The Roots of All Our Troubles!?

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Most of my distress and emotional pain in recovery comes from wanting stuff, and not getting my way or not accepting things as they are.

As Bill Wilson noted, we seem to get distressed when we don’t get what we want or feel people or trying to take away what we have.

This was his observation after a decade of psycho analysis with the psycho analyst Harry Tiebout.

A decade of therapy also showed Bill Wilson he has two default settings in his relationship to other human beings – he either tried to dominate them or he became dependent on them for his sense of self and emotional well being. In other words, he became dependent on others, on external means for approval and elevating his self esteem.

This is similar to relying on external means, i.e. alcohol, drugs, addictive behaviours to regulate our emotions and bolster our low self esteem.

We are in a sense co-dependent on other people for our sense of esteem.  We rely on others in terms of how we feel about ourselves.

As a result we are guarded against those that we perceive will reject us or be negative to us, harm us in some way and we seek to dominate these folk or we are dependent on those who are kind to us, help us and care for us. We swing at times between these extremes.

Some of us are “people pleasers”, some of us are dismissive towards others. I can be a dismissive person more than a people pleaser. It is all manipulating our interaction with others to our selfish ends.

Some of these tendencies are the result of our childhoods and how closely attached we were to our parents.

Some of us have this knawing feeling of not being good enough, have a hole in the soul which we are/were kinda always unconsciously trying to protect, shield from the world.

It is a strange feeling of not wanting to be found out of being less than, not good enough. “If people realise what the real me is like, they will reject me!” type thinking although a lot of this is unconscious and does not pop in to our minds as thoughts but is an unconscious self schema that shapes our behaviours.

In simple terms we manipulate via people pleasing or we push people away via being dismissive and putting others down, we guard against any threat of perceived rejection or threats to the self via defense mechanisms such as projecting what we do not like about ourselves on to others.

We often do not like traits in others because they somehow mirror traits in ourselves although we are not always conscious of this.

We have difficulties in our relationships with others, these relationships are often unhealthy and ill.

Some of this is touched on in the Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous, but much of it comes from later observations by Bill Wilson after the publication of the Big Book and my and others’ observations since.

I have seen in myself how fear and shame seem to drive most of my maladaptive behaviour.

My illness of addictive behaviours.

I have an illness of chronic malcontent, things are rarely good enough and I am rarely good enough, according to my “out of kilter”  thinking which  I usually try to ignore, turn over to God or on occasion challenge via reasoning and sharing with other people.

My thoughts are often not my friends, they are often not in the service of my ongoing well being, quite the opposite in fact.

This is how a mental health disorder manifests itself as distorted fear based thinking which appear, if acted upon, to make one’s situation a whole lot worse.

We can not rely on our thoughts and feelings or, in other words, our Self Will. Our self will has become impaired and is no longer in the service of our successful survival.

I have found over the last decade in recovery that when I turn my Will over to the care of the God of my understanding that I am restored to sanity and my thoughts are sound, they are on a higher plane as the Big Book tells me.

I can become the fullest expression of me in the God, not the ill, deluded version while running under my own self will. That has been my experience.

It is only with God’s help that I get restored to sanity or reasonableness.

When I have a fear of not getting stuff and this is linked to insecurity, as mentioned in the Big Book, it is usually in relation to my pocket book, financial insecurity, personal relationships, self esteem etc.

I will now look at this fear based reaction to my security which is mainly to do with stuff out  there (external) such as work, people and how they affect my sense of self before looking at how my internal sense of self, based on the fear based emotion of shame seems to play a pivotal role in my relationship with others and the world around me.

I am assailed externally by fear of what other’s think about me and internally about what I think of me – when these two line up it can have a powerful and damaging effect on my psyche.

Desiring stuff seems at the root of my fear based stuff – the exquisite torture of desire which soon loses it’s so-called relish and just becomes torturous.

Alcoholics do not seem want stuff like normal folk, but have a pathological wanting, an all consuming need to get stuff regardless of it’s worth or value.

We seem to compulsively seek to relieve an inherent distress of not having what we set out to get. Our decision making seems fueled at times by this need to relieve distress rather than the intrinsic value of what we are seeking.

We seem to become manic in our pursuit of things and end up overdoing whatever we are doing via this stress-based manic activity.

This seems compounded by not always being able to read our emotions or somatic states.

One of my own difficulties is realising I am hungry or tired and I can often end up exhausted by over-doing stuff especially manual work around my house. My stop button broke a long time a ago and probably did not work very well to begin with.

So we have  stress-based compulsive need to do something and very limited brakes in the brain stopping us and very little emotional feedback going on, a limited consideration of  “aren’t we overdoing this a bit?”

Desire obviously runs contrary to the idea of being in God’s will, in fact it is being in Self Will that seems to create distress in many people with addictive behaviours.

I would add to this that I also get distress via fears of rejection from others, I suffer from fear based shame to a chronic extent.

Shame, also the consequence of being in Self Will, was not really mentioned in the Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous, mainly because it was not really known about as a psychological or psycho-therapeutic concept then.

Much of the Big Book was influenced by  psycho-analysis which did not consider shame, but rather guilt, in psychological disturbance.

In fact, it has only started considering the role of shame in the last few decades.

So I would add fear of not getting what we want or having something taken away is also complemented by shame-based fears of being rejected.

For example there is an undercurrent in fear of things being taken away, of it being because we are not good enough, deserving enough, have failed in some way, which are shame based reactions.

In fact the Big Book gives me a good idea of the “sins” or “defects of character” I have when I have a resentment but does not explain why I have resentments in the first place.

It explains this as selfishness, self centredness… the root of all our troubles.

It does not, for me, clearly explain why we resort to these selfish, immature, emotional reactions or why we persist with resentments?

It does not explain the emotional immaturity at the heart of alcoholism,  this spiritual malady of inappropriate emotional response to the world around us?

Bill Wilson was struck himself, when he started working with other alcoholics, how much they were plagued constantly by various resentments. How they were haunted by memories of situations in the past, how they swirl around and pollute their minds in the present. How they could not let go of events in their past?

For me he was seeing the root of this spiritual malady, this emotional disease.

For me we engage futilely and distressingly in resentment because we have an inability to process and control our emotions, they overwhelm us and we often react by people pleasing (shame) or react via various defense mechanisms (also shame based).

Defense mechanisms are central to psycho-analytic thought – such as projection etc, the idea that we  expel “out of ourselves what we do not like about ourselves onto others.

Sometimes others expel the same negative emotions on to us. I have found this a fairly common trait among male alcoholics in recovery settings and meetings.

I was discussing this with a newcomer last week, how people who seek to “put us down”  do so out of shame and induce in us all the negative emotions they are experiencing themselves!

The newcomer gave me an example of a resentment he was experiencing after this guy at a meeting said “get off your pink cloud” a phrase that refers to the sometimes  mildly ecstatic feelings of early recovery.

This made the newcomer ashamed that he could have been so stupid for being on this pink cloud, as if this was a selfish indulgence!?

I explained to him that his pride had been hurt, he was in shame and his “apparent” depression every since was simply prolonged self pity.

If we leave self pity to fester long enough it becomes depression, that is my experience anyway.

I said the other guy was probably “hurt” to see a newcomer having such a good period of recovery (God does want us to be happy, joyous and free after all) – I said his false pride was hurt too, that he was not having the recovery experience at present of the newcomer (possibly because he wasn’t putting the effort in) and was in shame (not good enough) and self pity. This mesh of negative emotions can link up fairly instantaneously I find.  It is the web my spiritual malady seeks to ensnare me in.

The guy was probably in guilt too as he could been working on his recovery more.

As a result this guy put the newcomer down to alleviate his own sense of self, his low self esteem.

He “had to” react with arrogance, dismissiveness, impatience and intolerance, because his shame, which is a fear based emotion, made him fearful of his own recovery and fear makes one strangely dishonest (at times deluded), This is my experience.

All because a newcomer had the temerity to be enjoying his recovery?

Not completely, this is half the answer.

The other part is that this guy, if an alcoholic like me, has real difficulties accessing in his heart and mind how he actually “feels” at any particular time. Or rather what emotions he is experiencing at any particular time.

This guy could have been experiencing guilt or shame for example.

Instead of saying to himself I am feeling guilt that my recovery is flabby  compared to this newcomer or that I am being an arrogant “know it all”, putting this newcomer in his place because  he had been in recovery longer – although being in recovery and being sober are different things I have found.

Either way, if he could perhaps of had the ability to say this is how exactly I am feeling he could have acted on this emotional information rather than reacted to it.

What do I mean by this?

Well, if I was feeling guilty about this newcomer it would cause a disturbance in me because I have difficulties processing my emotions.

It would have turned up therefore as a resentment of someone having something I do not have and as them taking away the illusion that my recovery was going OK?

I would have found this threatening to my sense of self so I would have reacted via defense mechanisms. I would have strangely blamed this person for making me feel the way I did! Even if this person had no such intention of hurting my feelings I would blame him nonetheless via my defensive reactions.

It is as if my emotional well being is dependent on other people and their behaviours, this is my spiritual malady, my emotional disease.

As I would have had a resentment, it would have had a wolf pack of negative emotions attached.

In this instance I might have have acted differently.

If I had been in God I would have been more sane for a start and had more loving tolerance for a newcomer.

I would have been acting not reacting. I would have had empathy for where the newcomer  “was at in his recovery” as I had been there once too.

This love and tolerance for the newcomer evolves the displaying of virtues (the opposite of defects are virtues).

What virtues? Well as the newcomer was relatively new I would attempted to be patient, empathetic, kind, gentle, tolerant, considerate  etc. These prevent the defects occurring I find.

If we practice virtues instead of defects then the brain changes for the better and we recover quicker. Our positive loving, healthy behaviours change us and our brains via neuroplasticity for the better.

Attempting to live according to God’s Will (which is a state of Love) also helps me not react but to act with Grace.

In Grace we can still experience negative emotions but God allows us to see them for what they are and not react. His Grace takes the distress out of thee negative emotions. This is my experience.

This allows me to do a quick inventory of my negative emotions and a prayer to God to have them removed. My experience is that they are always removed and that we are immediately restored to sanity.

I do not necessarily have to react to my feelings of negativity about myself, someone else does not need to experience the consequence of my resentments.

I can manage my spiritual malady or emotional dysfunction, I have the tools to do so.

I also impressed upon the newcomer that what the other guy was experiencing and was reacting is also how he, the newcomer, reacts and how I react too.

It is what our spiritual malady looks like I believe, it is the map of my impaired emotional responding.

I also impressed upon him that mostly I can manage this emotional dysfunction but often I fail to and get into a resentful anger.

This is why I have to forgive the other guy as I have been forgiven but also to forgive myself (or ask God to forgive me my shortcomings) for my reactions.

We are not perfect, far from it. We are far from being Saints but have a solution Saints would approve and achieve a kind of transient sanctity in this 12 step solution of letting go and letting God.

We have to show love and tolerance for each other as we suffer the same illness/malady. Dismissing others like us for having what we have and acting as we do is like a form of self loathing. We have to forgive ourselves and each other for being ill. Self compassion allows us to be compassionate  towards others.

Also we need to be aware what we project on to other alcoholics is the same thing as they project on to use and sometimes we project if back.

So we have two main ailments, distressed based wanting which results in the same negative emotions as being in a shame- based fear of rejection.

I can get out of the distress of wanting/needing stuff by asking God to remove those negative emotions which block me off from Him.

For example, if I really want something and feel someone is preventing me getting that thing or that they are taking this thing away from me I have a hunting pack of negative emotions running through by heart and pulsating through my veins, propelling me to want that thing even more! As if my very life depended on it?

These feelings are translated as “how dare you take that thing/stop me getting that thing” – False Pride – followed by fear of being rejected – Shame (this is because I am not good enough)  and possible Guilt (for something I must have done wrong as usual) – then leading to “poor me” and feelings of Self pity, all because I am in Self, so I am being Self Centred and not considering someone else’s view so I am Selfish.

I retaliate via by “I”ll show you/I’ll get you” emotions of Dismissiveness, Intolerance, Arrogance and Impatience – my “I’ll put you down to make me feel better!”

All because I am fearful that you are taking away something from me or rejecting  me –  Fear and Fear is always accompanied by dishonesty.

I will act out on these somethings, if I do now use my spiritual tools and let Go and Let God, usually by eating too much, Gluttony, having a shopping spree, Greed, engaging  sexual fantasy/activity Lust of “freezing” through fear in the subltle sin of Sloth (procrastination).

A perceived slight or a rejection can have an incredible emotional effect on me

This is all emotion dysfunction and immaturity. I have resentments because they are a true sign of emotion dysfunction.

The mature way to to access, identfiy and label how one is feeling and use this information to reasonably express how one is feeling. This way we do not retaliate, fight, flee or freeze. Instead our emotions do what they are supposed to do. They are suppose the tell the fronts of our brains to find words for our feelings. Not to tell the bottom of our brains to fight back or run or freeze.

Let me use an example.

I had an argument with a guy once who suddenly proclaimed he was upset by what I had said. I was amazed as this guy was reading his emotions, identifying verbalising/expressing them to me in a way I have never been able to do.

My alcoholism is rooted in an impaired ability to read, identify, label and express my emotions (otherwise called emotion processing) – as a result my emotions have always troubled me and been so troubling in their undifferentiated state that I have always either avoided them or ran away from them.

I have sought refuge from my negative emotions in alcohol, drugs and other addictive behaviours. It is this that propelled my addictions, this inability to deal with my negative emotions. I dealt with them externally via addictive behaviours, not internally via emotion processing.

My emotions became wedded in time to being undifferentiated arousal states that prompted me to seek an external way to deal with these troubling emotional/arousal states.

Today when I engage in the above emotion dysfunction, engage in the above web of defense mechanisms it is because I have not been able to locate in me what feeling is disturbing me ?

On occasion it is, as the guy above said, because I am upset. I have not learnt the ability to say that I am upset etc. The words for these feeling states somehow can continue to elude me unless I am in God’s Grace.

God does for us what we can not do for ourselves!

Finding out what is really going on with us emotionally is at the heart of recovery. That is why we have to constantly share how we are feeling with others so that we can find out what we are feeling.

Unless, we let Go and Let God and ask God to remove these negative emotions/sins/defects of character we end up in a futile increasingly distressed spiral of negative emotions.

We end up cultivating much greater misery.

As soon as you can, let Go and Let God.


There is a map of Emotional Responding Tattooed on my Heart.

When I was doing my step four inventory as part of my 12 step programme of recovery  I did it pretty much as suggested in the Big Book.

My sponsor at the time asked me to do an additional part that is not explicitly mentioned in the Big Book.

He said to list all the negative emotions (or defects of character) that I had been in the grip of and exhibiting in relation to my various misdemeanors and the resentments I had held against various people and institutions over the preceding decades.

This turned out to be a brilliant idea for two reasons.

First it showed me that  I held a multitude of resentments because I had a problem of emotion regulation.

I did not realise that the engine driving this emotion dysregulation was chronic shame.

I realised when doing my step 4 that that I had not previously been able to leave various supposed slights and abuses from my past in the past because I did not have the emotional maturity to look at these episodes reasonably and objectively.

In other words, I had not processed these episodes emotionally and embedded these events in my long term memory like healthy more emotionally mature people do.

Hence when I came into recovery I had hundreds and hundreds of resentments swirling around my mind, poisoning my thoughts and sending constant emotional daggers into my heart.

My past constantly assailed me emotionally, randomly attacking my mind.

My step 4 and then 5 showed me that I did  not have the natural ability to deal with my negative emotions.

Secondly, listing all the negative emotions I had when I held a resentment against someone was very revealing in that when I held a resentment, any resentment, and against a wide variety of people, the negative emotions listed where generally the same! In fact they were all interlinking in a pattern of emotional reacting, one activating the other. It was like a emotion web that ensnared one in increasingly frustrating states of emotional distress and inappropriate responding.

This was quite a revelation!? That I respond in exactly the same way to my sense of self being threatened?

That there was a map of emotional responding tattooed on my heart.

I was drawing up a web of my emotional dysregulation, a route map of all the wrong ways to go, to emotional cul de sacs.

It was a list of the negative emotions which appear always when I felt anger and resentment against someone for hurting me and my feelings.

Just as revealing where the negative emotions listed which clearly showed how  I react, and can still react to people who I believe have caused my hurt or rejection.

In fact it seems now that I treat all insult, intentional or otherwise, in a very similar way.

I have spent years trying to work our why?

I got as far as deciding it was an inherent problem with processing negative emotions, which it is.

However, there seems to be a problem specifically with a patterned mesh of negative emotions which are activated when someone upsets me.

In fact I think this pattern of interlinked negative emotions occurs simply because of inability to identify, label and share the simple fact that I have been upset  by what someone has said or acted towards me.

“Shame is a fear-based internal state being, accompanied by beliefs of being unworthy and basically unlovable. Shame is a primary emotion that conjures up brief, intense painful feelings and a fundamental sense of inadequacy. Shame experiences bring forth beliefs of “I am a failure” and “I am bad” which are a threat to the integrity of the self. This perceived deficit of being bad is so humiliating and disgraceful that there is a need to protect and hide the flawed self from others. Fears of being vulnerable, found out, exposed and further humiliated are paramount. Feelings of shame shut people down so that they can distance from the internal painful state of hopelessness.”

“… unacknowledged thoughts and feelings become repressed and surface later through substitute emotions and dysfunctional behavior. Other emotions are substituted to hide the shame and maintain self esteem. Anger, exaggerated pride, anxiety and helplessness are substituted to keep from feeling the total blackness of being bad. The buried shame is expressed through defense mechanisms that shield negative unconscious material from surfacing.

Anger responses are modeled and learned in some families. The anger response is more comfortable than feeling the shame for some individuals. Families where coercive and humiliating methods of discipline are used develop children who are shame prone. Behavior become driven by defenses that function to keep from feeling bad. Reality becomes distorted to further protect the self from poor self esteem. The transfer of blame to someone else is an indicator of internal shame.

Children who live with constant hostility and criticism learn to defend against the bad feelings inside and externalize blame on others. External assignment of blame is a defense against shame. People who are super critical have a heavy shame core inside.”

I was working with someone last year and we had a disagreement and this guy said to me “I am upset” and “You have hurt my feelings” I was taken aback. I thought I never say things like that. This guy was an Olympic champion at expressing how he feels compared to me. I never say I am upset because it also seems to be an undifferentiated emotion that I have trouble accessing, mentalising and expressing.

I have not been taught as a child or since to simply say I am upset.

Instead of acting on my upset by saying to someone,  you have hurt my feelings  I do the opposite,   I react and attack them in my head, my thoughts, my words and sometimes in my actions. Sometimes I “get them back” somehow. I make them pay in some way.

Honesty is the heart of recovery and I am being honest. The years of recovery reveal many different things, some of them not so palatable.

I grew up in a family that did not express emotions like the ones I had mentioned. We reacted via anger and put downs hence I have grown up to be dismissive.

My dismissiveness and my arrogance are parts of defence mechanism against rejection, they guard my inherent sense of shame. I am full of shame, more so than fear, although these two overlap. Shame is in fact fear evoking.

I hide my shame away under an anger of emotional hostility, stay away or else! I will get you back somehow. Sometimes I am in shame and offend via my attitudes.

I also have other ways of reacting in an emotionally unhealthy way that my step 4 showed.

If someone hurts me, according to my step 4, my angry resentment of what they have said or done makes me ashamed. This can quickly prick my sense of self pity (uselessness and hopelessness) which is something I have always rage against (rage is an essential part of shame plus I rally against this feeling of powerlessness) and I retaliated via excessive pride (I am better than you, I will put you down and see how you like it!) I put you down in my mind or through the words uttered from my mouth by arrogance, dismissiveness, impatience and intolerance.

I do so because I am being dishonest and fearful.

I do some because I am self centred and selfish.

These are all parts of my emotionally entangled web that is spun when I react to some sense of rejection.

Sometimes the shame persists for some time and I try to relieve it by behavioral addictions, too much shopping, too much eating, too much objectification of the opposite sex.

Not enough action, or effort to change my feelings in a healthy manner.

My step 4  showed me this is the unhealthy fruit of my greed, gluttony, my lust, my sloth.

My spiritual malady.

Add in perfectionism because that is the quick way to do nothing, a fear of failure  that paralyses.

These are my main negative emotional  reactions to the world that often scare me and make me feel ashamed.

I have felt powerless via your comments so try to to steal some power back by making my self seem more powerful over you.

I respond to feelings of humiliation by humiliating you, I react to my chronic shame by attempting to created shame in you.

Some days I react more adversely than others.

For example, this family have just moved into my neighbourhood, they seem wild and out of control.

I am not only fearful (leading to dishonesty in my thinking, catastrophizing, intolerance of uncertainty about how they will behave etc) I have reacted to their arrival via shame based defence mechanisms and reactions. I am shamed and disgusted that my neighourhood has come to this. I am dismissive of them, intolerant, impatient and arrogant towards them. All shame based reactions.

Last night the police were called to their home and one of them was handcuffed and put in the back of the police van.

My head went “I told you so!”

It was a very shameful scene for the whole family.

When things had died  down and calm restored I spent the evening not in my fear or shame but in empathy and compassion.

How embarrassing for them how shameful.

I relate to them as they are out of control, my family was at varying times completely out of control too, traumatic and this is what has created a chronic shame in me, even still now after 10 years of recovery!

My shame responded and related to their shame.

Nobody wants to be out of control, to be teetering on the verge of the next disaster, the next moving of home, the next calling of the police,  the next swirling carousel of unmanageabiilty.

No one.

I related and all my negative emotions retreated to source like a evening tide on a beach.

I relate to my fellow human beings when I am not in fear or shame.

When I am in fear and shame the same pattern of negative reactions entrap my heart in its’ poisonous grip and I react in a way I would not choose to, if more reasonable.

This is what the heart of my alcholism looks like. Not a pretty sight some days.

The most beautiful thing about me most days is the fruits of my recovery.

Now at least I can see how I react and can take steps to deal with it.

I have a spiritual tool kit that deals with this emotional disease.

Whether  I stay in fear or shame is now my choice. A choice I once did not seem to have.

This is what recovery has given to me.

I do not have to cultivate my own misery through blind reaction.

Via an Amazing Grace I can now see what ails me.

Via AA I now have the tools, never taught to me in my family or in my troubled home environment.

I have gone home in AA. I learnt an attachment to those in AA and others.

I share my feelings of shame with those who know what that feels like.

Together we share our pain and we recover.





This blog is written for alcoholics and those who love and live with them, by alcoholics in recovery.


For those who know what it is like to live with alcoholism but would also like to know why alcoholism affects the alcoholic and those around him in the way it does.


We write this blog to help us and you understand how the alcoholic brain works and why they sometimes do the things they do, why they act the way they do?


Why is it sometimes that everything is going great and suddenly the alcoholic in your life overreacts and acts in an emotionally immature way, which can often cause hurt to others around them?


Why do they suddenly cut off their emotions so profoundly it leaves your emotions in limbo, confused and upset.?

We hope to explain this disease state and behavioral disorder, which alcoholics themselves call an “emotional disease” , a “parasite that feeds on the emotions” or quite simply “a fear based illness”.

It appears that alcoholics in recovery are aware to a large extent of what they suffer from so why do they do what they do sometimes if they know what is going on? Are there times when they cannot help themselves?

Why do alcoholics, even in recovery, sometimes engage in endless  self defeating resentments?

Why do they project into future scenarios and then get emotionally paralyzed by doing so, get stuck in a cycle of catastrophic thinking?

Why do we run through the list of cognitive distortions on a daily basis?

This is not to condemn but to understand. Knowledge we believe is power. It aids understanding and compassion of another person’s suffering.

We as recovering alcoholics still, after several years of recovery, can still engage in such behaviours. We do not wish to hurt anyone, especially not our loved ones, but sometimes do.

We sometimes get wrapped up in ourselves and act in a selfish, immature and inconsiderate manner.

We need help with this, at times, distressing condition. That is what it is.

Distressing, based on a emotion and stress dysregulation, even in recovery, hence we have to manage it.

On a daily basis. It does not return to normal. To balance. To equilibrium. We have to take certain actions to restore emotional equilibrium.

Hence it can be hard work, hence we sometimes we come up short and emotionally overreact.

We have a distress based condition which has to be managed.

We also have to give ourselves a break, don’t distress ourselves further with perfectionist ideas of “should” – just do your best! That is usually good enough for most people. Why not us?

We are not saints, progress not perfection!

Or as progress not perfectionist!

Recovery changes the brains of alcoholics for the better.

As we are personally well aware, self knowledge does not bring recovery – only action does.

This action could be helping others, praying, meditating, going to meetings, talking to someone who knows what you are going through etc. Connecting with others, in the same boat as you.

It does work, if you work it. It removes the distress that feeds alcoholism and addiction.

The distress that makes us catastrophic thinkers, to having intolerance of uncertainty about the future, struggle with our emotional natures, etc

Recovery helps us deal with negative emotions and anxiety in a rational manner via the help of others.

We become different people in recovery. More considerate of others, more emotionally mature and emotionally sober.

We learn to deal with situations which used to baffle us! In dealing with these we deal with our alcoholism because we solve the problems that used to make us drink or use in the first place.

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.    


American Psychiatric Association (2013). Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (Fifth ed.). Arlington, VA: American Psychiatric Publishing. pp. 5–25.

Pani, Pier Paolo, et al. “Delineating the psychic structure of substance abuse and addictions: Should anxiety, mood and impulse-control dysregulation be included?.” Journal of affective disorders 122.3 (2010): 185-197.

Murphy, A., Taylor, E., & Elliott, R. (2012). The detrimental effects of emotional process dysregulation on decision-making in substance dependence. Frontiers in integrative neuroscience6.

Cheetham, A., Allen, N. B., Yücel, M., & Lubman, D. I. (2010). The role of affective dysregulation. in drug addiction. Clinical Psychology Review30(6), 621-634.

The Distress at the Heart of Addiction and Alcoholism

This blog is written for alcoholics and those who love and live with them, by alcoholics in recovery. For those who know what it is like to live with alcoholism but would also like to know why alcoholism affects the alcoholic and those around him in the way it does.

We write this blog to help us and you understand how the alcoholic brain works; why they do the things the do, why they act the way they do. Why is it everything is going great and suddenly the alcoholic in your life “flies off the handle’ and acts in an emotionally immature way, which can often cause hurt to others around them? What is the reason behind this “Jekyll and Hide” emotional responding?

Why do they suddenly cut off their emotions so profoundly it leaves your emotions in limbo, confused and upset?

In this blog we seek to explain, as researchers,  in terms of the processes of the brain, why alcoholics, particularly  those in recovery, do the things the way they do, act the way they do.

We hope to explain this disease state, which alcoholics themselves call a “emotional disease’, a “cancer of the emotions’, a “parasite that feeds on the emotions” or quite simply  “a fear based illness”. It appears that alcoholics in recovery are aware to a large extent of what they suffer from. But why do they do what they do sometimes if they know what is going on? Why do they not seem to be able to help themselves from engaging in certain responses and behaviours?

Why do they endless engage in self defeating resentments,  taking “other peoples’ inventory” or criticizing, why do they project into future scenarios and then get emotionally paralyzed by doing so, why do they run through the list of cognitive distortions on a daily basis, why do they get self absorbed and engage in “me, me, me” behaviour!? Why do they indulge in self pity to the extent they end up in full blown depression?

More importantly, perhaps, how do various therapeutic strategies deal with these behaviours and seek to challenge and address them? And do these therapies, in time through practice and the neuroplasticity (neural reshaping of the brain via behaviour) change how they act, feel and live in this life. In short, how does recovery change the brains of alcoholics for the better?

As we are personally well aware, self knowledge does not bring recovery – only action does. But this action can be based solidly on a better understanding of what goes on in the brain of an alcoholic for example, why should I mediate? What beneficial, adaptive change will that bring, how will that “help me recover”? What is the point of doing the steps, how exactly do they effect change in one’s alcoholic brain? Is there a good healthy neurobiological reason for going to mutual aid group meetings like AA or  SMART?

We also believe that academic research definitions of alcoholism are inadequate – the latest DSM V  equates the emotional difficulties we highlight here as ‘co-morbidities’,  conditions that occur alongside the condition of alcoholism. We disagree, we suggest these ‘co-morbidities’ (co-occurring psychiatric disorders) are a main reason why we become alcoholics, they are what make us vulnerable, along with genes and environment to becoming alcoholic.

Most alcoholics feel they never fitted in, were emotionally hyper “sensitive”,  engaged in risky behaviours, got into trouble without intending to, and other impulsive behaviours which we believe are illustrative of an emotional dysregulation which makes certain individuals vulnerable to becoming alcoholic.

Science tells us there are many such vulnerabilities in children of alcoholics. The alcohol regulated, medicated these errant emotions which caused such distress, even at an early age. It is these emotional processing deficits and emotional dysregualtion (i.e. poor control of emotions, especially when distressed!) which lie at the heart of the this psychopathology or if you like  this psychiatric disorder called alcoholism.

It is a distress-based condition, day in day out, and we formally believe that various therapeutic regimes like the 12 steps, DBT, ACT or CBT, etc all treat this inherent distress state in some way. It is this distress state that activates this “fear-based illness”, that makes one hyper aware of cues, alcohol, it is this distress that provokes memories of drinking, alcohol use schemata, that trains one attention on people places and things from the past. Without this distress our illness barely gets activated! 

For example, does your loved alcoholic, “over do things”on a regular basis, do they engage in short term thinking, or “quick fix ” thinking. Do they resist your attempts at sensible long term , goal directed, “thought through thinking”?

Does your alcoholic work himself to a frazzle, do they easily become exhausted by overdoing it, whatever it is? Do they have a series of new addictions? Are they perfectionist doing too much, or nothing anything at all? Perfectionism is distress based.

Does your alcoholic fear the future, but continually project their thinking into the future? Do they have an intolerance of uncertainty, do they endless ruminate about things, do they react rather than act? Do the most simple decisions provoke a “fight or flight” response? Do they frequently come up with “I know how to do this, I have a great idea!” Only for it to be the opposite of a great idea! Do they give people “rent free room in their heads” because of resentments – replying the same old tape in their minds, over and over and over again? All distress based?

“Fear based” is distress based.

A recent study showed that alcoholics have a part of the brain that helps process emotions but it doesn’t work properly so is overactive all the time; it is exhausting being on red alert, all the time , living on a state of emergency. Hence step 11 in the the 12 steps.

The problem with this hyperactive brain region, called the ventromedial prefrontal cortex, is that it  also cuts out , hypo-activates, when more or excessive stress is applied and another compulsive area of the brain, the basal ganglia, takes over. This part is automatic, habitualized, automatic, compulsive! It results in more more more, and is driven by distress not goal directed consideration. It simple does, does, does, without consideration of future consequence.    Sound familiar??

How did your loved alcoholic get to be this way? What happened to your own alcoholic brain? We believe there is a vulnerability to these aforementioned  emotional difficulties as certain brain areas which regulate emotion not working properly. This means they are smaller, impaired and do not function optimally or are not  connected properly.

Do you know an alcoholic who does not accurately know how he is feeling properly, does not know what emotion he is experiencing? Cannot label to emotion properly which makes processing of it difficult? Can’t rely on a neural feedback to tell himself when  he is tired, angry, hungry  and that he should HALT? This is the insular cortex not working properly.

Does your alcoholic see error everywhere (and worse still give a running commentary on it!?), always whinging about that not being right, or that being wrong. Why can’t they do things properly, be more perfect!! That is partly to do with impairment of the anterior cingulate cortex which monitors error in the environment.

This fear based stuff? That is a hyperactive amgydala, the “anxious amgydala”, and it also acts as a switch between memory systems, from explicit to implicit memory, and recruits the compulsive “go,go, go” area of the dorsal striatum from the always “on the go”, hyperactive, ventromedial cortex.

The amgydala is at the heart of alcoholism and addiction. It not only switches memory but also reward/motivation/ and emotional response so that distress provokes a habitualised “fight or flight response” in the dorsal striatum.

It is said that alcoholics are emotional thinkers, but this region is also an emotional “do” area which means emotional distress acts as a stimulus response. The brain responds to the stimulus of distress in other words. As addiction and alcoholism progress the ways addicts and alcoholics react  become limited in line with addiction severity. The further the alcoholic gets in alcoholism the more he will react out of distress, the more automatic his behaviours become, the more short term his decision making will be, the more he has to fight automatic urges and automatic drink-related thoughts, the more he has to contend with “fight or flight” thinking and feeling.

Add to this a brain that is out of balance, does not have homeostasis, natural neurochemical balance, but has a state called  allostasis, where the brain constantly attempts to finding stability via constant change, and the fact that the alcoholic brain has too much Glutamate,  an excitatory neurotransmitter, the “go neurochemical”, and not enough GABA,  an inhibitory  neurotransmitter, the brains’ natural brakes”, (and which is increased by drinking alcohol) the stop or slow down chemical and  that this also helps slow down an abnormal heart rate variability (HRV) found in alcoholics.

Alcoholics have a different heart rate variability meaning we have a heart rate more suited to being ready for the next (imagined) emergency.  The effects of alcohol are thus more profound on this group, and this HRV is also seen in children of alcoholics so represents a profound vulnerability to later alcoholism.

Add to that depleted levels of of  dopamine, which is very important in the addiction cycle. The problem with dopamine supplies is that our excessive levels of stress reduce our amount of dopamine,  that we are always on the look out for more dopamine. Add to this that stressful states increase our brain in “dopamine seeking” in an attempt at transient allostasis and you have a brain that is always trying to get a buzz out of something, especially when in distress states.

Then there is other deficits to the serotonin system, to the natural opioids  system, to oxytocin, all of which take a beating and are reduced by excessive stress systems. But all are increased via love and looking out for our fellow man, our families, loved ones and other’s in recovery. We can manipulate our brain chemistries, this is what happens in recovery in fact!

Too much stress on the brain spreads like a forest fire throughout the brain, lowering levels of  essential neurotransmitters,  impairing memory and turning one from a goal directed action to a compulsive reaction type of guy. The alcoholic brain is always primed to go off!!

Chronic stress also impairs the prefrontal cortex, the cognitive, conscious “top down” controller of the brain’s emotions and urges, instincts and so on. It doesn’t help that it doesn’t work too well in alcoholics. The brain of an alcoholic is a “spillover” brain, it is a brain that spills over into various types of disinhibition,  impulsivity and compulsivity . It often acts before considering, speaks before thinking. decides this is a great idea with out consulting, reacts without sufficient reason or cause.

It needs help, this alcoholic brain. From another brain, from someone other than himself.

Recovering alcoholics need an external prefrontal cortex to help with the top down cognitive control of the subcortical emotional and motivational states. The problem with emotions are they, in the alcoholic brain, have become entwined with reward. We feel a certain way, negative for example, and fix this negative feeling, with something rewarding, makes us feel better, more positive, less self reflective,  and it seems this has been the case with certain alcoholics since childhood. Dealing with emotions by the granting of treats.

Feeling better by consuming. Fixing feelings via external substances. Sub contracting our emotional regulation.  Finding different feelings in a bottle, or a pill, or a syringe or snorting them up one’s nose. Alcoholics need a spiritual awakening,  a psychic change, a change in consciousness, in self schema;  this sudden change in how we feel about the world (including memories of our past life) because the old feeling about the world will lead to the sane old behaviours. Plus alcohol and drugs were  crude approximates of this change in consciousness, this  spirit awakenings, they dramatically and very instantaneously helped change our feelings, thoughts, perceptions about the world around us. They helped us fit in.

This is the purpose of a spiritual awakening too, a sudden change of consciousness. We believe the best and most sudden way to achieve this is to let go of the thing that causes all the suffering in the first place, the self. It appears we can live without the “self” . It also appears helping others brings a bigger buzz than even helping ourselves.

Helping others reduces our distress. and many many other therapeutic benefits to brain chemistry. This brain also needs some one outside of self, outside the self regulation network in the brain which is so impaired and cannot be relied on because at times it is maladaptive. Can’t be counted on the make the right decision because it favours  short term over the long term, is based on “fight or flight “thinking and rational, hence is distorted by fear.

If we have been thinking in this maladaptive way all our lives it  is no wonder we ended up where we have. We used alcohol to deal with our errant and quite frightening emotions. I positively ran away from my own emotions.

I used to say to my wife, the main reason for my drinking is “to get away from my self”. Now we have to find a solution to living with oneself, these sometimes torturous alien state of emotional sobriety.

I remember being asked by a counsellor to sit with my emotions for half on a hour. I felt I was being possessed by some poltergeist,  the feelings associated with emotional regulation were so alien to me, so frightening. I didn’t know what they were even. I had to have by wife label them for me and help me process them.

I believe steps 4 and  of 12 step programs help one emotional regulation hundreds  and hundreds of unresolved, unprocessed emotions from the past otherwise they will continue to be in there, haunting us like “neural ghosts” from the past, adding emotional distress to our conscious daily experience and encouraging relapse.  This is the case for many newly recovering alcoholics.  Being haunted by a million thoughts produced by  rampant emotional dysregulation.

Resentments swirling around the mind and driving the newcomer back to relapse. What the newcomer finds is that the drink stops working, and the emotional difficulties remain, in fact much worsened by years and years of sticking a neurotoxin down our throats and in into our brains. Havoc is then further reaped on an already not fully functioning  brain.

In AA they often they say that they are stuck at the emotional age of when they started drinking which is usually around the early teens when the cognitive part of the brain that controls emotions is still developing.  But we act much more immaturely than that, we act like the terrible twos or children. Our emotional brains never really grew up. This emotional dysregulation apparent as teens then shaped all our future decisions and eventually our alcoholism. That is what they mean in AA, when they say all your best thinking got you here. So there you have it . Sound familiar? Recognize anyone here?