Distorted Thinking!!

We have a new page!!.

This page will look at the myriad of cognitive distortions and preservative (and deluded) thinking that appears to be part of the condition of many different addictive behaviours.



So far in this blog we have looked at how altered stress systems effect emotion processing and regulation and how this results in the increasingly compulsive need to use substances and behaviours to regulate subsequent negative emotions and affect.

Now we will be looking at the third strata of this disorder of addictive behaviour, that of distorted preservative thinking. Perseverative thinking is when someone gets an idea or thoughts in their head and just can’t get them out.

It is commonly shared in 12 step meeting show we have a problem with our thinking and hence our decision making. We find this to be true for us also.

Some addictive behaviours have their own specific cognitive distortions such as with gambling and eating disorders in addition to a more generalized pattern of cognitive distortions associated with all additive behaviours and psychopathology more generally.

Unlike those who feel cognitive distortions cause psychopathology we believe cognitive distortions are the consequence of impaired stress systems and emotion dysregulation which implicate a hyperactive amgydaloid region of the brain.

We feel that persistent negative and distorted thinking is the direct consequence and manifestation of stress and emotion dysregulation. It is how stress and emotion dysregulation manifests  in thought processes; these thought processes obviously worsen this stress and emotion dysregulation and vice versa.

In recovery by addressing either stress, negative affect or our distorted thinking we automatically deal with the other factors.  Hence distress is at the heart of our addictive behaviour.

If we reduce our distress we reduce stress reactivity, the effect of negative emotions and their manifest distorted thoughts.

Hence addictive behaviour is a three level ( tri strata) disorder of stress hyper reactivity, emotion dysregulation and distorted thoughts, all interconnectedly reactive.



In other words, the thinking of addicted individuals seems to be “fear-based” or distress prompted which leaves perception and reaction to it rather it distorted.

Along with these thoughts there is a reciprocal increase in stress chemical reactivity and increasingly impaired e motion regulation and processing of emotions.

Hence these unregulated negative emotions act with heigthen stress reactivity and spiraling distorted thinking to increase relapse vulnerability.

As a result we believe that distorted preservative thinking, thinking that persists and gets increasingly distorted,  is a part of the aetiology of addictive behaviour.

Equally we believe it is the consequence of a distress state activated by a hyperactive amgydala which increases stress reactivity, emotion dysregulation and then distorted thinking in a viscous circle.

We believe, based on our own research and experience of recovery that this is viscous circle is a common feature of all addictive behaviours.


Eating Disorders based on a Body “Feeling State” Confusion?

Here we look at emotion processing deficits in eating disorders and whether the extent of these difficulties can predict treatment outcome three years later.  This would demonstrate the ongoing role of emotion processing, as conceptualised as alexithymia, plays an ongoing role in the pathomechanism driving eating disorders.

This article also had a very good description of the somatic/emotional confusion which creates that unpleasant feeling state we have referred to before which appears to end in compulsive reactive behaviour rather than goal-directed, adaptive, evaluative, action-outcome thinking.

As we have shared before this is due to emotions not be labelled and used as guides to recruit goal directed parts of the brain but rather in their emotionally undifferentiated state they appear to compel us to react rather than consider our long term actions and their consequences.

“Several cross-sectional studies have reported high levels of alexithymia in populations with eating disorders.

However, only few studies, fraught with multiple methodological biases, have assessed the prognostic value of alexithymic features in these disorders. The aim of this study (1) was to investigate the long-term prognostic value of alexithymic features in a sample of patients with eating disorders.

The Difficulty  Identifying Feelings factor of the Toronto Alexithymia Scale (TAS-20), often used to assess levels of alexithymia, emerged as a significant
predictor of treatment outcome. In other words, the results  of this study indicated that difficulty in identifying feelings can act as a negative prognostic ( meaning predictive of something in the future)   factor of the long-term outcome of patients with eating disorders.

eating_disorder_by_ttonny-d2yezty (1)


The authors of this study also suggested that professionals should carefully monitor emotional identification and expression in patients with eating disorders and develop specific strategies to encourage labeling and sharing of emotions.

The identification of variables that predict treatment outcome in patients with eating disorders is critical if we are to increase the degree of sophistication with which we treat eating disorders…Among the several psychological features that have been proposed to predict treatment outcome in patients with eating disorders, alexithymia has attracted special interest.
Alexithymia is a personality construct characterized (partly) by a difficulty in identifying and describing feelings.

Several arguments, namely, factor analyses and longitudinal studies, have supported the view that alexithymia is a stable personality trait rather than a state-dependent phenomenon linked to depression or to clinical status [3,4].

Several studies have reported high levels of alexithymia in patients with eating disorders, especially in individuals with anorexia nervosa [5–8]. There are several reasons to believe that this construct could play a major role in the illness course of eating disorders: due to their cognitive limitations in emotion regulation, alexithymic individuals with eating disorders may resort to
maladaptive self-stimulatory behaviors such as starving, bingeing, or drug misuse to self-regulate disruptive emotions.

The results of our study indicate that one of the facets of the alexithymia construct, the difficulty in identifying feelings, is a negative prognostic factor for the long-term outcome of patients with eating disorders. Patients with the
greatest difficulties at identifying emotions at baseline are more often symptomatic at follow-up and show a less favorable clinical improvement.

There are several ways in which alexithymia can affect the clinical outcome of eating disorders: via the negative influence it exerts on the clinical expression of the disorders and on the response to therapeutic interventions.

First, the difficulty in identifying feelings may reduce the capacity of patients with eating disorders to adapt to stressful situations [28]. Such situations generate an emotional overflow that alexithymic subjects apprehend less by emotional and cognitive features than by their associated somatic indexes[29]. This uncertainty between feelings and bodily sensations reminds us of the interoceptive (a sensitivity to stimuli originating inside of the body) confusion proposed by Hilde Bruch [30,31].

Luminet et al. [32] have experimentally observed a dissociation of the components of the emotional response of alexithymic subjects (a physiological hyperreactivity to emotional stimuli associated to a deficit at the level of the cognitive experience), which illustrate the functioning of patients with eating disorders.

Faced with the physiological arousal induced by emotional demands, these patients may show poor adaptive strategies. They may resort to restricted patterns of repetitive and automated behaviors, such as the hyperactivity of anorexic individuals or the binges/purge cycles of bulimic  subjects, which temporarily relieve their feeling of discomfort and restore their inner equilibrium [33,34] but generate, in the long term, a positive reinforcement of the eating disorder. 

Second, alexithymia may be related to a chronic course of eating disorders by its relationship with other pathological behaviors, especially with addictive disorders. We have shown in previous studies that alexithymia is associated
with addictive behaviors in patients with bulimia [35].

Patients with eating disorders may resort to addictive behaviors to relieve the anxious and depressive feelings elicited by their negative perceptions of themselves [36].”

Thus to conclude, eating disorders appear to have the same emotion processing and regulation deficits as other addictive behaviours, particularly emotional differentiation, a difficulty in knowing exactly what one is feeling.

Interestingly eating disorders seem also to be driven by the same negative self perception we have seen in other addictive disorders.


1.  Speranza, M., Loas, G., Wallier, J., & Corcos, M. (2007). Predictive value of alexithymia in patients with eating disorders: A 3-year prospective study.Journal of psychosomatic research, 63(4), 365-371.


“Eating our Words!?” – Emotion-Processing Deficits in Eating Disorders

In eating disorder patients, an impairment of emotional processing is clinically supposed. As quoted by Bruch (1985), anorexic patients not only show impaired differentiation between hunger and satiety, but they can hardly differentiate their physical sensations from their intimate emotions, which they often cannot describe. Bulimic patients often respond to stress with a bulimic crisis and vomiting, but they can hardly correlate their crisis with any emotional stimulus (Davis, Marsh, 1986).

Several studies suggest that alexithymia is a predominant factor in eating disorder.

Emotional awareness was defined by Lane and Schwartz in the late 1980s as the capacity of an individual to describe his or her own feelings and another person’s emotional experience (Lane & Schwartz, 1987). Lane and Schwartz  conceptualised emotional awareness as a cognitive process undergoing various structural transformations along a cognitive-developmental sequence (1987,
p. 134).

Lane and Schwartz focused on a way to measure the level of emotional awareness an individual has reached. For these authors, the degree of structural organization of emotional awareness is reflected by the verbal material individuals provide to describe their emotional experience. They pinpoint that emotional experience does not require language to be conscious, but that language helps to structure and
establish concepts, and therefore increases the ability to discriminate between differentiated emotional states.

From this point of view, Lane, Quinlan, Schwartz, Walker, and Zeitlan (1990) elaborated the Levels of Emotional Awareness Scale (LEAS), which is aimed at evaluating an individual’s capacity to describe not only his or her own emotional experience but also the emotional states of others. The scoring of this instrument is based on the analysis of the verbal contents the individual provides in response to a series of 20 short stories depicting a variety of emotional situations. The discriminant validity of this instrument has confirmed that the level of emotional awareness is independent of depression and anxiety (Bydlowski et al., 2002;
Lane et al., 1990).


Alexithymia was considered by Lane and Schwartz  as corresponding to the lower end of the emotional awareness continuum, that is, the preconceptual level of emotion organization and regulation within their hierarchical model. Indeed, alexithymia can be viewed as a deficit in the cognitive processes involved in the representation of emotional internal and external experiences, characterized by the
persistence of cognitive-affective modalities of the first levels of development, below the concrete operational level (where emotions are experienced somatically).




This study (1) in accordance with their initial hypothesis, demonstrated that patients suffering  from eating disorders showed evidence of an emotion-processing deficit independent of affective disorders, such as anxiety and depression.

In the current study, individuals with an eating disorder were characterized by a global emotion processing deficit, with impaired ability to identify their own emotions, as well as an impairment in judging others’ emotional experience.

In our study, anorexic patients had a significantly lower level of emotional awareness than bulimic patients, Our results are in line with those
of Smith, Amner, Johnsson, and Franck (1997), who showed a marked tendency of these patients to develop alternative strategies to avoid empathizing.
These strategies are not limited to the restricted use of emotional words. According to the authors, eating disorder patients have good verbal skills, but
cannot use them adequately to describe their emotional experience, indicating a pronounced in capacity for emotional understanding.

The current report is also consistent with clinical descriptions of the types of affective difficulties characteristic of anorexics and bulimics. Indeed, some authors consider the deficits in the processing of the subjective experience and the perception of oneself as the most fundamental difficulties of this type of disorder (Corcos, 2000; De Groot & Rodin,
1994; Jeammet, 1997).

These subjects seem to have a limited access to their emotional life and/or feel easily dominated and overwhelmed by their emotions  (Bruch, 1962). Thus, the ability to take into account one’s own emotions is diminished in individuals  with eating disorders, probably because body sensations cannot be related to affects, or because the perception of undifferentiated body impulses prevents understanding of how affects are elaborated. Lacking knowledge of their own emotions, these individuals are not able to represent another person’s emotional experience.

Because the capacity to differentiate one’s own and others’ emotions in a given context is associated with the ability to tolerate and manage a large number of emotional states, emotions that are not integrated remain global and undifferentiated, which leads to an incapacity to use affects to guide the selection of an adapted behavior (Krystal, 1974),

These emotion-processing deficits induce intense, often uncontrolled, affective reactions. The food related behavioral problems of anorexic and bulimic
patients have been conceptualized as a consequence of the incapacity to control distressing emotions through psychic processes (Taylor, 1997a).

Abnormal eating behaviors would thus represents a way of discharging negative affects.

With the demonstration of increased secretion of cerebral b-endorphin in patients with anorexia nervosa perhaps eating disorders should, therefore, be regarded as addictive behaviours, whose purpose is to control the subject’s affective inner turmoil (Jeammet-1997).

The finding that neither level of emotional awareness scores nor alexithymia scores were correlated with the duration of illness suggests that emotional internal life impoverishment is not due to the severity of the disorder. One may wonder whether this deficit predates the occurrence of the disease, potentially favoring the development of eating disorders. This hypothesis is in line with the point of view of some authors who consider alexithymia to be a predisposing factor in addictive behaviours (Taylor, 1997a, 1997b).


1. Bydlowski, S., Corcos, M., Jeammet, P., Paterniti, S., Berthoz, S., Laurier, C., Chambry, J. and Consoli, S. M. (2005), Emotion-processing deficits in eating disorders. Int. J. Eat. Disord., 37: 321–329.


Feeding Distress-based action.

Even as I a child I had difficulties controlling my impulses and my behaviours, “I was into everything”. I did not use much forethought in decisions making and would generally react and always be after something that I wanted desperately that very moment. Now in fact!

I believe I had sugar addiction, and chocolate and playing, and girl chasing addictive behaviours way before I ever got near alcohol in my early teens, with a six month, and quite disastrous period of poker machine gambling in between. And of course you couldn’t get me off the “Space Invader” machine.  I just couldn’t get enough of anything, ever. Always wanted more, more and some more. My mother would call for me to come home in the darkening hours of evening. I had to be scraped off the playing fields in order to come home. Exhausted.

So why this constant overdoing of everything!!?

Why couldn’t I stop once in a while, ponder the consequences of my decisions, employ some, goal-directed, action-outcome type of thinking?

Following on for our very recent blog which described the neural mechanisms implicated in negative urgency we now look at at an article which attempts to  bring together some of our most consuming research interests by attempting to explain whether there is  a  link between emotional processing deficits (alexithymia)  negative urgency and dysregulated behaviours.

This study (1) looked at whether whether negative urgency (distress-based impulsivity)  would be the link in relationship between alexithymia and dysregulated behaviors.

Dysregulated behaviors have been defined as behaviors that are difficult to control, and often  result in functional impairment for the affected individual (Selby & Joiner, 2009).

An inability to understand affective and physiological experiences inherent in alexithymia might prompt individuals to engage in maladaptive behaviors in an effort to regulate emotions. One type of behavior linked to alexithymia is binge eating. Wheeler and colleagues (2005) found that alexithymia was positively correlated with binge eating in a sample of females.

Carano and colleagues (2006) found that alexithymia was positively correlated with the severity of binge eating behaviors. Additionally, Speranza and colleagues (2007) found that alexithymia predicted eating disorder treatment outcome in a three year prospective study meaning high levels of alexithymia can interfere with treatment response even more than the actual severity of the presenting problem.



Taylor and colleagues (1990) found that 50% of substance dependent males admitted to a drug and alcohol rehabilitation program were characterized as alexithymic. Similarly, Haviland and colleagues (1988) found that approximately 50% of individuals diagnosed as alcohol dependent were characterized as alexithymic. These numbers are significantly greater than the reported prevalence of alexithymia in the general population, which has been estimated to fall between 10 and 15% (Rybakowski et al., 1988; Parker et al., 1989), and suggests that alcohol and drug abuse is another example of a maladaptive behavior that may be used to modulate negative affective states when one is incapable of doing so in an adaptive way.

Loas and colleagues (1997) conducted a one year follow-up on individuals admitted to a psychiatric facility for alcohol treatment. Results suggested that individuals who remained abstinent from alcohol use one year post-treatment had
significantly lower scores on alexithymia measures.

“Why does the lack of understanding and expression of emotions have such a powerful influence over dysregulated behaviors?” 

Why  do individuals with high levels of alexithymia who experience negative affect seem to engage in dysregulated behaviors so frequently, while other individuals may simply cry, ruminate, or develop vegetative symptoms of depression?

Is negative urgency (Whiteside & Lynam, 2001; Cyders, Smith, Spillane, Fischer, Annus, & Peterson, 2007) the mechanism through which these behaviors are developed  and sustained?     It may be that the relationship between alexithymia and behavior is explained by a tendency on the part of individuals with high levels of alexithymia to act rashly in an attempt to immediately reduce psychological and physiological sensations associated with negative affect (negative mood, negative emotions, anxiety etc).

Negative urgency could be thought the  mechanism that drives dysregulated behaviors in individuals who experience difficulty recognizing and expressing their emotions.  


The authors (1) concluded that when faced with negative affect, many individuals are able to recognize and process their emotions adaptively. However, if people are not able to identify or describe their emotions (the very definition of alexithymia), our results suggest that this confusing affective experience may be quite upsetting (or unpleasant) and could lead to negative urgency, or a tendency to act rashly when they experience any type of negative affect.

High alexithymia individuals appear to be highly motivated to alleviate negative affect, regardless of the consequences. It may be that the emotional confusion inherent in alexithymia prompts individuals high on negative urgency to engage in dysregulated behaviors, by acting out either
against themselves or others.


As we mentioned in our previous blog  emotional processing deficits are common in addiction and in other dysregualted behaviours and these deficits may not recruit the goal-directed parts of the brain. They do not guide 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 used to anticipate future, long term consequence.

We disagree that it is not simply negative affect that prompts negative urgency but rather the chronic stress dsyregulation underpinning the manifestation of negative affect.

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. 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 emotional and stress dysregulation.

References for this blog

Fink, E. L., Anestis, M. D., Selby, E. A., & Joiner, T. E. (2010). Negative urgency fully mediates the relationship between alexithymia and dysregulated behaviours. Personality and Mental Health, 4(4), 284-293.