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.


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

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

This is a pretty valid question?

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

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

It is at least worth considering?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“…Our liquor was but a symptom…”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

These may be specific to addictive behaviours.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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




Processing Emotions by verbalising them!?

The Therapeutic Benefits of “Sharing”

In early recovery I did not have a clue what emotions I was experiencing. I was not able to identify, label or process them. As a result of his failure to process emotions I seemed to be constantly distressed and and, as we seen in previous blogs, this distress leads to a distress-based impulsivity and a negative urgency to either engage in “fight or flight” behaviour, i.e. running away from fearful situations or ignoring the Big Book of AA’s recommendation not to fight anybody or anything.

The only way I could handle these troublesome and frightening emotions was by talking about them to my sponsor or my wife or other people in recovery.

In recent years it has become evident to that what I have been doing all these years have been using a technique of verbalising my emotions to actually process them. I now believe this is a fundamental part of my recovery and that I sometimes need to verbalise my emotions in order to process them. How does this work?

I recently came across an article (1) which might shed some light on this process.

Putting feelings into words (affect labeling) has long been thought to help manage negative emotional experiences. Affect labeling or naming emotions diminishes the response of the amygdala and other limbic regions to negative emotional images.  A  brain imaging study by UCLA psychologists reveals why verbalizing our feelings makes our sadness, anger and pain less intense.

When people see a photograph of an angry or fearful face,they have increased activity in a region of the brain called the amygdala, which serves as an alarm to activate a cascade of biological systems (including stress chemicals) to protect the body in times of danger. Scientists see a robust amygdala response even when they show such emotional photographs subliminally, so fast a person can’t even see them.

But does seeing an angry face and simply calling it an angry face change our brain response? The answer is yes, according to Matthew D.Lieberman, UCLA associate professor of psychology.

“When you attach the word ‘angry,’ you see a decreased response in the amygdala,” said Lieberman, lead author of the study. The study showed that while the amygdala was less active when an individual labeled the feeling, another region of the brain was more active: the right ventrolateral prefrontal cortex.

This region is located behind the forehead and eyes and has been associated with thinking in words about emotional experiences. It has also been implicated in inhibiting behavior and processing emotions.

“What we’re suggesting is when you start thinking in words about your emotions —labeling emotions — that might be part of what the right ventrolateral region is responsible for,” Lieberman said.

If a newcomer to recovery one is sad or angry or resentful , getting them person to talk or write may many have benefits.

In Lieberman’s study  participant’s viewed images of individuals making different emotional expressions. Below the picture of the face they either saw two words, such as “angry” and “fearful” and chose which emotion described the face, or they saw two names,such as “Harry” and “Sally,” and chose the gender-appropriate name that matched the face.

“When you attach the word ‘angry,’ you see a decreased response in the amygdala,” Lieberman said. “When you attach the name ‘Harry,’you don’t see the reduction in the amygdala response.

“When you put feelings into words, you’re activating this prefrontal region and seeing a reduced response in the amygdala,” he said. “In the same way you hit the brake when you’re driving when you see a yellow light,when you put feelings into words, you seem to be hitting the brakes on your emotional responses.”

As a result, an individual may feel less angry or less sad.

“This is ancient wisdom,” Lieberman said.

Putting our feelings into words helps us heal better and if we can get newcomers to talk about them, that  will make them feel better. They will experience part of the “solution” right way and be encouraged to come back for more.

So putting feelings into words helps with not only regulating and modulating the intensity of emotions, but helps with processing them, reduces distress and distress based impulsivity and shows there is a solution to unruly negative  emotions.

In my experience this process has been a fundamental part of how it works!



Lieberman, M. D., Eisenberger, N. I., Crockett, M. J., Tom, S. M., Pfeifer, J. H., & Way, B. M. (2007). Putting feelings into words affect labeling disrupts amygdala activity in response to affective stimuli. Psychological Science, 18(5), 421-428.



Do alcoholics drive through life with Faulty Brakes!

There has been a lot of debate in the last thirty – forty years about genetic inheritance – with at least half of children of alcoholic families at risk for later alcoholism. What is less known is what exactly is inherited in our genes? What marks us out for later alcoholism? Prior to drinking are there aspects of our behaviour, personality or emotional responding that marks us out compared to so-called normal healthy types.

Recently research has looked at brain systems which overlap in decision making such as cognitive control over impulsive behaviour and also emotional processing. Children from alcoholics seem to have difficulties with both these overlapping circuits in the brain – they are not only impulsive but also do not seem to process emotions in the same way their “health” peers do. Research has also begun  to show that emotional processing is indeed important to making decisions, as is the ability to inhibit impulsive responses.

It seems  young alcoholics in the making, are not using our emotions  to make decisions and  are also prone to being impulsive. This difficulty with making decisions must shape all other future decisions ?

Youth for families with a history of alcoholism (FH+) are more likely to engage in early adolescent alcohol use (1), they may be more prone to experience the neurotoxic effects of alcohol use during adolescence.


Heavy alcohol use during adolescence is related to poorer neuropsychological functioning, including response inhibition (2), working memory (3-5), and decision-making (6).

Neuroimaging studies have shown that alcohol abusing teens have atypical grey matter volume in the PFC (7,8), and subcortical structures, such as the hippocampus (9,10) OFC and the amgydala.

Further, they have reduced integrity of white matter pathways, in both long-range connections between frontal and parietal brain regions as well as in pathways connecting subcortical and higher-order brain areas (11,12).

FMRI studies have found reduced BOLD response in adolescent alcohol abusers
in brain regions important affective decision-making (13).

The raging debate in research has been to whether these deficits are a consequence of heavy alcohol use or if genetic and environmental factors, such as family history of alcoholism, may contribute.

Risk Factor for Alcohol Use Disorders (AUDs): Family History of Alcoholism

The observation that alcoholism runs in families has long been documented
(14-16). Over the past few decades, adoption (17,18) and twin (19)
studies have suggested that there is an increased likelihood of individuals with a family history of alcoholism to develop the disorder themselves (20, 21).

These studies indicate that familial alcoholism is one of the most robust predictors of the development of an AUD during one’s lifetime. Furthermore, this risk factor appears to be stable over time, since it also predicts the chronicity of alcohol dependence at multiple time points (22).
This indicates that higher familial density is often associated with greater
risk (23), with genetic vulnerability accounting for about 30-50% of
individual risk (24-26).


One of the best characterized findings in individuals with familial alcoholism are greater impulsivity and difficulties in response inhibition which are commonly seen in this population (27,28), and FH+ individuals are less able to delay reward gratification compared with their peers (29).

Emotional processing and its relationship with executive control has received much less
attention in FH+ individuals.

Alcohol Use Disorders and Emotional Processing

Emotion Recognition and Affective Processing – Research suggests that alcohol use disorder (AUDs)  are associated with deficits in emotion recognition
(30-33), which may be related to atypical brain structure and functioning observed in the
limbic system among alcoholics (34-37).

Alcoholics not only tend to overestimate the intensity of emotions seen in faces  but they also make more negative emotional attributions and often confuse one emotion for another, such as mislabeling disgust as anger or contempt (32). Additionally, these deficits seem to be specific to alcoholism, since alcoholics, both recently abstinent and long-term abstinent, perform poorer on emotion recognition tasks than individuals with other drug abuse history (38). Alcoholics have also been shown to have slower reaction time when recognizing emotions (39).
Furthermore, poorer accuracy on emotion recognition tasks in alcoholics does not improve across the duration of the task, even though better performance is seen over time with other drug abusers (38).

Polysubstance abusing adults, the majority of whom were alcohol abusers, showed emotion recognition deficits on angry, disgusted, fearful, and sad faces (40). Based on the evidence of emotion recognition deficits in alcoholics, it is necessary to determine whether similar difficulties are present in FH+ youth that could be disruptive to emotional functioning and may contribute to the ultimately higher prevalence of alcohol abuse in this population.

Ultimately we may be observing here external emotional processing difficulties in the same manner we observed “internal” emotional processing difficulties in those with alexithymia, the reduced ability to “read” internal emotions of which a majority of alcoholics appear to suffer.

In summary, alcoholics and children of alcoholic families appear to have both external, i.e. recognition of other people’s emotions as well as their own and these may relate to immature development of brain regions which govern emotional, processing, recognition and regulation, which appears to contribute greatly to the initiation and progression of alcohol abuse.


In addition to emotional processing deficits, alcoholics have various structural
and functional abnormalities in affective processing brain regions. Studies of the limbic system have found reduced volume in subcortical structures, including the amygdala, thalamus, ventral striatum, and hippocampus among adult alcoholics (41,42). Alcoholics with smaller amygdalar volumes, are more likely to continue drinking after six months of abstinence (37).

Marinkovic et al. (2009) alcoholics exhibited both amygdalar and hippocampal hypoactivity during face encoding, and when recognizing deeply encoded faces, alcoholics had significantly reduced amygdalar activity to positive and negative emotional expressions compared with controls (35). These results help explain findings in behavioral studies of alcoholics that have found considerable evidence for emotion recognition deficits in this population.

Furthermore, during emotion identification, alcoholics showed comparable
performance to controls, but had reduced brain response in the affective division of the
anterior cingulate cortex (ACC) to disgust and sadness, with this lack of affective response to aversive stimuli believed to underlie disinhibitory traits in AUDs (36).

There is also evidence to suggest that non-alcohol abusing FHP individuals
share similar deficits in affective systems to alcohol abusers, including reduced
amygdalar volume, less amygdalar activity in response to emotional stimuli, and high
rates of internalizing symptoms such as anxiety and depression (37; 45-47).

Furthermore, research examining the relationship between emotional
processing and cognition has found that poor inhibition in individuals with co-morbid
substance and alcohol abuse is associated with atypical arousal in response to affective images (48), and affective measures in FH+ alcoholics also relate to deficits in executive functioning, e.g impulsivity (47).

This suggests that familial history of AUDs may put individuals at greater risk for problems with emotional processing and associated disruptions in executive functioning (47), which could, in turn, increase risk for alcohol abuse (49).

As we suggested previously, in relation to decision making profiles, in those at risk, those with alexithymia and also with cocaine addicts, decision making often involves more emotion expressive-motor areas of the brain like the caudate nucleus which is more of a “feel it-do it” type of reaction to decision making or a emotionally impaired or distress-based impulsivity. If there is a difficulty  processing emotions, these emotions can not be used as a signal to guide adaptive, optimal decisions. Decisions appear more compulsive and short term.

It may be this tendency to act now, rather than later,  that defines the vulnerability in FH+ children. It is like driving through life with faulty brakes on decision making, which sets up a chain of maladaptive choices such as alcohol abuse which then damages these affective based decision making regions of the brain even more, with increasing  deleterious consequences as the addiction cycle progresses until the endpoint of addiction of very limited choice of behaviour as emotional distress acts eventually as a stimulus response to alcohol use.  Emotional processing usurped by compulsive responding.



Main reference – Cservenka, A., Fair, D. A., & Nagel, B. J. (2014). Emotional Processing and Brain Activity in Youth at High Risk for Alcoholism. Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research.

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25. Kaprio, J., Koskenvuo, M., Langinvainio, H., Romanov, K., Sarna, S., Rose, R.J., 1987. Genetic influences on use and abuse of alcohol: a study of 5638 adult Finnish twin brothers. Alcohol Clin Exp Res 11, 349-356.

26.  Knopik, V.S., Heath, A.C., Madden, P.A., Bucholz, K.K., Slutske, W.S., Nelson, E.C., Statham, D., Whitfield, J.B., Martin, N.G., 2004. Genetic effects on alcohol dependence risk: re-evaluating the importance of psychiatric and other heritable risk factors. Psychol Med 34, 1519-1530.

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28.  Saunders, B., Farag, N., Vincent, A.S., Collins, F.L., Jr., Sorocco, K.H., Lovallo, W.R., 2008. Impulsive errors on a Go-NoGo reaction time task: disinhibitory traits in relation to a family history of alcoholism. Alcohol Clin Exp Res 32, 888-894.

29.  Acheson, A., Vincent, A.S., Sorocco, K.H., Lovallo, W.R., 2011b. Greater discounting of delayed rewards in young adults with family histories of alcohol and drug use disorders: studies from the Oklahoma family health patterns project. Alcohol Clin Exp Res 35, 1607-1613.

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How meditation helps with “emotional sobriety”!

In this blog we have considered two main and fundamental areas:-

1. that alcoholism appears to be an emotional regulation and processing disorder which implicates impaired functioning of brain regions and neural networks involved in regulation and processing emotion such as the insular cortex, anterior cingulate cortex and dorsolateral prefrontal cortex.

2. that in early and later recovery there appears to be increased functioning in these areas especially the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (dlPFC) and anterior cingulate cortex (ACC) which is important not only in regulating emotions but also in abstinence success.

Our third point is that mediation, of various types, appears to strengthen the very areas implicated in emotional regulation and processing, which ultimately helps with “emotional sobriety” and long term recovery.

Various studies have shown that mindfulness mediation training in expert meditators, as well as novices,  influenced areas of the brain involved in attention, awareness and emotion (1,2).




A key feature of mindfulness meditators may be the ability to recognise and accurately label emotions (3). Brain FMRI studies have shown more mindful people having increased ability to control emotional reactions in various areas associated with emotional regulation such as the amgydala, dlPFC, and ACC (4).

In a study (5) on the the effects of long term meditation on physical structure of the above brain regions, practitioners of mindful meditation who meditated 30-40 minutes a day, had increased thickness due to neuroplasticity of meditation in brain regions associated with attention and interoception (sensitivity to somatic or internal bodily stimuli) than the matched controls used in this study. Again the regions observed to have greater thickness via increased neural activity (neuroplasticity) were the PFC, right insula (interoception and this increased appreciation of bodily sensations and emotions) as well as the ACC in attention (and possible self awareness as ACC is also linked to consciousness) .

A structural MRI study (6) showed that experienced mindfulness meditators also had increased grey matter the right interior insula and PFC as well as, in unpublished data, in the hippocampus, which is implicated in memory but also in stress regulation. Thus mindfulness meditation and the fMRI and MRI studies show it is possible to train the mind to change brain morphology and functionality through the neuroplastic behaviour of meditating.

Brain regions consistently strengthen or which grow additonal “neural muscles” are those associated with emotional regulation and processing such as the dlPFC, ACC, insula and amgydala.   Thus if we want, as recovering individuals,  to shore up our early recovery, by strengthening the brain regions implicated in recovery success we meditate on a regular basis, daily, so that we can also improve those underlying difficulties in emotional regulation and processing.

By relieving emotional distress we greatly lessen the grip our condition has on us on a daily basis, We recover these functions.  We will discuss the role of meditation on reducing emotional distress in later blogs.





1. Cahn, B. R., & Polich, J. (2006). Meditation states and traits: EEG, ERP, and neuroimaging studies. Psychological bulletin132(2), 180.

2,  Lutz, A., Slagter, H. A., Dunne, J. D., & Davidson, R. J. (2008). Attention regulation and monitoring in meditation. Trends in cognitive sciences12(4), 163-169.

3.  Analayo. (2003). Satipatthana: The Direct Path to Awakening. Birmingham, UK: Windhorse Publications.

4.  Creswell, J. D., Way, B. M., Eisenberger, N. I., & Lieberman, M. D. (2007). Neural correlates of dispositional mindfulness during affect labeling.Psychosomatic Medicine69(6), 560-565.

5.  Lazar, S. W., Kerr, C. E., Wasserman, R. H., Gray, J. R., Greve, D. N., Treadway, M. T., … & Fischl, B. (2005). Meditation experience is associated with increased cortical thickness. Neuroreport16(17), 1893.

6. Hölzel, B. K., Ott, U., Hempel, H., Hackl, A., Wolf, K., Stark, R., & Vaitl, D. (2007). Differential engagement of anterior cingulate and adjacent medial frontal cortex in adept meditators and non-meditators. Neuroscience letters421(1), 16-21.


see also  Hijacking the Brain