Why a “Spiritual Solution” to a Neurobiological Disease?

because it says it all! and for our newcomers…

Inside The Alcoholic Brain

In the first in a series of blogs we discuss the topic of why does the solution to one’s alcoholism and addiction require a spiritual recovery.

This is a much asked question within academic research, although the health benefits of meditation are well known and life styles incorporating religious affiliation are known to increase health and span of life.

I guess people are curious as to how the spirit changes matter or material being when it should perhaps be rephrased to how does application of the ephemral mind affect neuroplasticity of the brain. Or in other words how does behaviour linked to a particular faith/belief system alter the functions and structure of the brain. We have discussed these points in two blogs previously and will do so again in later blogs. Here I just want to highlight in a short summary why spiritual practice helps alcoholics and addicts with with…

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Explaining the negative consequences of Negative Urgency.

Explaining how negative Negative Urgency can be.

from Inside the Alcoholic Brain by alcoholicsguide

In various blogs we have suggested that one of the main aspects of addictive behaviours is to act as the result of distress-based impulsivity or negative urgency. Here we explore in more details what we mean by that term negative urgency.

Here we borrow from one article (1) which has an excellent review of  negative urgency (1).

The experience of emotion facilitates action. It has long been recognized that emotional processing appears to prepare the body for action (Frijda, 1986; Lang, 1993; Saami, Mumme, & Campos, 1998). In fact, to emote means, literally, to prepare for action (Maxwell & Davidson, 2007). Researchers have theorized that the relationship between emotional experiences and actions involve activation of the motor cortex by limbic structures (Morgenson, Jones, & Yim, 1980).

Some investigations have used neuroimaging techniques to document increased activity in motor areas of the brain during emotional processing (Bremner et al., 1999; Rauch et al., 1996), and nonhuman studies suggest the emotion-action interface may involve connections between the amygdala and the anterior cingulate cortex (ACC: Devinsky, Morrel, & Vogt, 1995).

Hajcak et al. (2007) found that emotionally arousing stimuli increase motor cortex excitability. The authors theorized that there may be individual difference in emotional reactivity that may relate to differences in the amount of activation of the motor cortex areas.

One takes action to meet the need identified by the emotion.Pinker (1997) makes this point by noting that “Most artificial intelligence researchers believe that freely behaving robots . . . will have to be programmed with something like emotions merely for them to know at every moment what to do next” (p. 374).

Intense emotions can undermine rational, advantageous decision making (Bechara, 2004, 2005;Dolan, 2007; Driesbach, 2006; Shiv et al., 2005). It also appears to be true that attempts to regulate negative emotions can impair one’s ability to continue self-control behaviors (Muraven & Baumeister, 2000; Tice & Bratslavsky, 2000; Tice,Bratslavsky, & Baumeister, 2001).

Thus, it is not surprising that individuals engage in other strategies to manage intense emotions that are ill-considered and maladaptive, in that they work against one’s long-term interests. For example, heavy alcohol use may be used to manage emotion. Daily diary studies of alcohol use indicate that individuals drink more on days when they experience anxiety and stress (Swendson et al., 2000).

Indeed, negative affect states have been shown to correlate with a greater frequency of many maladaptive, addictive behaviors, including alcohol and drug abuse (Colder & Chassin, 1997;Cooper, 1994; Cooper et al., 2000; Martin & Sher, 1994;Peveler & Fairburn, 1990). This pattern also is true of bulimic behaviors; individuals tend to participate in more binge eating and purging behaviors on days during which they experienced negative emotions (Agras & Telch, 1998; Smyth et al., 2007). Emotions such as shame, guilt, anger, depression, loneliness, stress, anxiety, boredom, and rejection are often cited as triggers for binge and purge episodes (Jeppson, Richards, Hardman, & Granley, 2003). For bulimic women, engaging in binge eating produces a decline in the earlier negative emotion (Smyth et al., 2007). Because actions like these do appear to reduce negative affect, they are reinforced.

Brain Pathways Related to Emotion-Based Action

Brain system involved in emotion and action -the amygdala, the orbitofrontal cortex (OFC) and its medial sector (the ventromedial prefrontal cortex, or VM PFC:Bechara, 2005), and other areas of the prefrontal cortex (PFC:Barbas, 2007). The amygdala appears to be heavily involved in the experience of negative affect; more broadly, it is thought to play a role in directing attention to emotionally salient stimuli, particularly stressful or disturbing stimuli (Davidson, 2003).


The OFC appears to be involved in the modulation of emotion-based reactivity (Davidson, 2003).

OFC activity overrides emotional responses, apparently by providing information and a bias toward long-term, goal-directed behavior (Lewis & Todd, 2007).

Davidson and his colleagues (Davidson, 1998, 2000,2003;Davidson & Irwin, 1999; Davidson, Putnam, & Larson, 2000) suggest the experience of intense emotion, and its accompanying potential actions, is inconsistent with one’s long-term goals. The OFC, perhaps particularly the left VM PFC, provides a biasing signal to avoid immediate reward, and thus maintain one’s pursuit of one’s longer-term goals. Davidson (2003) refers to this process as affect-guided planning and anticipation: with healthy left VMPFC functioning, one gains access to the emotion associated with anticipated outcomes consistent with one’s long-term goals. The ability to do so is, Davidson argues, the hallmark of adaptive, emotion-based decision making. At times, long-term affect-guided planning is difficult: the experience of intense emotions unrelated to one’s long-term interests may disrupt processing with regard to those interests (Gray, 1999; Preston, Buchanan, Stansfield, & Bechara, 2007). But healthy functioning of the left VM PFC helps one maintain an affective connection to one’s longer-term goals, and thus plan accordingly.

Damage to the OFC, and perhaps damage specifically to the VM PFC, results in affective lability and rash action particularly in inhibiting the action of amygdaloid reactivity.




The authors of this study put forward various reasons why OFC and VM PFC damage can cause rash action – we consider these before forwarding our own ideas of why OFC/ VM PFC damage may prompt distress based impulsivity.

The OFC, perhaps particularly the left VM PFC, provides a biasing signal to avoid immediate reward, and thus maintain one’s pursuit of one’s longer-term goals. Davidson (2003) refers to this process as affect-guided planning and anticipation: with healthy left VM PFC functioning, one gains access to the emotion associated with anticipated outcomes consistent with one’s long-term goals. Activation of the left VM PFC also appears to inhibit amygdalar activity (Davidson, 1998), thus shortening the time course of the experience of negative affect and attention to stressful stimuli. Because negative affect stimulates autonomic nervous system (ANS) activity, which provides support for action in response to distress, prolonged negative affect leads to prolonged ANS arousal (Davidson, 2000). Perhaps a greater duration of ANS arousal increases the likelihood of affect-triggered action. Activity in the amygdala appears to facilitate this process.

Damage to the OFC, and perhaps damage specifically to the VM PFC, results in affective lability and rash action. Individuals with PFC damage, and with OFC damage in particular, do not; they do not appear to have the normal anticipatory affective response to potential punishment (Bechara, 2004; Bechara, Tranel, Damasio, & Damasio, 1996; Cardinal et al., 2002).

Thus, OFC damage appears to impair affective anticipation of potential risk to one’s actions.

Bechara, Damasio, Damasio, and Anderson (1994) described OFC-damaged individuals as oblivious to the future consequences of their actions, but sensitive to immediate reinforcement and punishment. Thus, their actions tend to be guided by immediate consequences only. These patients had otherwise retained their intellectual capacities, including abstract reasoning skills. They could even describe possible future consequences in realistic language. They appeared simply to lack the anticipatory affect that others have; thus perhaps lacking the affect-guided anticipation described byDavidson (2003).

The authors then  suggest that  associations between the OFC/VM PFC-amygdala system and psychopathy are  consistent with their claim of an association between this system and the urgency traits. In other words, individuals high in psychopathy have reduced VM PFC functioning, and hence lack an affective connection to the consequences of their actions. Other studies have also documented similar OFC functioning deficits among psychopaths (Blair et al., 2006; Mitchell, Colledge, Leonard, & Blair, 2002).

This model is interesting but there is not mention of stress systems in this model although the authors mention distress and negative affect but not the stress chemicals underpinning these affective manifestations.

The authors also do no mention two hugely important points we believe;

a. that this amgydaloid (hyper) activity, caused by PFC dysfunction can also “offline” PFC activity (fig.1)

b. in favour of the compulsive, emotive-motoric behaviour of the dorsal striatum which drives rash action, distress-based impulsivity or compulsivity rendering the individual remote to negative consequence of actions, although he/she may be able to explain clearly these consequences. prior to or after seeming to not consider them. It is chronic stress dysregulation in addiction that “cuts off” access to action-outcome or goal-directed parts of the brain and recruits stimulus response, implicit, “must do” action instead.

fig 1.

nihms197465f5 (1)

This we believe is the mechanism of negative urgency rather than as the authors suggest in this article, but not included, that VMPFC damage renders individuals unknowing of consequence, when rather, consequence, negative or otherwise, has been cut off by this amygdaolid activity rendering action  outcome associations remote to consciousness.  The brain acts implicitly, procedurally or in a stimulus response way to distress we believe in addictive disorders when heightened amgydaloid reactivity  is in charge of behaviour with VMPFC deficit contributing to this amgydaloid dysfunction.

An argument against simply seeing rash behaviour as the result of OFC or VMPFC damage which leads to lack of knowledge of consequence is that it does not really consider the chronic stress that accompanies addictive behaviours and which creates a near constant distress which acts in the way we describe above.

This does not mean that there is a lack of emotionally guided behaviour or action on the part of addicts. It would appear, as discussed in previous blogs, that emotional processing deficits are common in addiction and may not recruit the goal-directed parts of the brain as the authors suggest. They do not guided action or choices effectively. As a result they manifest in perhaps crude, undifferentiated or processed forms as distress signals instead and recruit more limbic, motoric regions of the brain.  Hence they are not use to anticipate future, long term consequence.

We are simply adding that as addiction becomes more chronic, so does stress and emotional distress and this appears to lead to a distress-based “fight or flight” responding to decision making that the authors have mentioned in this article but not elucidated as above. Addicts increasing appear to recruit sub-cortical or limbic areas in decision making and this is prevalent in abstinence as in active using. it is the consequence of chronic and stress dysregulation.

We suggest that this chronic stress prompts negative urgency via an hypofunctioning ACC (2) and by a “emotional arousal habit bias” as seen in post traumatic stress disorder (3) whereby chronic emotional distress increasingly during the addiction cycle comes to implicitly activate dorsal striatal responding “offlining” the PFC in a similar manner to fig. 1.


1. Cyders, M. A., & Smith, G. T. (2008). Emotion-based dispositions to rash action: positive and negative urgency. Psychological bulletin, 134(6), 807.

2. Li, C. S. R., & Sinha, R. (2008). Inhibitory control and emotional stress regulation: neuroimaging evidence for frontal–limbic dysfunction in psycho-stimulant addiction. Neuroscience & Biobehavioral Reviews,32(3), 581-597.

3. Goodman, J., Leong, K. C., & Packard, M. G. (2012). Emotional modulation of multiple memory systems: implications for the neurobiology of post-traumatic stress disorder.


One Christmas I nearly relapsed!


One Christmas I nearly relapsed!

by alcoholicsguide

“One Christmas, I nearly relapsed. I did not wish to relapse, in fact I would rather put a gun to my head and blow my brains out! Nonetheless, I was indeed about to relapse. It seemed urgently inevitable.
The emotional distress I had suffered all over Christmas, prompted by sad unresolved feelings about my deceased parents’s had built up, aided by a few bitter arguments with my frustrated wife, into into a sheer, blind terror.
Somehow I had the sense to shakily climb the stairs to the top of the house to tell my wife that I was in trouble.My wife’s facial expression quickly flickered from hurt to heightened concern. She could tell by my quivering voice and ashen complexion that I was in trouble. I shakily walked over to sit near her. Out of the corner of my eye I could see a bottle of white spirits, which glowed invitingly with some spiritual lustre.
My attention seemed ‘locked into’ this bottle of spirits. Somewhere there was voice in my head saying “You could drink that, soon get rid of this terror”
My wife had been trying to talk to me, get through to me. I looked at her. I recognised her face but couldn’t remember her name or the fact she was my wife. My wife and I couldn’t remember her name!!? What the ….? I was consumed with a rampant rampaging terror that flipped by guts. Hallucinatory terror.
I was going to drink the white spirits. I have never drunk white spirits during my active alcoholism but had heard of plenty of alcoholics who had, and their wife’s perfume and many other such unthinkable liquids. It had, via these accounts, become a viable option. Something I could drink if need be!
It seemed like this was one of those moments.
“What do you normally do?” was all I heard. What? “What do you mean, what do I normally do….?” I hesitantly replied in a hushed almost child-like voice. “When you are like this, what do you normally do?” her voicing becoming more urgent . I could see the white spirits glisten and almost feel it evaporate, on my tongue, harshly as it deeply burnt my chest with a warm reassuring heat, move glowingly outwards from there in little dendritic branches of smoothing warmth and the whispering promised of blessed relief and good cheer. When alcoholism whispers sweet nothings it is sweeter than your lover.
“You better drink it” sounded in my head. I couldn’t remember what I normally do, or who was this asking this I head was jumbled and terrified. “You’d better do it”, the internal voice insisted. All I could feel was huge surges of stress chemicals pulsating through my veins like little scuttling manic spiders, speeding through my veins, up and down the insides of my legs, my limbs, scurrying frantically.
For some inexplicable reason, I thought, or a thought occurred to me “once I would have thought this a massive craving!” but now I felt I knew better. This wasn’t an appetitive craving, I didn’t fancy a wee drinky winky, wouldn’t that be nice.
I knew this was a stress based urge and nothing to do with desire. Nonetheless, I would kill for a drink, but paradoxically I didn’t even want one!? It wasn’t for pleasure but to escape this escalating aversion.
I knew somewhere, and know more now, that the stress chemicals swirling around my nervous system were activating my reward (or survival) brain systems. I knew it because I had read about it. Many, many times. Enough times. Stress and emotional distress activated the inner beast.
Massive amounts of stress and distress cuts off the action outcome memory, the explicit memory, the remembering of knowledge of what I would normally do in this type of situation, the “what do you normally do in this situation?” my wife had implored me to recall. It was completely cut off, I couldn’t get to it, access it. It might as well have belonged to someone else.
In there, in that explicit memory, was my wife’s name and other life saving stuff like what I normally did when faced with inevitable relapse, apart from staring at a bottle of spirits and salivating!
Stuff like the tips of recovery that I had learnt so proficiently that they were ingrained in my explicit memory, for occasions such as this one!?
Some of this recovery memory had become habitualized in my implicit memory too, thank God. It was this memory that had prompted me to climb the stairs to my wife’s help on my uncertain legs. To automatically ask for help. This was implicit recovery.
The very memory I could now not access now was explicit, because the excessive stress had cut if off. The what to do now I have asked for help memory. I knew this from my research as well. The “flight or fight “mechanism, a cascade of noradrenaline, the actions of chronic stress on switching explicit to implicit memory from the action outcome to the stimulus response, to the compulsive automatised, you see it and then you do it, memory. The stimulus response memory.
The distress was the stimulus and drinking to alleviate it would be the response. Your life can depend on this memory, like when fleeing an approaching tiger, so it does not ease it’s grip on your mind too readily or easily. This is the memory with no insight of future negative consequence. It acts now and too hell with the later consequences. The “let’s deal with this now!” memory, not later.
The “what I usually did as a chronic drinking alcoholic during extreme moments of distress”, a compulsive action hardwired into my brain. I drank alcohol previously at such prompting. It had become a unpremeditated, compulsive reaction to distress. It was how I survived back then. But then was now.
Not only did it shut off my escape route via my explicit memory and knowledge of how to get out of this life threatening crisis but it locked me into “your life is in danger, act without thinking, just do the thing your have normally done over the past 25 odd years” routine.
It showed me fleeting images of doing it before, drinking, in case I had forgotten, floating airy glimpses of the people I did it with and where, when, and whispered to me that this this person was actually the real me. Not this quivering sober fraud, in this torturous alien sober reality. That I was kidding myself.
The response was positively motoric. Get up and go over there and…drink! Lots! I could feel my legs stiffen and steal themselves.
Drink, although you would rather kill yourself than drink. Where was the choice there in this? Where had it gone, disappeared with my explicit memory no doubt? As my wife further implored me to do something, the voice in my heading was now screeching orders at me “Drink now!” “Drink now or you..will, die!!!” Drink for God’s sake, drink!!”
So it wasn’t to be a case of I will relapse because “hey one will not hurt” sort of reasoning, rationalising and justification. I was being implored to drink because my life was at risk if I did not!! I could die. I could die if I didn’t!
How badly is an alcoholics reward/survival system hijacked…usurped when this brain is imploring him to do the very thing that will kill him? And in order to help, save him from this nightmare, help him survive like some psychotic caregiver would suggest. How far down the road from full cognitive control over one’s behaviour had I gone.
Answer: about as far as I could go! How much stress surges through the alcoholics brain to close down the mnemonic survival kit. When you can’t access your “recovery” survival kit, the old alcoholic one kicks in! The alcoholic self schema overrides the recovering alcoholic schema.
I slumped to my knees and implored through tear blurred eyes for help from somewhere. I gave in profoundly, I was beat. I surrendered. The stress retreated like waves scuttling away from a beach. All action stations became deactivated and the red swirling light in my head and the honking siren turned off. I was emotionally traumatised but still sober.” An abbreviated excerpt from “How Research Helped Save My Life” 
I had given up on the idea that I, my self, could solve this terrifying dilemma. The answer was outside of my self, my survival network, it was in letting go. Letting go of the distress and all the brain regions it was activating; memory, attention. emotion, reward/survival. It is regions that make up the self that are taken over in the course of alcoholism. The self can no longer be fully trusted in matters such as these. It needs to escape to brain regions outside of self or to the helping arms and reassurance of someone who knows how to help, and external prefrontal cortex of reason. One armed combat with the self will end up in crushing defeat. At certain times we are beyond our own mental control.
This ancedotal evidence highlights why research is essential to the effective treatment of alcoholism and addiction as it clearly shows the neural mechanisms implicated in relapse in chronic addiction. Altered stress systems (and their affective manifestation of emotional distress) hijack memory systems. In “offlining” the prefrontal cortex and the explicit memory of the hippocampal region it makes it very difficult to access “recovery tools” and prevent relapse.
It is only in clearly understanding these mechanisms can we seek to prevent the very high level of relapse in these clinical groups. We have to fully understand the problem before we can effectively deal with it.
We have shown via this “case study” how one can almost relapse when one has no desire ever to drink again, we have shown how it is emotional distress that precipitates and prompts this type of relapse.
We have seem how the “self will” is greatly limited and the regulation of self usurped by the impact of stress systems on reward/motivation, attention, affective and memory systems. Systems all essential to regulating one’s behaviour.
Thus treatment may find it more profitable in addressing measures to alleviate distress, increase stress and emotional coping strategies and improve the emotional regulation that is key to recovery.

So how is your decision making?


In this blog we will look at something  which we believe is apparent in alcoholics,  the decision making difficulties very present  in active alcoholism and to a lesser extent in recovery.

By this we mean there is a tendency to use the short term fix over more long term considerations, a more “want it now” than delayed gratification. This may be down to internal body (somatic signals) which can give rise to an unpleasant feeling at times prior making a decision, as if we sometimes make decisions based on a distress feeling rather than forward thinking, that we choose a decision to alleviate this feeling. It has been suggested by some authors that emotions do not guide the decision making of alcoholics and addicts properly and this is the reason why they are maladpative.

Equally it may be that certain somatic states such as the so-called ‘primary inducers’ of feeling, mainly centring on  the “anxious” amgydala which helps in our responding to body states associated with chronic drug and alcohol abuse, such as alleviated, chronic stress (and it’s manifestation as emotional distress) have the potential to dominate decisions, to treat decisions in a habitual, automatic manner and not in via  a thoughtful consideration of the possible outcome of our decisions.  

Once science thought we make sensible reasonable decision based on pure reason but it has become clear in recent decades that we use emotional signals ,”gut feelings” to make decisions too.

It appears that if we don’t access these emotional signals we are destined to make the move decisions over and over again, regardless of their outcome and consequence.

The extreme example of emotions guiding decisions, would be running from a rampaging lion, this decision is make emotionally, via the quick and dirty route, the “low road” according to Le Doux. The amygdala, which directs signal traffic in the brain when danger lurks, receives quick and dirty information directly from the thalamus in a route that neuroscientist Joseph LeDoux dubs the low road.

This shortcut allows the brain to start responding to a threat within a few thousandths of a second. The amygdala also receives information via a high road from the cortex. Although the high road encodes much more detailed and specific information, the extra step takes at least twice as long— and could mean the difference between life and death. 

Emotional dysregulation and altered reward sensitivity may underpin impulsive behavior and poor decision-making.

Both of these tendencies can be seen in the “real-world” behavior of addicted individuals, but can also be studied using laboratory-based paradigms.

Addiction is associated with a loss of control over drug use which continues in spite of individuals’ awareness of serious negative consequences.

Increased reward  alone, as seen in alcoholics and resulting in attentional bias and automatic responding to cues (internal and external)  do not seem a sufficient explanation for this persistent maladaptive behavior of addiction.

Instead there must be additional deficits in decision-making and/or inhibiting these maladaptive behaviours and which critically involve  emotional factors exerting a detrimental effect on cognitive function.

The term “impulsivity” is often used to describe behavior characterized by excessive approach with an additional failure of effective inhibition (1) and has consistently been found to be associated with substance dependence (2,3).

Impulsivity is a complex multifaceted construct which has resulted in numerous additional definitions such as, “the tendency to react rapidly or in unplanned ways to internal or external stimuli without proper regard for negative consequences or inherent risks” (4), or “the tendency to engage in inappropriate or maladaptive behaviors” (2).

This we suggest could be the consequence of either the push or pull of dsyregulated emotions.

By this we mean we either do not use emotions properly to feel the right  decision as we cannot process them properly to use them as “guides” in decision making or these dsyregulated emotions become distressing and prompt more compulsive decision making, effectively to relieve the distress of these negative emotional states.

Either way it appears that not only do alcoholics, but also children of alcoholics, use a more motor-expressive style of decision making, i.e. they recruit more compulsive regions of the brain rather than prefrontal cortex areas normally used used to make planned, evaluative decisions.

It appears that emotional dsyregulation is at the heart of maladaptive decison making in alcoholics and addicts.

Distressed Based Impulsivity?

Emotional impulsivity more closely reflects the interaction between emotional and cognitive processes. Negative urgency,   the disposition to engage in rash action when experiencing extreme negative affect (mood, emotion or anxiety), or in simple terms, distress-based impulsivity, was found to be the best predictor of alcohol, drug, social, legal, medical, and employment problems (5).

Substance users frequently make decisions with a view to immediate gratification (6-10), and may be less sensitive to negative future outcome (‘myopia for the future’) (11,12). It has been hypothesized that substance users are less able to use negative feedback to guide and adjust ongoing behavior (12).

These findings highlight a specific role for emotion.

Emotional impulsivity traits appear distinct from other impulsivity traits and particularly pertinent for dependence, reliably differentiating substance users from controls, and also predicting poorer outcomes in dependent individuals.

The impact of emotional processing on cognitive performance.

A common behavioral measure of impulsivity is the delay discounting task which measures the degree of temporal discounting. Participants are faced with the choice of a small immediate reward, or a larger delayed reward; choosing the smaller immediate reward indicates a higher degree of impulsivity.

Increased discounting of larger delayed rewards has been found in heroin- (13), cocaine- (14), and alcohol (15 -17) -dependent individuals.

Enhanced discounting is also seen during opiate withdrawal, possibly reflecting the emergence of negative affect states during withdrawal (18).

Withdrawal is a period of heightened noradrenaline ( a “stress” chemical”) and this excessive stress has a bearing on decision making, and in relapse.

High levels of negative affect, anxiety/stress sensitivity a in substance dependent individuals may therefore contribute to observed deficits on decision-making tasks. Stress mechanisms are considered to be important mechanisms underlying relapse (19), suggesting these emotional traits impair real life decision-making.

Studies directly assessing the role of emotional states on decision-making in opiate addiction have shown that trait and state anxiety are negatively correlated with performance on the the Iowa Gambling Task – IGT (20). Furthermore, stress induction using the Trier Social Stress Test, was shown to produce a significant deterioration in IGT performance in long term abstinence and newly abstinent heroin users, but not in comparison subjects.

Treatment with the B adrenocepter antagonist propranolol blocked the deleterious effect of stress on IGT performance, supporting the role of the noradrenergic system in the generation of negative emotional states in substance dependence (21).

These findings indicate that conditioned emotional responses, i.e. stress based emotional response, impair decision-making.

The impact of emotion on impulsive action and decision making

Planning systems (also referred to as deliberative, cognitive, reflective or executive systems) are “goal-directed” systems that allow an agent to consider the possible consequences or outcomes of its actions to guide behavior. Habit systems mediate behaviors that are triggered in response to certain stimuli or situations but without consideration of the consequences.

“Habit” systems do not mean we are calling addiction is a habit, it simply means behaviour is automatic, ingrained, individuals respond immediately, without future consequence  to certain stimulus, such as stress or emotional distress. It is a conditioned response!

Brain areas underlying these conditioned or Pavlovian responses include the amygdala, which identifies the emotional significance or value of external stimuli, and the ventral  striatum, which mediates motivational influences on instrumental responding (22), and their connections to motor circuits (23).

Thus, it has been argued that emotions constitute a decision-making system in their own right, exerting a dominant effect on choice in situations of opportunity or threat (24).

It should be noted here, that in the addiction cycle, as it progresses towards endpoint addiction and compulsive use of substances, there is a stress based reduction  in prefrontal cognitive control over behaviour, and a responding more based on automatic emotive-motoric regions of the brain such s the dorsal striatal (DS) (and basal ganglia). Reward processing moves to the DS also from the ventral striatum (VS).

Thus stress modulates instrumental action in favour of the DS-based habit system at the expense of the PFC-based goal-directed system, also seen in hypertrophy of the DS and hypotrophy of the PFC.

This shift from cognitive to automatic is also the result of  excessive engagement of habitual processes, by partly by affecting the contribution of multiple memory systems on behaviour. We suggest that emotional stress via amgydaloid activity knocks out the hippocampal (explicit) memory in favour of the DS which is also a memory system, that of implicit memory, the procedural memory.

In lien with addiction severity, the brain appears to implode inwards towards compulsive behaviours of sub-cortical areas such as the DS modulated by the amgydala from more conscious cognitive control areas of the cortex. In fact, it is possible to say that this conscious cognitive control diminishes.

Recent evidence suggests this role of stress in shifting goal-directed control to habitual control of behavior (25). This effect appears to be mediated by the action of both cortisol and noradrenaline (26).

More importantly, perhaps for our argument is that , this shift from hippcampal to DS memory is also a function of a “emotional arousal habit bias”, as seen in post traumatic stress disorder,  via amgydaloid hyperactivity, or distress based hyperactivity,  which results in emotional distress acting as a stimulus to the automatic responding of the DS. Affect related behaviour, in essence, becomes more compulsively controlled also.

In simple terms, negative urgency, may bias an automatic responding towards amgydaloid activation of the dorsal striatum and away from cortical areas such as the ventromedial cortex  – vmPFC (27 ) which is involved in emotionally guided decision making and this may have consequence for decision making as decision making involves  responding to stimulus such as emotionally provoking stimuli.

One study (28) showed this vmpfc to be hyperactive in recently abstinent alcoholics, perhaps as the result of altered stress systems which create a state called allostasis, and when further stressed responding moved to the more compulsive regions of the brain listed above. This suggest to us, that there are inherent difficulties with emotional dysregulation, particularly in early abstinence/recovery and that these resources when taxed further by seemingly stressful decision making may be dealt with via a need to make a decision to relieve this “distress” feeling rather than achieve a long term outcome. Relieving this distress is thus the outcome most urgent.

Thus for some alcoholics there is an overtaxing of the areas implicated in emotional regulation and thus emotionally guided decision making and under extreme stress we suggest this switches to more a more compulsive decision making profile.

The habit system chooses actions based upon stored associations of their values from past experience; through training, an organism learns the best action to take in a certain situation. Upon recognition of the situation again this “best action” will automatically be initiated, without consideration of consequences of such an action. This process is very fast but inflexible, unable to adapt quickly to changes in the value of outcomes (29,30).

Thus although emotion can guide decision-making when it is integral to the task at hand, emotional responses that are excessive can be detrimental (31).

Dorsal prefrontal regions are also involved in the regulation of affective states (32). Excessive emotion is likely to require increased regulation by these areas (33,34).

Dorsal prefrontal regions are additionally important in decision-making and inhibitory control, thus high levels of emotion that require regulation may limit resources available for these functions, which may contribute to deficits in decision-making.

As we mentioned this PFC control becomes impaired in the addiction cycle with automatic responding becomes more prevalent. This is especially the result of the emotional manifestation of chronic stress which is distress. We suggest this distress can act as a switch between conscious and automatic (unconscious) responding and this has consequences for decision making.

Given the crucial role of emotions in the processes of decision-making as described above, it follows that dysregulation of emotional processing may contribute to the observed decision-making deficits observed in substance dependent individuals. Decisions are driven by distress or negative affect and appear to favour now over then/later.

Looking Inside the Brain

A consistent finding of neuroimaging studies of decision-making in substance dependence is hypoactivation of the prefrontal cortex (35-37), 

Chronic drug use is consistently associated with VPFC, DLPFC and antior cingulate or ACC  gray matter loss in cocaine and alcohol dependence (38-42) and reduced prefrontal neuronal viability in opiate dependence (43,44). VPFC and DLPFC loss have been shown to predict both impaired performance on the IGT (45) and preference for immediate gratification in delay discounting tasks (37)

These areas and others involved in emotional regulation such as the hippocampus, orbitofrontal cortex  and insula show morphological abnormalities and the  emotional regulation neural network as a whole appears to have functionality and connectivity impairments.

These all suggest emotions are not being utilized properly to guide decisions. This may even appear as unregulated and distressing with the brain experiencing this distress rather than processed emotions.

A similar decision making profile is seen in alexithymia, where there is a difficulty labelling and processing emotions and thus using them to guide decision making which appears to result in recruitment of more compulsive or motor expressive areas of the brain outlined here. There are also similar morphological, neurobiological and connectivity impairments as seen in addiction. Cocaine addicts also  have a similar decision making profile as do children of alcoholics, before they start to use substances.

Whether these separate groups all have distress prompting this decision making profile  or whether it is unpleasant feeling state based on not fully processing emotion is open to debate.

As the prefrontal regions of the planning system are impaired in substance dependence, this compromises both the ability to generate affective states relating to long term goals and the ability to exert executive inhibitory control over drug-seeking thoughts and actions .

Dorsal prefrontal regions are involved in the regulation of affective states . Therefore excessive anxiety  would require increased regulation by these areas. Studies have shown dorsal prefrontal regions to be important in regulating reducing amygdala activity . Considering these prefrontal regions are important for  decision-making and anxiety regulation would limit the resources available for effective decision-making within the planning system and would not be able to inhibit more amgydaloid, or compulsive responding.

Bechara  concluded that  an impaired ability to use affective signals to guide behavior underlie impaired decision-making in these individuals. We forward the idea that distress signals guide this decision making and behaviour via a compulsive desire to automatically act to relieve a distress state. Whether via an unprocessed emotional state or as the consequence of the addiction cycle and excessive chronic distress recruiting compulsive parts of the brain.

Either way emotional processing and regulation deficits lie at the heart of these decision making difficulties! 

Now is chosen instead of later, short term gains rather than long term higher gains, because of the negative urgency to act now, to relieve a distress, which automatically, not consciously, devalues future outcome.

The future is now in other words.

There is a distress based urgency to act this moment, not later.  It is this desire to compulsively act which may give rise to obsessive compulsive behaviours, based on the desire to relieve distress not on the relative merits of a future consequence.

It can appear as a “little emergency” not a choice, the “flight or fight” response that delay discounting could possible be measuring and that excessive noradrenaline and glucocorticoids (stress chemicals) prompt – it has to be done, needs to be done now!


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An Emotional Disease?

Is Addiction an Emotional Disease!?

“Addiction”, is widely viewed as a chronic, relapsing, neurobiological disorder, characterized by compulsive use of alcohol or substances, despite serious negative consequences. It involves both physiological and psychological dependence and leads to the emergence of a negative emotional state.  The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, DSM-5, combines DSM-IV categories of substance abuse and dependence into a single disorder, on a continuum from mild to severe.  The previous definition of addiction by the American Society of Addiction Medicine (ASAM) includes the terms, craving, persistent risk, and emphasizes risk of relapse after periods of abstinence triggered by exposure to substance-related cues and emotional stressors . This conceptualisation points to the role of substance-related cues, e.g., environmental stimuli that are strongly associated with the effects of the administration of substances and acquire incentive salience through Pavlovian conditioning, as well as stress (an internal cue), as major determinants of relapse.

For example in terms of the reasons for relapse implicated in much research, alcoholics relapse due to ‘cue-reactivity’ i.e. they see ‘people, places, or things’ associated with their drinking past and they are drawn to it and simply relapse.

 In some years of recovery, we have rarely heard of a committed abstinent alcoholic addict in recovery who relapsed simply because he/she was lured siren like to some cue associated stimuli. That is not to say cue reactivity is not a valid construct, it is obviously. Recovering alcoholics  exhibit an automatic, that is involuntary,  attentional bias towards drug and alcohol-related “cues”. This is a torturous aspect of early recovery thus most therapeutic regimes advise those in early abstinence and recovery to avoid “people, places and things” that act as  cue-associated stimuli. In fact, some in early recovery do challenge this only to learn painfully as the result by thinking they can spend time, like before, in drinking establishments,  only to find that it is “like sitting in a hairdressors  all day and not expecting to eventually get a haircut!”

A more recent  ASAM definition includes “Addiction is a primary, chronic disease of brain reward, motivation, memory and related circuitry. Dysfunction in these circuits leads to characteristic biological, psychological, social and spiritual manifestations. Addiction is characterized by inability to consistently abstain, impairment in behavioral control, craving, diminished recognition of significant problems with one’s behaviors and interpersonal relationships, and a dysfunctional emotional response.”

We appreciate the role now afforded to “dysfunctional emotional response” in this new definition as we believe it is dysfunctional emotional response which is at the heart of alcoholism and addiction.

Our own experience of recovery, coupled with our neuroscientific research over several years, has  made us curious as why the ways addicts and alcoholics talk about their condition or the explanations they forward all generally point to what they would call an “emotional disease” or “a parasite the feeds on their emotions”, an “emotional cancer” or a “fear based disease” yet these are rarely countenanced in any theory of addiction, whether neurobiological, psychological, psycho-analytical (although there have been very interesting ideas based on attachment within this methodology).

How could addicts and alcoholics be so wrong about themselves and what ails them? Especially when they see it also in hundreds of others with the same condition? We doubt that they are wrong, in fact, we have in recent years taken the opposite approach and started to explore, in terms of research, if addiction and alcoholism, especially, have their roots in emotional dysregulation and emotional processing deficits

In even more recent times, we have been encouraged that these difficulties also shape decision making difficulties, distress based impulsivity (leading to compulsivity) lack of inhibition across various psychological domains, as well as more revealingly the cognitive and executive dysfunctions and ‘flight or flight’ reactions which seem common to this group, over reacting in other words.

There appears to be a short term decision making profile which we suggest is distress based, which implicates more emotive-motoric “automatic,compulsive”regions of the brain rather than goal-directed. A more “let’s do it NOW!”way of making decisions.  This is also seen in children of alcoholics.

Could this be an important vulnerabilty to alcoholism? In order to get this debate going we will now consider whether there are possibilities for re-defining the DSM criterion in relation to the manifest difficulties observed in these clinical groups in relation to emotional dysregulation. The “official” nosology (e.g. DSM IV) is largely limited to physical manifestations of addiction although addicted individuals display additional psychiatric symptoms that affect their well-being and social functioning but which have been relegated to the domain of psychiatric “comorbidity.” 

Although the relationship of these psychiatric symptoms with addiction is very close, substance abuse may modify pre-existing psychic structures and lead to addiction as a specific mental disorder, inclusive of symptoms pertaining to mood/anxiety, or impulse control dimensions, decision making difficulties or, as we suggest, the various characteristics of emotional dysregulation. All of which suggests the current DSM based nosology of addiction-related mental comorbidity does not consider the overlap of the biological substrates and neurophysiology of addictive processes and psychiatric symptoms associated with addiction, so fails to include specific mood, anxiety, and impulse control dimensions and decision making difficulties in the psychopathology of addictive processes.

Addiction reaches beyond the mere result of drug-elicited effects on the brain and cannot be peremptorily equated only with the use of drugs despite the adverse consequences produced. Addiction is a relapsing chronic condition in which these psychiatric manifestations play a crucial role. Thus it may be that the aetiology of addiction cannot be severed from its psychopathological underpinning, it’s roots.  In may have been initiated by these mechanisms and also the addiction cycle may be continually perpetuated by them. Particularly in view of the undeniable presence of symptoms, of their manifest contribution to the way addicted patients feel and behave, and to the role they play in maintaining the continued use of substances.

In other words, the latter symptoms frequently precede the addictive process constituting a predisposing psychological background on which substance effects and addictive processes interact, leading to a full-fledged psychiatric disorder. Within the frame of the current DSM, numerous relevant psychiatric issues in substance abuse disorders may have been overlooked.   Even in the absence of psychiatric diagnosis, specific psychological vulnerabilities may constitute a background for the development of  disorders. The neural circuitry implicated in affective reactivity and regulation is closely related to the circuitry proposed to underlie addictive behaviours.  Affect is related to dysfunctional decision-making processes and risky behaviours,  In fact, we suggest these affective processing difficulties cause inherent decision making difficulties and constitute a premorbid vulnerability.

Substance dependence is associated with significant emotional dysregulation that influences cognition via numerous mechanismsThis dysregulation comes in the form of heightened reward sensitivity to drug-related stimuli, reduced sensitivity to natural reward stimuli, and heightened sensitivity of the brain’s stress systems that respond to threats. Such disturbances have the effect of biasing attentional processing toward drugs with powerful rewarding and/or anxiolytic effects. 

Emotional dysregulation can also result in impulsive actions and influence decision-making. It appears clear in addiction and alcoholism (substance dependence)  and that emotional processing significantly impairs cognition in substance dependence. Emotionally influenced cognitive impairments have serious negative effects with both the resultant attentional bias and decision-making deficits being predictive of drug relapse. 

The influence of emotion is clearly detrimental in substance dependence, and many of the detrimental effects observed are due to the ability of drugs of abuse to mimic the effects of stimuli or events that have survival significance. Drugs of abuse effectively trick the brain’s emotional systems into thinking that they have survival significance!

They trick the alcoholic into thinking he needs to drink to survive! 

It is important to note that the neural mechanisms implicated in neurobiological accounts of the transition to endpoint addiction from initial use are also experienced emotionally in human beings, in addicted individuals. That human beings, addicted individuals have to live with these profound alterations and impairments of various regions and neural networks in the brain. And that it is in treating these human manifestation of this neurobiological disease, i.e. one’s “dysfunctional emotional responses” in every day life that is required for long term recovery. We have to manage the emotional difficulties which perpetuate this disease, this “parasite on our emotions”, otherwise these dysfunctional overwhelming emotions manage us.   

It is through this emotional dysregulation that the addiction cycle is experienced and via emotional means perpetuated! It is through living “emotionally light” and spiritually aware lives which help manage our emotions that perpetuate our long term recovery.

Emotional distress is at the heart of addiction and alcoholism, and relief from it on a continually, daily basis is at the heart of recovery.    


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