies on others, demanding in an immature manner that others do one’s bidding?

I would suggest in relation to the issue of co-morbidities that one try to deal with these alcoholism related issues and then see if there are any other to deal with afterwards. For me, as someone who has been treated for anxiety and depression prior to recovery the 12 steps appear to have treated these as emotional consequences of my underlying condition of emotion dysregulation which I call alcoholism.

I think part of the issue is whether doctors, who know in my experience often know next to nothing generally about alcoholism,  can always properly diagnose depression and anxiety in someone suffering from alcoholism?

I also think the issues are complicate because alcoholism have some many similarities to GAD, MDD, OCD, and so on. They all may be similar but different.

This is why we need a satisfactory definition of what alcoholism and addition is? Rather than describing these conditions in terms of the manifest symptoms, i.e chronic substance abuse or, at times, vague “spiritual maladies”.

For example, one variable I believe is slightly different in alcoholism  to other affective disorders is distress based impulsivity which leads to maladaptive decision making, it leads to always wanting more of that…that anything.

These may be specific to addictive behaviours.

It may also be that we feel we have a co-occurring disorder because the underlying distress states prompt similar reactions in various differing disorders.

My distress feeds perfectionism, and catastrophic thinking as with other anxiety disorders like OCD, does that mean I have OCD too?

Maybe or maybe not? My tendency to not  regulate emotions has caused a distress state since childhood, it feeds into perfectionism and many other manifestations like always wanting just one more…?

It is the always wanting one more that makes my affective disorder that of addiction and not another disorder.

My affective disorder via various neural and cognitive – affective mechanisms leads to chronic substance use and dependency of these substances.

GAD, MDD, OCD have different manifestations and different mechanisms.

If we start by trying to recover from alcoholism and addiction and find we still have other issues then obviously address these with outside professional and specialist help.

I believe we can unwittingly complicate our treatment of alcoholism by believing we have (and treating) other conditions we see as distinct from alcoholism but which are in fact part of this condition called alcoholism.

I never fully knew what alcoholsim was until I did the 12 steps. Only then did it become clear what I suffered from?

I have suggested clearly in previous blogs how I think AA’s 12 recovery programme helps specifically with problems of emotion dysregulation.

How the Alcoholics Anonymous-12-step-program of recovery helps with emotional dysregulation

Maintaining Emotional Sobriety (and sanity) via the steps 10-12.

These illustrate how the 12 step programme can help with an emotion dysregulation disorder.

I end, however, with some words from a doctor who seems to be suggesting that AA works because it makes us more emotionally healthy.  For me she is saying how AA treats emotional illness.

An article by Dr. Jacqueline Chang’s paper given to the National Workshop for Health Liaison in York in 1998 and published in the Winter 1999 edition of the AA News suggests that

“The principles of the programme of Alcoholics Anonymous are scientific and closely follow all the helping therapies which lead people to emotional well-being.

AA proposes living “ One Day at a Time”. It is emotionally healthy to live in the day … in the here and now. Professional therapists teach people to live in the present.  AA encourages members to share their experience, strength and hope with other members. It is emotionally healthy to accept our past experiences, however painful, as past events and move on to a richer, more fulfilling future.

Step 1 in the AA programme is “ We admitted we were powerless over alcohol – that our lives had become unmanageable”. It is emotionally healthy to surrender and accept things over which we have no control.
“God grant us the serenity to accept the things we cannot change, courage to change the things we can and the wisdom to know the difference” is the Serenity Prayer used at every AA meeting. It is emotionally healthy to prioritise problems. The Serenity Prayer is the greatest exercise in prioritisation.

It is emotionally healthy to accept that we cannot change a particular situation but we can change the way we react to it.

It is emotionally healthy to accept yourself as you are.
It is emotionally healthy to recognise your environment and interact with it as it is, not as you wish it would be.  It is emotionally healthy to associate or be in contact with other human beings.

It is emotionally healthy to be altruistic – to help others without question or expectation.
It is emotionally healthy to anticipate – to plan for future discomfort or crises. This is the function of the AA Step programme. ”

 

AA provides many ways of becoming more emotionally well, which ultimately means more emotionally mature.

 

 

 

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.

120px-Orbital_gyrus_animation_small2

 

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.

128px-Amyg

 

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.

“Abstract

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.

References

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!

 

References

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.

Are addictions pretty much the same?

In the first of many blog on the commonalities in different additive behaviours we briefly consider whether there are brain mechanism similarities in different addictive of obsessive compulsive behaviours.

Addiction-300x232

People affected by binge eating, substance abuse and obsessive compulsive disorder all share a common pattern of decision making and similarities in brain structure, according to new research from the University of Cambridge.

Researchers show that people who are affected by disorders of compulsivity have lower grey matter volumes (in other words, fewer nerve cells) in the brain regions involved in keeping track of goals and rewards.

In our daily lives, we make decisions based either on habit or aimed at achieving a specific goal. For example, when driving home from work, we tend to follow habitual choices – our ‘autopilot’ mode – as we know the route well; however, if we move to a nearby street, we will initially follow a ‘goal-directed’ choice to find our way home – unless we slip into autopilot and revert to driving back to our old home. However, we cannot always control the process and make repeat choices even when we know they are bad for us – in many cases this will be relatively benign, such as being tempted by a cake whilst slimming, but extreme cases it can lead to disorders of compulsivity.

In order to understand what happens when our decision-making processes malfunction, a team of researchers led by the Department of Psychiatry at the University of Cambridge compared almost 150 individuals with disorders including methamphetamine dependence, obesity with and , comparing them with of the same age and gender.

Study participants first took part in a computerised task to test their ability to make choices aimed a receiving a reward over and above making compulsive choices. In a second study, the researchers compared brain scans taken using (MRI) in healthy individuals and a subset of obese individuals with or without (a subtype of obesity in which the person binge eats large amounts of food rapidly).

 

Is-alcohol-addictive2

 

The researchers demonstrated that all of the disorders were connected by a shift away from goal-directed behaviours towards automatic habitual choices. The MRI scans showed that obese subjects with binge eating disorder have lower grey matter volumes – a measure of the number of neurons – in the orbitofrontal cortex and striatum of the brain compared to those who do not binge eat; these are involved in keeping track of goals and rewards. Even in healthy volunteers, lower volumes were associated with a shift towards more habitual choices.

Dr Valerie Voon, principal investigator of the study, says: “Seemingly diverse choices – drug taking, eating quickly despite weight gain, and compulsive cleaning or checking – have an underlying common thread: rather that a person making a choice based on what they think will happen, their choice is automatic or habitual.

“Compulsive disorders can have a profoundly disabling effect of individuals. Now that we know what is going wrong with their decision making, we can look at developing treatments, for example using psychotherapy focused on forward planning or interventions such as medication which target the shift towards habitual choices.”

References

http://medicalxpress.com/news/2014-05-creatures-habit-disorders-compulsivity-common.html#inlRlv

Voon, V et al. Disorders of compulsivity: a common bias towards learning habits. Molecular Psychiatry; E-pub 20 May 2014