How Mindfulness could help Recovery?

Mindfulness training modifies cognitive, affective, and physiological mechanisms implicated in alcohol dependence.

Yesterday we looked a how low heart rate variability in alcoholics (active and in recovery) may influence self, emotion and stress regulation, and have a limited effect on impulsivity, and result in a “locked in” attention to alcohol-related cues, all of which have obvious consequences for relapse.

Here we cite and use excerpts from an article by Eric Garland et al (1) which addresses the effects of mindfulness  meditation on those with alcohol dependence.

Although Garland suggest mindfulness could be an alternative to other treatment and recovery programs, I suggest that it can be used most effectively with other treatment and recovery programs, e.g. with step 11 of 12 step programs.

I believe the consequence of emotion dysregulation  over many years of addiction leaves behind numerous unprocessed emotions which have not been consigned to long term memory and as a result float around the mind as resentments, shame and guilt based memories etc.

Emotion dysregulation has not allowed us to consigned them properly to the past (the so-called wreckage of the past) or long term memory and only an intensive process of emotional processing these e.g. via step 4 or 5 or via an alternative stock taking of our pasts seems to resolve this problem.

I know from my previous experience of intensive meditation involving various 10 day intensive courses and meditating on a very regular basis, before realising I am an alcoholic, would always result in relapse via the distress of the past being resurgent in my mind.

Some method of addressing all of these past behaviours, which invariably have hurt someone, need to be addressed and processed, even making amends to those hurt by our previous behaviours,  before we profoundly ease the distress of the past and help facilitate a greater recovery and more effective meditation practice.

Anyway, that’s my vies, on with the article…

“When attention is fixated on visual or olfactory alcohol cues, alcohol dependent individuals exhibit significant psychophysiological reactivity (Carter & Tiffany 1999). In turn, this alcohol cue-reactivity may lead to increased craving, which can trigger alcohol consumption as a means of reducing distress. Many persons recovering from alcohol use disorders attempt to suppress cravings, which, paradoxically, can serve to increase intrusive, automatic alcohol-related cognitions (Palfai, Monti, Colby, & Rohsenow 1997), dysphoria, and autonomic arousal (Wenzlaff & Wegner 2000). Indeed, among alcohol dependent persons, thought suppression is negatively correlated with vagally-mediated heart rate variability (Ingjaldsson, Laberg, & Thayer 2003), a putative index of emotion regulation and parasympathetic inhibition of stress reactions (Thayer & Lane 2000).

As thoughts of drinking intensify and are coupled with psychobiological distress, the impulse to consume alcohol as a form of palliative coping may overcome depleted self-regulation strength (Muraven, Collins, & Nienhaus 2002; Muraven & Shmueli 2006) leading to relapse. The attempt to avoid distress or allay its impact through compulsive alcohol consumption results in negative reinforcement conditioning that may perpetuate this cycle by further sensitizing the brain to future stressful encounters via allostatic dysregulation of neuroendocrine systems (Koob 2003). Components of this risk chain may be especially malleable to targeted behavioral therapies.

One such intervention, mindfulness training, which originates from Buddhist traditions but has been co-opted by Western clinicians, has recently gained prominence in the psychological and medical literatures for its salutary effects on stress-related biobehavioral conditions (Baer & Krietemeyer 2006; Ludwig & Kabat-Zinn 2008). Mindfulness involves self-regulation of a metacognitive form of attention: a nonreactive, non-evaluative monitoring of moment-by-moment cognition, emotion, perception, and physiological state without fixation on thoughts of past or future (Garland 2007). A growing body of research suggests that mindfulness affects implicit cognition and attentional processes (e.g., Jha, Krompinger, & Baime 2007; Lutz, Slagter, Dunne, & Davidson 2008; Wenk-Sormaz 2005) as well as heart rate variability indices of parasympathetic regulation (Tang et al. 2009).


Mindfulness treatments may enhance clinical outcomes in substance-abusing populations.

Bowen et al. (2007) found that mindfulness training of incarcerated inmates reduced post-release substance use, substance-related problems, and psychiatric symptoms to a greater extent than standard chemical dependency services offered at the prison. Other pilot studies of mindfulness-based interventions with substance abusers have found significant reductions in distress, negative affect, stress-related biomarkers, and substance use (Marcus, Fine, & Kouzekanani 2001; Marcus et al. 2003;Zgierska et al. 2008).

To that end, a randomized, controlled design was used to compare the therapeutic effects of a mindfulness-oriented recovery enhancement (MORE) intervention to those of an evidence-based alcohol dependence support group (ASG).

We hypothesized that, relative to ASG, MORE would result in significantly greaterdecreases in perceived stress, impaired alcohol response inhibition, craving for alcohol, psychiatric symptoms, and thought suppression and significantly greater increases in mindfulness and in heart rate variability (HRV) recovery from stress-primed alcohol cues.



Among recovering alcohol-dependent individuals, mindfulness training appears to be a potentially effective stress reduction technique. MORE reduced perceived stress to a greater extent than did ASG, which is noteworthy given that social support reduces stress reactivity and buffers deleterious effects of stressful life events (Christenfeld & Gerin 2000). The stress reduction effects of mindfulness training among nonclinical populations are well known in the literature (Grossman, Niemann, Schmidt, & Walach 2004), but it is notable that significant effects were obtained in a sample of clinically-disordered, alcohol-dependent adults with extensive trauma histories who may be more vulnerable to stress-precipitated relapse due to allostatic dysregulation of neural stress circuitry (Valdez & Koob 2004).

Like stress, thought suppression significantly decreased over the course of ten weeks of mindfulness training. In turn, decreases in thought suppression among MORE participants were significantly correlated with decreases in impaired alcohol response inhibition, raising the possibility that participants who improved their ability to regulate drinking urges may have done so via reductions in thought suppression.

In the context of alcohol dependence, thought suppression seems to enhance the conscious awareness of alcohol-related cognitions and affective reactions. MORE, with its emphasis on nonjudgmental, metacognitive awareness of present-moment experience, appeared to counter this deleterious cognitive strategy and therefore may have prevented post-suppression rebound effects from exacerbating negative affect and intrusive alcohol-related cognitions that can promote relapse.


In sum, the unwitting attempts of recovering alcohol dependent persons to suppress appetitive cognitive-emotional reactions towards alcohol may obscure these responses from consciousness only to perpetuate and intensify them within the cognitive unconscious. In the domain of unconscious mental life, automatic processes run smoothly and efficiently uninhibited by volitional control (Kihlstrom 1987). Hence, by shunting appetitive reactions into the unconscious, the alcohol dependent individual may increase the very appetitive response towards alcohol he or she is trying to suppress and exacerbate psychophysiological reactivity to alcohol cues. Mindfulness training may serve to undo this process, making unconscious responses conscious. Thus, practice of mindfulness may promote the recovery of alcohol dependent persons through: a) deautomatization of alcohol use action schema, resulting in diminished attentional bias towards subliminal alcohol cues and increased craving as a result of disrupted automaticity; and b) decreased thought suppression resulting in increased awareness of alcohol urges over time, increased HRV recovery from alcohol cue-exposure, and improved ability to inhibit appetitive responses.

Accordingly, mindfulness training may be a tractable means of promoting enduring behavior change. Although brief motivational interventions may be highly effective at impelling the desire towards sobriety, participants of such motivational enhancement therapies remain prone to eventual relapse; indeed, relapse is often a part of the recovery process. As such, interventions that consolidate short-term treatment gains into broader lifestyle change are of major significance to the addictions treatment field. During the gradual practice of mindfulness, one learns to work with negative emotions in a metacognitive context, resulting in nonreactivity to difficult mental contents and improved self-regulation in the face of stressors. The developmental process of cultivating and embedding mindfulness principles into all aspects of one’s life may solidify gains made in prior treatment and provide an effective, long-term approach to coping with stress-precipitated relapse.

Despite evidence suggesting that stress appraisal and attentional biases are key components of alcohol dependence, the form of addictions treatment most available to poor and marginalized persons, social support groups, does not target these pathogenic mechanisms directly. In contrast, practice of mindfulness may attenuate stress reactivity and thought suppression while disrupting addictive automaticity, resulting in increased awareness of craving and greater ability to cope with and recover from alcohol urges in stressful contexts. Hence, mindfulness training may hold promise as an alternative, targeted treatment for stress-precipitated alcohol dependence among vulnerable members of society.”

Equally mindfulness meditation may be used alongside other treatment regimes. For example, it can be used in a daily manner as part of step 11 in the 12 step program. It is also used as part of DBT, for example.

I think that there are ideas out there, is so-called different treatment regimes, which can simply compliment each other. Whatever works, works.

I personally meditate using both  Christian and Buddhist meditation techniques.

Sometimes appreciating the therapeutic strengths of different treatment philosophies and practice can augment one’s own main treatment and recovery program.


1.  Garland, E. L., Gaylord, S. A., Boettiger, C. A., & Howard, M. O. (2010). Mindfulness training modifies cognitive, affective, and physiological mechanisms implicated in alcohol dependence: results of a randomized controlled pilot trial. Journal of psychoactive drugs, 42(2), 177-192.


The terror of “Locked In” Attention!

I remember when I was in the first days, weeks and months of early recovery I used to give myself such a hard time when my attention was drawn to some alcohol-related cue, like someone drinking ,or finding it difficult not dealing with some  reminder of people places and things from my alcohol abusing past; finding that I found it nigh on impossible dragging my attention away from these and related memories associated with my drinking past.

It was as if I was entranced by it, in some of tunnel vision. It used to scare the life out of me.

I rarely found these thoughts appetitive but if I dwelt on these thoughts or trained my attention on cues I would find that the adverse, fearful things would turn to more desire based physiological reactions like salivating and so on.

I took these to mean that I actually wanted to drink and not stay sober. My sponsor at the time said two things which helped – a. I have an alcoholic brain that wants to drink period, 2. cues from my past may always have this effect on me. Accept it, don’t fight it.

That was what I had been doing in fact. Fighting it, these cues reminders and their automatically occurring intrusive thoughts about the past. It is in fighting these thoughts that they proliferate and then become “craving”.

Years later after much research I found that all alcoholics seem to have an attentional bias towards alcohol-related cues which leads to a cue reactivity.

Originally I thought this meant that I simply wanted to drink but found out that in  any manifestation of urge to drink (which is slightly different from a craving which requires an affective response on the part of the alcoholic in order to become a craving similar to mental obsession of the Big Book ) there is a stress reponse like the hear beat quickening, differences in galvanic skin conductance, increased saliva production etc .

Thus this cue reactivty seems to involve not only appetitive or desire states, i.e. it activates the reward system in the brain to motivate one to drink but also contains a stress based reactivity.

Any so-called “craving” state also manifests as either an anxiety state in simple cue reactivity e.g. the sight of alcohol or in negative emotions such as fear, anger and sadness in terms of a stress based craving.

Together, i.e. a cue based reactivity in the face stress/distress leads to a greater urge to drink than by either alone. By reacting to these one is increasing the stress/distress.

To the alcoholic brain having a drink or the desire to drink is the brain suggesting to us as alcoholics that this is the best way to attain transient homeostasis from an allostatic state of distress because this is how we used to balance the effects of emotional distress when we were drinking. We experience distress and automatically had thoughts about drinking. Thus alcoholism is a distress-based condition. We think it is us wanting the drink but it is the distress prompting the wanting of the drink!!

The distress does the drinking for us, itgets us out of our seats and down the street to the bar, it gets us on the bar stool….We may think it is our actions as we use rationalisng and justifying schemata afterwards to justify behaviour that had, in fact, been automatic or compulsive, compulsive meaning to relieve a distress state.

As a schema, which is implicit, i.e. it is automatically prompted and activated by distress also. We are not even in charge of this. We feel and think that we are in control over behaviour bit this is not the case as self control has become so impaired and limited it is distress doing the action and the subsequent rationalising.

The compusive part of the brain, the dorsal striatum, is the only part of the brain that requires us to make a post hoc rationalisation of why we did an action that was essentially automatic and compulsive.

We have become passengers in our own lives. Distress is now doing the driving.

So the brain thinks it is simply telling us the best way to survive this distress or in other words to regulate this distress. Thus it is an incredibly impaired way to regulate stress and emotional distress.

I want to further explain how some of this is linked to low heart rate variability. If we have low HRV we find it difficult inhibiting automatic responses and in changing behaviour. We become behaviourally rigid, and locked into attending to things like cues when we don’t really want to.

This is often the result of distress reducing the ability of the heart rate variability to inform and change our responses.

I cite and use excerpts form one of my favourite articles again by co-authored by Julian Thayer (1).


“The recovering alcoholic must face the difficulty of having his or her ambition to remain abstinent challenged in various situations in which memories about the pleasurable effects of alcohol are activated and the striving for abstinence no longer seems meaningful (Anton 1999; Marlatt and Gordon 1985). The odds for successful coping with such temptations are related to numerous factors, such as one’s subjective affective state and the ability to shift one’s focus from the automatic impulse to drink toward a cognitive reconstruction of the situation (Palfai et al 1997b; Tiffany 1990). Despite the importance of  attentional flexibility in effectively modulating such “highrisk” situations, research on the topic is scarce.

Thayer and Lane (2000) suggested that the interplay between positive (excitatory) and negative (inhibitory) feedback circuits in the nervous system (NS) allows for flexible and adaptive behavior across a wide range of situations. The uniqueness of this model lies with its emphasis on the importance of inhibitory processes in effective modulation of affective experience. In short, these researchers propose that the defects in neurovisceral regulation of affective experience seen in various psychiatric conditions (e.g., anxiety disorders) may be better explained by faulty inhibitory function in the NS than by unitary arousal models.

Tonic heart rate variability (HRV) may be a physiologic indicator of such inhibitory processes (Friedman and Thayer 1998a; Porges 1995). Heart rate variability refers to the complex beat-to-beat variation in heart rate produced by the interplay of sympathetic and parasympathetic (vagal) neural activity at the sinus node of the heart.

Importantly, heart rate (HR) is under tonic inhibitory control via the vagus nerve (Levy 1990). These neural connections to the heart are linked to brain structures involved in goal-directed behavior and adaptability (Thayer and Lane 2000). Compelling evidence now exists to show that high levels of HRV are related to cognitive flexibility (Johnsen et al 2003), modulation of affect and emotion (see Bazhenova 1995, cited in Porges 1995), and increased impulse control (Allen et al 2000; Porges et al 1996).

The hypothesis that reduced HRV is related to defective affective and emotional regulation has been supported in recent research in which reduced HRV was present in clinical disorders such as generalized anxiety disorder (Thayer et al 1996), panic disorder (Friedman and Thayer 1998b), posttraumatic stress disorder (Cohen et al 1997) several scientific arguments suggest that impaired inhibitory function may play a role in chronic alcohol abuse.

First, alcoholics have repeatedly been shown to have problems shifting attention and directing their attention away from task-irrelevant information (Johnsen et al 1994; Setter et al 1994; Stormark et al 2000). Second, frontal areas of the brain are most affected by the acute and chronic effects of alcohol, and these structures are of crucial importance in inhibitory functioning and self-control (Lyvers 2000). Third, acute effects of alcohol ingestion result in reductions in HRV, implying that chronic alcohol ingestion may result in a long-lasting impairment of the vagal modulation of HR (Reed et al 1999; Weise et al 1986)

Fourth, severely dependent alcoholics show a sustained phasic HR acceleration when processing alcohol information, indicating defective vagal modulation of cardiac function (Stormark et al 1998). Tonic HRV has similarly been found to be a useful measure of physiologic activity in challenging situations (Thayer and Lane 2000). Appropriate modulation of HRV (increases, decreases, or no change) depends on the type of challenge and the characteristics of individuals as they interact with specific contextual manipulation (Friedman and Thayer 1998a; Hughes and Stoney 2000; Porges et al 1996; Thayer et al 1996).

For example, during attention demanding tasks, healthy individuals show appropriate reductions in HRV (Porges 1995). In general, high tonic levels of HRV allow for the flexible deployment of organism resources to meet environmental challenges. With respect to attention, it is suggested that high levels of HRV reflect flexible attentional focus, whereas low HRV is related to “locked in attention” (Porges et al 1996). Moreover, increased tonic vagal activity is related to adaptive development and lack of behavioral and emotional problems (Hughes and Stoney 2000; Porges et al 1996).

Furthermore, it has been demonstrated that increases in vagal activity during challenging tasks discriminates between individuals who have experienced traumatic events and managed to recover from them and those who still suffer from chronic symptoms of posttraumatic stress (Sahr et al 2001). Such increases in vagal activity during challenging tasks are particularly interesting because studies on alcohol abusers have found increases in HRV after exposure to alcohol-related cues (Jansma et al 2000; Rajan et al 1998).

One could speculate that such enhanced vagal activity could be a sign of compensatory coping aimed at taming automatic drinking related processes (Larimer et al 1999). Such an interpretation is in agreement with cognitive theories predicting that alcoholics and other drug users do not simply respond passively to exposure to drug-related cues, but, on the contrary, in such situations conscious processes are invoked, inhibiting execution of drug-related cognition (Tiffany 1990, 1995). If this explanation is correct, alcoholics who have more effective coping resources should show stronger increases in vagal activity during such challenging exposure than alcoholics who express greater difficulty in resisting drinking-related impulses.

Also  general differences in HRV between alcoholics and nonalcoholics are interesting indicators of defective inhibitory functioning, a measure of rigid thought-control strategies and lack of cognitive control should be an important indicator of defective inhibitory function and “positive feedback loops” reflected as low HRV (Wegner and Zanakos 1994).

Linking these measures to the physiologic index of HRV makes a stronger case for attributing reduced vagal tone (HRV) to a defective regulatory mechanism resulting in unpleasant affective states and maladaptive coping with psychologic stressors

The main results of our study may be summed as follows. First, as expected, alcoholic participants had lower HRV compared with the nonalcoholic control group. Second, the imaginary alcohol exposure increased HRV in the alcoholic participants. Third, across the groups, an inverse association was found between HRV and negative mood and a positive association between positive mood and HRV. Fourth, HRV was negatively correlated with compulsive drinking during the imaginary alcohol exposure in the alcoholic participants. Fifth, within the alcoholic group, HRV was negatively associated with chronic thought suppression (WBSI).

Generally, these findings are in agreement with the neurovisceral integration model and the polyvagal theory that suggests HRV is a marker of the level of cognitive, behavioral, and emotional regulatory abilities (Thayer and Lane 2000).

The fact that the alcoholic group had generally lower tonic HRV compared with the nonalcoholic control group indicates that such reduced HRV may also be a factor in alcohol abuse; however, such group differences in HRV provide only indirect support for the theory that low HRV in alcoholics may be related to impaired inhibitory mechanisms

Because HRV is related to activity in frontal brain areas involved in cognition and impulse control (Thayer and Lane 2000), we speculated that tonic HRV would be an index of nonautomatic inhibitory processes aimed at suppressing and controlling automatic drug-related cognitions. To test this hypothesis more directly, the association between HRV and problems with controlling drinking-related impulses were studied.

Consistent with this hypothesis, the compulsive subscale of the OCDS was found to be inversely associated with HRV in the alcohol-exposure condition, thus suggesting that HRV may be an indirect indicator of the level of impulse control associated with drinking. These findings are therefore consistent with Stormark et al (1998), who found that sustained HR acceleration (lack of vagal inhibition) when processing alcohol-related information was related to compulsive drinking and “locked-in attention.”

Post hoc analysis further suggested that alcoholics who expressed a relatively high ability to resist impulses to drink (OCDS) had the clearest increase in HRV under the alcohol exposure this study suggests that alcoholics may actively inhibit or compensate for their involuntary attraction to alcohol-related information by activation of higher nonautomatic cognitive processes (Tiffany 1995). Such conscious avoidance has previously been demonstrated in studies on attentional processes in alcoholics (Stormark et al 1997) and by the fact that frontal brain structures involved in inhibition and control of affective information are often highly activated in the processing of alcohol related cues (Anton 1999). Furthermore, this interpretation is in agreement with other studies suggesting that high HRV during challenging tasks is associated with recovery from acute stress disorders (Sahr et al 2001).

Several studies have indicated that low HRV is associated with impaired cognitive control and perseverative thinking (Thayer and Lane 2002). Consistent with these reports a negative association was found between HRV and chronic thought suppression. The WBSI assesses efforts to eliminate thoughts from awareness while experiencing frequent intrusions of such “forbidden” thoughts and thus represents an interesting and well-validated measure of ineffective thought control (Wegner and Zanakos 1994). Thought suppression has been found to be an especially counterproductive strategy for coping with urges and craving (Palfai et al 1997a, 1997b) and may even play a causal role in maintaining various clinical disorders (Wenzlaff and Wegner 2000).

To our knowledge, this is the first time a link between physiologic indicators of a lack of cognitive flexibility (low HRV) and chronic thought suppression has been demonstrated.

Thayer and Friedman (2002) have reviewed evidence indicating that there is an association between vagally mediated HRV and the inhibitory role of the prefrontal cortex. Consistent with Thayer and Lane (2000), this study suggests that impaired inhibitory processes are significantly related to ineffective thought control.

The fact that this association between HRV and WBSI was only found in the alcoholics may be related to the fact that only this clinical group shows signs of such faulty thought control.

Wegner and Zanakos (1994) suggested that thought suppression is particularly ineffective when the strategic resources involved in intentional suppression are inhibited or blocked (Wegner 1994). Consistent with this hypothesis, our findings show that those reporting high scores on WBSI show signs of impaired inhibitory functioning as indexed by low vagally mediated HRV.”

This excellent article fro me is also alluding to the fact that those with increased HRV was related to successfully related to regulating negative emotion,  stress/distress and affect, not just the thoughts that these affective states gave rise to .

Thus any strategies that help with improving  the ability to increase HRV will likely have positive results in coping with cue associated materials.

We look at one of these therapeutic strategies next…that of mindfulness meditation.



1. Ingjaldsson, J. T., Laberg, J. C., & Thayer, J. F. (2003). Reduced heart rate variability in chronic alcohol abuse: relationship with negative mood, chronic thought suppression, and compulsive drinking. Biological Psychiatry54(12), 1427-1436.




Impulsivity is an Independent Predictor of 15-Year Mortality Risk among Individuals Seeking Help for Alcohol-Related Problems

In yesterday’s blog we looked at how AA membership and the 12 step program of recovery helped reduce impulsivity in recovering alcoholics.

We mentioned also that impulsivity was present as a pathomechanism of alcoholism from vulnerability in “at risk” children from families, were there was a history of alcoholism, right the way through to recovering alcoholics in long term recovery (i.e. many years of recovery).

We cited and used excerpts from a study written by the same authors as the study we cite now (1).

This study shows and highlights how, if untreated, by recovery programs such as AA’s 12 steps, that “trait” impulsivity can lead to increased mortality in alcoholics.

This study interestingly shows there is a difference from “state-like” impulsivity in early recovery when recovering people are still distressed and “trait-like” which is after Year 1 of recovery when some of the severity of withdrawal from alcohol has long since abated and some recovery tools have been learnt.

The fact that this impulsivity continues to contribute to relapse and mortality may suggest it is a trait state in alcoholics and possibly a vulnerability to later alcoholism also.

In effect, it illustrates the role impulsivity plays as a pathomechanism in alcoholism, i.e. it is a psychological mechanism that drives addiction and alcoholism forward to it’s chronic endpoint.

Again research shows us how we can learn about a pathology from the recovery from it!


impulse control.preview



Although past research has found impulsivity to be a significant predictor of mortality, no studies have tested this association in samples of individuals with alcohol-related problems or examined moderation of this effect via socio-contextual processes. The current study addressed these issues in a mixed-gender sample of individuals seeking help for alcohol-related problems.


…higher impulsivity at baseline was associated with an increased risk of mortality from Years 1 to 16; higher impulsivity at Year 1 was associated with an increased risk of mortality from Years 1 to 16, and remained significant when accounting for the severity of alcohol use, as well as physical health problems, emotional discharge coping, and interpersonal stress and support at Year 1. In addition, the association between Year 1 impulsivity and 15-year mortality risk was moderated by interpersonal support at Year 1, such that individuals high on impulsivity had a lower mortality risk when peer/friend support was high than when it was low.


The findings highlight impulsivity as a robust and independent predictor of mortality.


…personality traits related to impulsivity (e.g., low conscientiousness) have been identified as significant predictors of poor health-related outcomes including mortality (Bogg and Roberts, 2004; Roberts et al., 2007). Although there is a well-established association between disinhibitory traits and alcohol use disorders (AUDs) (Labouvie and McGee, 1986; McGue et al., 1999;Sher et al., 2000), to our knowledge, no studies have tested these traits as predictors of mortality among individuals with alcohol-related problems or examined moderation of this effect via socio-contextual processes.

Predictors of Mortality Risk among Individuals with Alcohol Use Disorders

Relative to the general population, individuals with AUDs are more likely to die prematurely (Finney et al., 1999; Johnson et al., 2005; Valliant, 1996). Accordingly, several longitudinal studies have aimed to identify the most salient risk factors for mortality in this population (for a review, see Liskow et al., 2000)

…more reliance on avoidance coping, less social support, and more stress from interpersonal relationships increase the risk of mortality among individuals with AUDs (Finney and Moos, 1992; Holahan et al., 2010; Mertens et al., 1996; Moos et al., 1990).

Impulsivity and Risk for Mortality: Relevance for Individuals with Alcohol Use Disorders

Despite the litany of variables that have been examined as predictors of mortality among individuals with AUDs, tests of the significance of individual differences in personality are noticeably absent from this literature. In the clinical and health psychology literatures, however, personality traits have long been identified as possible risk factors for mortality (Friedman and Rosenman, 1959), with low conscientiousness emerging as one of the most consistent, trait-based predictors of poor health and reduced longevity (Kern and Friedman, 2008; Roberts et al., 2007). Conscientiousness is a broad domain of personality reflecting individual differences in the propensity to control one’s impulses, be planful, and adhere to socially-prescribed norms (John et al., 2008).

(previously) no studies in this literature have tested impulsivity as an independent predictor of mortality in a sample of individuals with alcohol-related problems. This is a surprising omission, given that impulsivity is a well-established risk factor for alcohol misuse (Elkins et al., 2006; McGue et al., 1999; Sher et al., 2000) and therefore may be an especially potent predictor of mortality among individuals with AUDs. Furthermore, the role of impulsivity as an independent predictor of mortality risk among individuals with AUDs is relevant from the standpoint of the stage of the alcohol recovery process.

Thus, we sought to examine the impulsivity-mortality link at baseline and one year after participants had initiated help-seeking for their alcohol use problems. At baseline, participants were in a state of distress due to their problematic alcohol use, whereas at Year 1 most participants had obtained help for their alcohol-related problems and reduced their drinking (Finney and Moos, 1995).

Given prior research on acute clinical states and self-report assessments of personality (e.g., Brown et al., 1991; Peselow et al., 1994;Reich et al., 1987), we hypothesized that individuals’ self-reports of impulsivity at Year 1 would be less a reflection of their alcohol problems – and therefore more likely to be independently linked to mortality risk – than their reports at baseline, which may be more closely associated with concurrent alcohol use and problems (i.e., state effects).


…impulsivity at baseline was a significant predictor of mortality risk from Years 1 to 16; however, this effect was accounted for by the severity of alcohol use at baseline. In contrast, impulsivity at Year 1 was associated with an increased risk of mortality over the subsequent 15 years…

In addition, a significant interaction was observed between impulsivity and peer/friend support at Year 1, which suggested that, among individuals high on impulsivity, the mortality risk may be reduced for those high on support from peers/friends. Collectively, these findings highlight impulsivity as an independent risk factor for mortality in AUD samples…

…It is also conceivable that, given participants were in a state of crisis at baseline, their reports of their impulsive tendencies at that time partly captured “state” effects (e.g., psychiatric distress from concurrent substance use; withdrawal symptoms) and therefore were less an indication of their typical or “characterological” pattern of impulsivity, independent of alcohol use. However, at Year 1, most participants had reduced their drinking and were not in a state of crisis; thus, their reports at that time may have been a better reflection of their “trait-like” pattern of impulsivity, which in turn may be a more robust independent predictor of long-term outcomes such as mortality. Accordingly, future studies that seek to test impulsivity as an independent predictor of mortality among individuals with AUDs should consider the stage of the alcohol recovery process.

Moderation of the Impulsivity-Mortality Link via the Social Context

The results of the moderator analyses suggest that the effects of impulsivity on mortality may become manifest through interactions between traits and socio-contextual process (Friedman, 2000). That is, the dire effects of impulsivity on risk for mortality may not reach fruition for individuals who are able to maintain a strong peer support network. Conceivably, by virtue of their strong bond with a high-risk individual, such peers may have sufficient leverage to discourage expression of the individual’s impulsive tendencies and encourage consideration of the long-term consequences of his/her actions.

Such a perspective is consistent with evidence from the AUD treatment-outcome literature that social support networks are a key mechanism by which Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) and other psychosocial treatments can improve long-term drinking-related outcomes (Humphreys and Noke, 1997; Kaskutas et al., 2002).

Furthermore, from the standpoint of treatment, the present findings suggest that interventions for AUDs may benefit from an ecological perspective that considers the contexts in which dispositional tendencies, such as impulsivity, become expressed in individuals’ everyday lives. Notably, based on prior work with this sample, longer duration in AA and alcohol treatment was associated with a decline in impulsivity (Blonigen et al., 2009). In combination with the present findings, it appears that formal and informal help for AUDs may include “active ingredients” that can help curtail expression of impulsive tendencies (e.g., social integration, peer bonding; Moos, 2007,2008) and buffer the otherwise deleterious impact of such tendencies on health and longevity.


1. Blonigen, D. M., Timko, C., Moos, B. S., & Moos, R. H. (2011). Impulsivity is an Independent Predictor of 15-Year Mortality Risk among Individuals Seeking Help for Alcohol-Related Problems. Alcoholism, Clinical and Experimental Research, 35(11), 2082–2092. doi:10.1111/j.1530-0277.2011.01560.x

Alcoholics Anonymous and Reduced Impulsivity: A Novel Mechanism of Change

Impulsivity or lack of behaviour inhibition, especially when distressed, is one psychological mechanisms which is implicated in all addictive behaviour from substance addiction to behaviour addiction.

It is, in my view, linked to the impaired emotion processing as I have elucidated upon in various blogs on this site.

This impulsivity is present for example in those vulnerable to later alcoholism, i.e. sons and daughters of alcoholic parents or children  from a family that has a relatively high or concentrated density of alcoholics in the family history, right through to old timers, people who have decades of recovery from alcoholism.

It is an ever present and as a result part of a pathomechanism of alcoholism, that is it is fundamental to driving alcoholism to it’s chronic endpoint.

It partly drives addiction via it’s impact on decision making – research shows people of varying addictive behaviours choose now over later, even if it is a smaller short term gain over a greater long term gain. We seem to react to relieve a distress signal in the brain rather than in response to considering and evaluating the long term consequences of a decision or act.

No doubt this improves in recovery as it has with me. Nonetheless, this tendency for rash action with limited consideration of long term consequence is clearly a part of the addictive profile. Not only do we choose now over then, we appear to have an intolerance of uncertainty, which means we have difficulties coping with uncertain outcomes. In other words we struggle with things in the future particularly if they are worrying or concerning things, like a day in court etc. The future can continually intrude into the present. A thought becomes a near certain action, again similar to the though-action fusion of obsessive compulsive disorder. It is as if the thought and possible future action are almost fused, as if they are happening in unison.

Although simple, less worrying events can also make me struggle with leaving the future to the future instead of endless and fruitlessly ruminating about it in the now. In early recovery  especially I found that I had real difficulty dealing with the uncertainty of future events and always thought they would turn out bad. It is akin to catastrophic thinking.

If a thought of a drink entered into my head it was so distressing, almost as if I was being dragged by some invisible magnet to the nearest bar. It was horrendous. Fortunately I created my own thought action fusion to oppose this.

Any time I felt this distressing lure of the bar like some unavoidable siren call of alcohol I would turn that thought into the action of ringing my sponsor. This is why sponsees should ring sponsors about whatever, whenever in order to habitualize these responses to counteract the automatic responses of the addicted brain.

I think it is again based on an inherent emotion dysregulation. Obsessive thoughts are linked to emotion dysregulation.

My emotions can still sometimes control me and not the other way around.

Apparently we need to recruit the frontal part of the brain to regulate these emotions and this is the area most damaged by chronic alcohol consumption.

As a result we find it difficult to recruit this brain area which not only helps regulate emotion but is instrumental in making reflective, evaluative decisions about future, more long term consequence. As a result addicts of all types appear to use a “bottom up” sub-cortical part of the brain centred on the amgydala region to make responses to decisions instead of a “top down” more cortical part of the brain to make evaluative decisions.

We thus react, and rashly act to relieve the distress of undifferentiated emotions, the result of unprocessed emotion rather than using processed emotions to recruit the more cortical parts of the brain.

Who would have though emotions were so instrumental in us making decisions? Two parts of the brain that hold emotions in check so that they can be used to serve goal directed behaviour are the orbitofrontal cortex and the ventromedial prefrontal cortex.



These areas also keep amgydaloid responding in check. Unfortunately these two areas are impaired in alcoholics and other addictive behaviours so their influence on and regulation of the amgydala is also impaired.

This means the sub cortical areas of the amgydala and related regions are over active and prompt not a goal directed response to decision making but a “fight or flight” response to alleviate distress and not facilitate goal directed behaviour.



Sorry for so much detail. I have read so much about medication recently which does this or that to reduce craving or to control  drinking but what about the underlying conditions of alcoholism and addictive behaviour? These are rarely mentioned or considered at all.


We always in recovery have to deal with alcoholism not just it’s symptomatic manifestation of that which is chronic alcohol consumption. This is a relatively simple point and observation that somehow alludes academics, researchers and so-called commentators on this fascinating subject.

Anyway that is some background to this study which demonstrates that long term AA membership can reduce this impulsivity and perhaps adds validity to the above arguments that improved behaviour inhibition and reducing impulsivity is a very possible mechanism of change brought about by AA membership and the 12 step recovery program.

It shows how we can learn about a pathology from the recovery from it!

Indeed when one looks back at one’s step 4 and 5 how many times was this distress based impulsivity the real reason for “stepping on the toes of others” and for their retaliation?

Were we not partly dominated by the world because we could not keep ourselves in check? Didn’t all our decisions get us to AA because they were inherently based on a decision making weakness? Isn’t this why it is always useful to have a sponsor, someone to discuss possible decisions with?

Weren’t we out of control, regardless of alcohol or substance or behaviour addiction? Isn’t this at the heart of our unmanageability?

I think we can all see how we still are effected by a tendency not to think things through and to act rashly.

The trouble it has caused is quite staggeringly really?

Again we cite a study (1) which has Rudolf H. Moos as a co-author. Moos has authored and co-authored a numbered of fine papers on the effectiveness of AA and is a rationale beacon in a sea of sometimes quite controversial and ignorant studies on AA, and alcoholism in general.


Reduced impulsivity is a novel, yet plausible, mechanism of change associated with the salutary effects of Alcoholics Anonymous (AA). Here, we review our work on links between AA attendance and reduced impulsivity using a 16-year prospective study of men and women with alcohol use disorders (AUD) who were initially untreated for their drinking problems. Across the study period, there were significant mean-level decreases in impulsivity, and longer AA duration was associated with reductions in impulsivity…

Among individuals with alcohol use disorders (AUD), Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) is linked to improved functioning across a number of domains [1, 2]. As the evidence for the effectiveness of AA has accumulated, so too have efforts to identify the mechanisms of change associated with participation in this mutual-help group [3]. To our knowledge, however, there have been no efforts to examine links between AA and reductions in impulsivity-a dimension of personality marked by deficits in self-control and self-regulation, and tendencies to take risks and respond to stimuli with minimal forethought.

In this article, we discuss the conceptual rationale for reduced impulsivity as a mechanism of change associated with AA, review our research on links between AA and reduced impulsivity, and discuss potential implications of the findings for future research on AA and, more broadly, interventions for individuals with AUD.

Impulsivity and related traits of disinhibition are core risk factors for AUD [5, 6]. In cross-sectional research, impulsivity is typically higher among individuals in AUD treatment than among those in the general population [7] and, in prospective studies, impulse control deficits tend to predate the onset of drinking problems [811]

Although traditionally viewed as static variables, contemporary research has revealed that traits such as impulsivity can change over time [17]. For example, traits related to impulsivity exhibit significant mean- and individual-level decreases over the lifespan [18], as do symptoms of personality disorders that include impulsivity as an essential feature [21, 22]. Moreover, entry into social roles that press for increased responsibility and self-control predict decreases in impulsivity [16, 23, 24]. Hence, individual levels of impulsivity can be modified by systematic changes in one’s life circumstances [25].

Substance use-focused mutual-help groups may promote such changes, given that they seek to bolster self-efficacy and coping skills aimed at controlling substance use, encourage members to be more structured in their daily lives, and target deficits in self-regulation [26]. Such “active ingredients” may curb the immediate self-gratification characteristic of disinhibition and provide the conceptual grounds to expect that AA participation can press for a reduction in impulsive inclinations.

…the idea of reduced impulsivity as a mechanism of change…it is consistent with contemporary definitions of recovery from substance use disorders that emphasize improved citizenship and global health [31], AA’s vision of recovery as a broad transformation of character [32], and efforts to explore individual differences in emotional and behavioral functioning as potential mechanisms of change (e.g., negative affect [33,34]).

Several findings are notable from our research on associations between AA attendance and reduced impulsivity. First, consistent with the idea of impulsivity as a dynamic construct [18, 19], mean-levels of impulsivity decreased significantly in our AUD sample. Second, consistent with the notion that impulsivity can be modified by contextual factors [25], individuals who participated in AA longer tended to show larger decreases in impulsivity across all assessment intervals.


Blonigen, D. M., Timko, C., & Moos, R. H. (2013). Alcoholics anonymous and reduced impulsivity: a novel mechanism of change. Substance abuse, 34(1), 4-12.

Gambling Disorder and Emotional Dysfunction

Following on from our recent blog on emotional dysfunction in sexual addiction we continue our series which explores the inherent role of  emotional dysfunction in all addictive disorders.

We will explore eating disorders later.

Here we use excerpts from a very interesting article (1)  on

Deficits in emotion regulation associated with pathological gambling.


“Pathological gambling is recognized as an impulse-control disorder characterized by a loss of control over gambling, deception about the extent of one’s involvement with gambling, and significant family or job disruption (American Psychiatric Association, 1994). Failures in self-control, therefore, represent a defining feature of pathological gambling. Self-control involves over-riding impulses by substituting another response in its place (Tice & Bratslavsky, 2000), and failures in self-control are primarily associated with the desire for short-term gains despite associated long-term negative consequences (Baumeister, 1997, Baumeister, Heatherton, & Tice, 1993).

Failures in control over gambling are likely to be influenced by individual coping styles. Problem-focused coping includes active and effortful problem solving, while emotion-focused coping includes escape and avoidance behaviours (Lazarus & Folkman, 1984). Scannell, Quirk, Smith, Maddern, and Dickerson (2000) suggested that loss of control over gambling is associated with emotion-focused coping such as avoidance or escape. This suggestionhas been supported by evidence that gamblers demonstrate deficits in coping repertoires (McCormick, 1994) and some rely on gambling to provide an escape from personal or familial problems (Corless & Dickerson, 1989; Lesieur & Rosenthal, 1991). Finally, in a sample of adolescent gamblers, those identified as at-risk for developing pathological gambling behaviours were those who exhibited more emotion-focused coping styles
(Gupta & Derevensky, 2001).

Gambling behaviours, therefore, seem to be associated with a deficit in self-control
processes that may be exacerbated by reliance on coping styles characterized by
avoidance and escape. At a more basic level, difficulties managing emotions effectively may contribute to the use of maladaptive coping strategies and result in failures in self regulation and impulse control. Optimal self-regulation relies on being able to focus on long-term goals in the presence of emotional distress that tends to shift attention to the immediate present (Tice & Bratslavsky, 2000). In addition, struggling with one’s feelings may deplete coping resources and leads to decreased self-control (Baumeister, Muraven, & Tice, 2000), leading to increased risk of disinhibited or impulsive behaviour.

Finally, individuals who are feeling acute emotional distress will likely wish to escape via activities that promise immediate pleasure (Tice, Bratslavsky, & Baumeister, 2001) and pathological gamblers often report using gambling to escape from negative mood states (Blaszczynski & McConaghy, 1989; Getty, Watson, & Frisch, 2000).

Emotion regulation refers to strategies to influence, experience, and modulate
emotions (Gross, 1999). Although there are several factors that influence whether a
certain emotion-regulation strategy is adaptive in a particular situation, certain strategies appear to be costly and maladaptive. For example, suppression or avoidance of emotions is associated with increased negative effect and anxiety, physiological activity, and physical pain (Campbell-Sills, Barlow, Brown, & Hoffman, 2006; Gross & Levenson, 1997; Levitt, Brown, Orsillo, & Barlow, 2004; Masedo & Esteve, 2007). Experimental investigations also support the notion that the effort of suppressing emotions drains mental resources (Richards & Gross, 2000), which could lead to decreased self-control.

Ricketts and Macaskill (2003) investigated several techniques that gamblers use to
modify their emotions, one of which was the technique of ‘shutting off’ or using gambling in order to stop an unpleasant emotional state. Participants receiving treatment for gambling were interviewed or watched during treatment sessions and administered questionnaires. Patients who used the technique of ‘shutting off’ were often the ones who also reported poorly tolerating emotional discomfort (Ricketts & Macaskill, 2003).

According to Baumeister, Zell, and Tice (2007), emotional distress leads to an increase in self-awareness, which consequently leads to a desire to decrease ones self-awareness, but at the cost of self-regulation. If one is unable to self-regulate, this could lead to an addiction or a relapse of an addictive behaviour (Sayette, 2004).

Impulse control represents one of the major behavioural aspects of emotion regulation (Gratz & Roemer, 2004) and has been identified as an important component of addictive processes (Evenden, 1999). More specifically, research has demonstrated that failures of emotion regulation are associated with addictive behaviours (Coffey & Hartman, 2008; Fox, Axelrod, Paliwal, Sleeper, & Sinha, 2007; Goudriaan, Oosterlaan, De Beurs, & Van Den Brink, 2008; Lakey, Campbell, Brown, & Goodie, 2007).

Several recent studies have employed the Difficulties in Emotion-Regulation Scale (DERS), a recently developed and validated measure of emotion regulation, in assessing behavioural addictions (Bonn-Miller, Vujanovic, & Zvolensky, 2008; Fox et al., 2007; Fox, Hong, & Sinha, 2008). The DERS assesses both general deficits in emotion regulation and deficits in specific domains of regulation. It is based on a model of emotion dysregulation that includes: (1) deficits in awareness and understanding of emotional experience (i.e., clarity), (2) minimal access to strategies to manage one’s emotions, (3) non-acceptance of emotions (i.e., reactivity to one’s emotional state), and (4) impaired ability to act in desired ways regardless of emotional state (i.e., impulsivity and an inability to engage in goal-directed behaviour).

The goal of the present study was therefore to examine emotion regulation difficulties among individuals being treated in a specialist gambling clinic and
to compare the use of strategies to a mixed clinical comparison group and a sample
of healthy community controls. Specifically, we investigated the association between
emotion-regulation deficits and gambling pathology using two measures of emotion
regulation, the DERS and the Emotional Regulation Questionnaire (ERQ; Gross & John, 2003). The ERQ examines the habitual use of two specific emotion-regulation strategies, namely expressive suppression and cognitive reappraisal. The use of suppression reduces the outward expression of emotions in the short term, but is less effective in reducing emotions in the long term and is, therefore, considered a maladaptive emotion-regulation strategy (Gross, 1998; John & Gross, 2004). Cognitive reappraisal involves changing the meaning associated with a particular situation so that the emotional impact is altered (Gross, 1999; Siemer, Mauss, & Gross, 2007). Reappraisal is considered an adaptive strategy to regulate one’s internal states and is associated with higher self-reported positive emotions and fewer depressive symptoms (Gross & John, 2003; Mauss, Cook, Cheng, & Gross, 2007).

gambling-slots-cover (1)




As expected, we found a significant relationship between self-reported problem,
gambling behaviour, and negative effect as measured by the DASS, as well as deficits
in emotion regulation as measured by the DERS.

With respect to group differences, the gambling group reported a greater lack
of awareness of their emotions compared to both comparison groups.

With respect to the overall findings of emotional dysregulation, Blaszczynski and
Nower (2002) proposed a pathway model of the determinants of gambling and identified three separate trajectories into problem gambling. Of relevance to the current study, the authors identified an emotionally vulnerable group of problem gamblers who used gambling as a way to regulate affective states by providing either emotional escape or arousal.

According to the pathway model, once a habitual pattern of gambling behaviours has been established, the combination of emotional vulnerabilities, conditioned responses, distorted cognitions, and decision-making deficits maintain the cycle of pathological gambling. Blaszczynski and Nower (2002) suggest that such emotional vulnerabilities make treatment more difficult in this particular group of gamblers and emphasize the need to address these underlying vulnerabilities in addition to directly targeting gambling behaviours in therapy. It may, therefore, be of therapeutic benefit to specifically assess for and target emotion-regulation strategies in this population of gamblers.

Given the gamblers in the current study demonstrated limited access to effective strategies for managing difficult emotions, it may be important for clinicians to address coping strategies (including emotion-focussed strategies) as a part of any comprehensive treatment package. Gamblers need to be able to recognize and modify unhelpful thinking patterns (both in relation to problem gambling situations and, more generally, to other life stressors).

It is also important that the clinician is aware of any deficits in emotion-regulation strategies to ensure that the client is prepared to guard against relapse, given that the ability to tolerate distress is associated with increased length of abstinence from gambling (Daughters et al., 2005).

. More specifically, given the finding that gamblers were less aware of their feelings, mindfulness strategies may be useful to increase awareness of one’s
emotions. This could potentially be helpful in reducing automatic and habitual responses, particularly in high-risk situations. Decreasing emotional avoidance through mindfulness may also assist pathological gamblers in better understanding the impact of various mood states on their behaviour. Individuals who experience heightened awareness of emotions, and who learn to observe and act in a more aware manner, are less likely to engage in maladaptive behaviours such as gambling (Lakey et al., 2007).”



1. Williams, A. D., Grisham, J. R., Erskine, A., & Cassedy, E. (2012). Deficits in emotion regulation associated with pathological gambling. British Journal of Clinical Psychology, 51(2), 223-238.

Thinking You Are Bullet Proof might just Kill You.

Alcohol seemed to fortify me, make me stronger limbed, heroic, thrusting and invincible. With alcohol in me I communed with the Gods.

The blood seemed to flow around my body better, muscles seemed to get enhanced. I was less inhibited, funnier, nicer, more humane, better company. I looked on the world and it’s troubles with a kinder, gladder heart. People sought me out for advice. I was often sage-like. Especially compared to the insecure, disconnected from people, sober me.

People would comment on how transformed I became with the drink, nicer, more trusting, more human, more warmed up and less distant.

Alcohol was my first profound spiritual awakening –  alcohol brought about a profound alteration in how I felt and thought about the world and it’s people. How I acted towards them.  It made me connect with humanity, become a part of, not separate.  It made me exhale and go “phew”.  My wife said the main reason I gave for drinking when I was in the midst of chronic alcoholism was to escape from myself – not to get drunk but to escape the unbearable lightness of being ME.

The second, and most vital and absolutely necessary profound spiritual awakening I had was when I came into recovery via the 12 steps. Then I found a program that also enabled let me go “phew” and also connected me to my fellow human beings. With much less damage and tragedy wrought!

Don’t get me wrong I wasn’t some shy kid, fidgeting in the corner.  I was not. I was not all there, a character, wired to the moon some would say. I was extrovert, but I was also insecure, uncertain, distrusting of people. Sure I was someone who appeared to get  on with people but in a manipulative way. People worried me so I have a whole bundle of strategies to keep them happy, at arms reach. This included my family.

I was also less than whole when sober. Not properly filled in, felt like I was missing something or was protecting some indescribable weakness or deficit in me, although I was never sure want this was, this undefined sense of lacking. Always attending to, protecting some invisible psychic wound.

When drinking I underwent some transformation of spirit. I connected better with my fellow human beings. I became someone I liked more than the sober me. Other people seemed to like the sober me less also and much preferred the company of the wisecracking, fun seeking drinking me.

The drinking me was a shinier, more colourful me, expansive, inclusive, connecting, less manipulative. The sober me was greyer, more insular, cut off and suspicious of people.

When I drank I could drink a lot and rarely had the negative impairments to speech, gait and behaviour that I saw frequently in friends and others.

Alcohol did not make me drowsy or make me want to hug my friends and family. It made me slap people on the back, high five. It was not a sedative it was a major stimulant and much more. A wonderful cocktail of effects. For me it is the most brilliantly designed concoction of effect, and I have tried quite a few other drugs in my time.

In fact it wasn’t a drug to me so much as a homecoming to myself.

If you could mix cocaine with opium in liquid form then that was what  alcohol was me. Not only did it give me a warm glow of absolute well being, in a way no other drug has – although opium was pretty good at that! – it also made me feel that I could conquer the world, that everything was possible. It made me dream big dreams, plan my next imaginary offensive.




Alcohol made me more me! Seemed to make me work better. I became more the  me I wanted to be, that is before  the magic began to dissipate in later years until the point in the end of drinking the alcohol had not affect but to calm the delirium tremens or stave off that imminent alcoholic fit, or momentarily quietened the auditory and visual hallucinations, before reigniting and refuelling them again. Alcoholism gives you many heavenly feelings as it drags you to hell!

The thrill was long gone by this stage. So why did alcohol have this effect. Is it only alcoholics that get this euphoric alive and kicking reaction to alcohol? And for years I got away with the physiological withdrawals and hangovers too. Alcohol made me feel bullet proof, it made me stronger. Invincible, like my internal organs were steam powered and made of metal. That I was beyond human.

In this response to alcohol, in this lack of impairing effects of alcohol, in this thinking I was invincible, that the drink was my greatest ally may well have lain the seeds of my eventually destruction. In this combination of impulsive seeking and stimulative effects of alcohol was an alcohol fuelled propulsion into eventual chronic alcoholism and compulsive addictive behaviours. Alcoholism would never be something I ever had to consider because I was good, very good, at drinking!!


We cite and quote directly from a very interesting article on how a family history of alcoholism contributes to impulsivity, the one psychological domain that turns up repeatedly and is supported in studies of alcoholics, addicts and those at risk genetically from these addictive disorders. Impulsivity from an early age is one variable that appears central to later addictive disorders.

“A family history of alcoholism (FHA) doubles the risk of alcohol dependence (Nurnberger et al., 2004). Beyond the risk for alcohol use disorders, familial alcoholism is also significantly associated with impulsive and externalizing behaviors (Marmorstein et al., 2009)–behaviors thought to be relevant to drinking initiation, escalation, and treatment relapse (Perry & Carroll, 2008).



Impulsive behavior is associated with both alcohol use disorders and a family history of alcoholism (FHA). One operational definition of impulsive behavior is the stop signal task (SST), which measures the time needed to stop a ballistic hand movement.

Stop signal reaction time (SSRT) is distinct from delay discounting, which measures impulsive devaluing of reward as a function of time, the motor impulsiveness assessed by SSRT represents the speed  (or slowness) with which an individual can accommodate an environmental demand to halt a behavior. Using the stop signal task (SST) to quantify SSRT, Nigg et al. (2004) found that alcohol-naïve adolescent offspring of alcoholic fathers had slower SSRTs than children from control families, and that SSRT predicted aggregate future alcohol and drug problems (Nigg et al., 2006).

Twenty two family history positive (FHP; age = 22.7 years, SD= 1.9) and 18 family history negative (FHN; age = 23.7, SD= 1.8) subjects performed the SST in fMRI in two randomized visits: once during intravenous infusion of alcohol. The results showed FHP being less sensitive to alcohol’s effects.

Beyond its potential as a reflection of baseline behavioral impulsiveness, SSRT and inhibition success (but not choice reaction time) are worsened by alcohol intoxication (e.g., De Wit et al., 2000; Fillmore & Vogel-Sprott, 1999).

Thus, as inhibitory control worsens during intoxication, so does ad lib alcohol consumption (Weafer & Fillmore, 2008), speaking to a potential mechanism in the loss of control of drinking.

The principal finding from this experiment (1) was a significant interaction between alcohol exposure and those with family history of alcoholism (FHA) in right prefrontal BOLD activation during motor inhibition. During clamped alcohol infusion, however, this right frontal activation in FHN was significantly reduced, while in FHP activation remained essentially unchanged. Those subjects with a smaller right prefrontal BOLD response during behavioral inhibition (FHN) also tended to need more time (had a longer SSRT) to successfully inhibit their behavioral responses so SSRT may have been lengthened by alcohol infusion.

While we found only an insignificantly smaller difference in frontal responses to correct stop signal responses in FHP subjects, which is consistent with data on another task measuring impulsivity, the Go/No-Go, of Schweinsburg, et al. (2004), which showed only FHN subjects’ activation frontal activation was significantly reduced by alcohol.

Schuckit et al. (1980) first proposed that individuals with FHA are less sensitive to alcohol’s effects. A recent meta-analysis (Quinn & Fromme, 2011) found that, when compared to lower drinkers, heavier drinkers are more sensitive to alcohol’s stimulant effects, and less sensitive to alcohol’s sedative effects.

The data form this study (1)  the data are generally consistent with the concept that FHP subjects are less susceptible to (in this case, the adverse cognitive) effects of alcohol exposure in a brain region that plays an important role in behavioral inhibition.

…a resistance to the cognitively impairing effects of intoxication may carry its own risks, as subjects may perceive a reduced vulnerability to alcohol’s punishing consequences— or in this case the adverse effects in brain systems regulating behavioral control. Thus, the combination of an increased sensitivity to reward and a tolerance to alcohol’s cognitively impairing effects could represent a mechanism of increased risk of progression to heavier drinking, in particular by creating expectancies in drinkers that they can increase their consumption without adverse consequences to their behavior (Vogel-Sprott & Sdao-Jarvie, 1989).”

So to summarise, solely from our own perspective, it may not be the effect of alcohol that prompts  impulsive, loss of control drinking observed in alcohol dependent individuals but impulsivity that prompts drinking behaviour initially and with an apparent lack of cognitive impairment as the result of drinking then leading some individuals to thinking they can “handle the drink” and it negative psychological effects and consequences when, over time and chronic use, it may be progressively contributing to an increased impulsive behaviour to the point where this impulsivity becomes  compulsivity.

It may be that in thinking they are “in control” of drinking and it’s consequences that this paradoxically gives rise to loss of control in drinking via an increased compulsivity but much more on this another time!


1. Kareken, D. A., Dzemidzic, M., Wetherill, L., Eiler II, W., Oberlin, B. G., Harezlak, J., … & O’Connor, S. J. (2013). Family history of alcoholism interacts with alcohol to affect brain regions involved in behavioral inhibition.Psychopharmacology, 228(2), 335-345.


Inability to make fine-grained distinctions regarding negative emotions prompts impulsivity.

When I first came into recovery I was assigned a task which has gone on to shape much of my thinking about my alcoholism and addiction. I was prompted by my wife to sit with my emotions, that is, to sit in one place beside my wife and not suddenly get up and go elsewhere to avoid whatever emotional state consumed me, terrified me.

I have to say it was the bizarre experience. In my drinking any negative emotions would prime my thoughts towards alcohol and any increased intensity of such thoughts would practically have me skipping to the nearest drinking establishment.

Ever since I was a child, emotions were something to be avoided, tamed or feared. They were destructive, counterproductive things which somehow weakened you.

Now I was being asked to do something I had never accomplished in over thirty years. To sit with, not run from, whatever emotions starting to arise in my mind. As the first undifferentiated blobs of emotions arose I was struck my how I could not recognise them or say with any conviction what emotions they were exactly. In this undifferentiated state they felt like waves of feeling, like possessions, like being haunting by mute poltergeists!

The urge to flee these unpleasant feeling states was overwhelming. I asked my wife for help “what was happening to me!?” “What are these feeling things?”

My wife calmly said they are simply feelings, you are experiencing emotions in their entirety. It was horrible. How the hell had I not done this before, sat with my emotions instead to constantly escaping them somehow?

In fact, I am willing to say that I knew next to nothing about emotions when I arrive in recovery. These is why they have come to fascinate me and inspired my research into affective and clinical/psychiatric neuroscience.

How is it that a grown man got to this stage, to the stage where all his undifferentiated emotions propelled him into movement away from them?

The answer to this question may have been demonstrated in this study (1).



“Affective functioning plays a prominent role in several etiological models of substance use (e.g., Kassel et al., 2010; McCarthy, Curtin, Piper, & Baker, 2010; Simons, Wills, & Neal, in press). These models suggest that individuals with poor affect regulation show a diminished capacity to handle intense emotion states and often rely upon maladaptive coping strategies, such as substance or alcohol use, to manage their emotions (Lavallo, 2007; Spence & Courbasson, 2012).

One factor related to emotion regulation is emotion differentiation. Emotion differentiation is the ability to make fine grained distinctions between similarly valenced emotion states (Feldman Barrett, 2004). Individuals differ greatly in their ability to differentiate their affective experiences. Some tend to describe their emotional experiences in more global terms, such as feeling “good” or feeling “bad” and find it difficult to make more subtle distinctions, while others make these nuanced differentiations easily. These differences have been shown to impact the ability to regulate emotions and consequential behaviors (Feldman Barrett, Gross, Conner Christensen, & Benvenuto, 2001; Tugade, Fredrickson, & Feldman Barrett, 2004). In support of this, emotional differentiation has been shown to moderate associations between negative emotion and alcohol consumption (Kashdan, Ferssizidis, Collins, & Muraven, 2010).

This research suggests that the inability to differentiate emotion may foster maladaptive behavior when emotionally aroused.

Hence, it is possible that the inability to differentiate emotions may
be related to urgency, defined as rash action in response to intense emotion. Along these lines, research on alexithymia, a construct related to deficits in identifying and describing emotions, shows that these deficits are positively associated with urgency, with urgency often fully mediating the relationship between alexithymia and problematic outcomes, including alcohol consequences (Gaher, Hofman, Simons, & Hunsaker, 2013; Shishido, Gaher, & Simons, 2013).

Moreover, alexithymia has been shown to mediate the relationship between childhood maltreatment (Gaher, Arens, & Shishido, 2013) as well as trauma history
(Gaher, Hofman, et al., 2013) and urgency, suggesting that deficits in
emotional understanding may underlie urgent responding.

The findings of this study (1) showed that negative emotion differentiation was associated with both negative urgency and alcohol which suggests that the inability to make fine-grained distinctions regarding the experience of negative emotions contributes to behavioral disinhibition when in a state of high emotional arousal.


1. Emery, N. N., Simons, J. S., Clarke, J. C., & Gaher, R. M. (2014). Emotion Differentiation and Alcohol-Related Problems: The Mediating Role of Urgency.Addictive Behaviors.


“I don’t know how I feel, therefore I act!”

One of my pet hates in experimental study is researchers suggesting that one can generalise findings from a non-clinical group of participants in a particular study to a clinical  group, not in the study. For example, most studies in Psychology and in Neuroscience are conducted on very well informed, healthy undergraduate Psychology students with the suggestion that the findings will also be seen in a clinical groups such as alcoholics or addicts. That the findings have ecological validity, they will also be observed in the reality of addicts in real everyday life.

Obviously this is very controversial. How can you one really say that brain processes in a perfectly healthy undergraduate psychology student are similar to those suffering from a mental disorder such as addiction?

It is clear that the behavioural responses of someone with an addictive disorder will be different to those with a perfectly healthy adaptive brain and adaptive behavioural choices. The point of addiction, is that individuals with an addictive disorder often make maladaptive choices and make poor decisions as many brain processes and mechanisms have become chronically impaired. They tend to choose now over then, be very emotional reactive, use “fight or flight” responding to situations rather than reflective, evaluative, goal-directed, action-outcome type of thinking…the list goes on and on, believe me!

In other words, they tend to act in a very different way to healthy undergraduate studies!

I do not have a problem with using undergraduate studies but please do not attempt to generalise findings to a clinical group, or in other words, a group suffering a psychiatric disorder. It is like saying that a study observed in healthy 19-20 year olds could also be said to exist or occur in middle aged schizophrenics? Most rational people would view this as quite peculiar, to say the least. So why do this very same thing with those suffering another mental disorder, called addiction?



So why do it at all, use students as participants? Well the study I refer to in this blog shows why using a student sample may have utility. If nothing else this sampling of students provides a control group – that is a group that can act as a “healthy” group compared to a later study  which has used a clinical group as participants. This way we can compare results to observe differences in both sample groups and this can highlight fundamental differences (and sometimes similarities) in healthy and clinical groups and may help highlight specific difficulties which may need to be considered in treating these clinical groups.

Also, and importantly for our overall discussion, through many of our blogs thus far,  regarding the role of emotional processing deficits in impulsivity and decision making deficits in addiction, this type of study can look at “proof of concept” which can then be studied in clinical groups such as those with addictive disorders.

But one must also have the proviso that generalising to this clinical group is not without it’s pitfalls. Just because a certain behavioral manifestation is seen in one healthy group, which has also been seen in a more severe from in a clinical  group , it does not follow that this severity is simple down to using a substance more chronically.

Severity may also be a function of genetic expression within a specific type of environment, e.g. a genetic vulnerability in an “at risk” son of an alcoholic reared in a emotionally abusive background may be a main reason for certain behavioural manifestation rather than simply chronic substance use. Altered stress systems may represent in a similar manner to the chronic toxic effects of chronic drug use but not actually be driven by the same mechanisms or underlying processes.

Regardless on these many sensible caveats, it is still possible to look at certain psychological  traits and relate them to certain behaviours before testing whether these are also observed in a clinical  group such as those with addictive disorders.

The study we refer to here (1) used a large sample of 429 undergraduate students and examined the nature of the relationship between alexithymia and impulsivity.  “Alexithymia is a multifaceted personality construct that is characterized by difficulty identifying and describing feelings  (Taylor, 2000). Alexithymia is associated with a range of disorders, many of which are associated with poor impulse control (Parker, Wood, Bond, & Shaughnessy, 2005; Thorberg, Young, Sullivan, & Lyvers, 2009).
The development of emotional awareness and skills to express feelings are strongly linked to cognitive development because humans use language to identify and express their feelings. According to Taylor, Bagby, and Parker (1997), all individuals have emotions (i.e., neurophysiological arousal), but how we feel the emotions differ
based on our subjective cognitive understanding and experiences.
Without adequate words to describe various neurophysiological stimuli, we cannot feel (identify and describe) them accurately and precisely, and thus we have difficulties regulating our behaviors that follow the emotions (Lane & Schwartz, 1987; Taylor et al., 1997).
The emotional awareness theory presented by Lane and Schwartz (1987) has provided some explanations for the development of alexithymia (Taylor, 2000; Taylor et al., 1997). According to this theory, individuals with alexithymia are considered to be on the first two levels of emotional awareness (i.e., sensorimotor reflexive and sensorimotor enactive) as their abilities to cognitively identify
various feelings precisely by recognizing specific physiological signs of emotions are not yet fully developed (Taylor et al., 1997).
Perhaps, lack of cognitive representations for neurophysiological stimuli may make individuals with alexithymia distressed…and thus they may use alcohol to alleviate their discomfort (Kauhanen et al., 1992; Thorberg et al., 2009; Uzun, 2003)… impulsive individuals tend to rely on reflexive affective (emotional) processes rather than on reflective cognitive processes, to lead their behaviors (Lieberman, 2007; Metcalfe & Mischel, 1999)… impulsivity and alexithymia research emphasize the necessity of using reflective and sophisticated cognitive processes in order to
better regulate emotions and behaviors (Carlson, 2007; Cyders & Smith, 2008)… it is plausible that alexithymia and impulsivity are related under a higher order structure, namely neuroticism, and thus they robustly predict behaviors associated with emotion dysregulation.

This study demonstrated that individuals with alexithymia are more likely to act impulsively when experiencing heightened negative affect…and thus engage in more drinking or experience more negative consequences after drinking.



These results support the use of treatment models that emphasize awareness of feelings and psychological mindfulness as these treatment approaches help clients learn to identify and acknowledge their feelings first, in order to learn how to better regulate them. The results indicate that deficits in the cognitive representation of emotional experience may contribute to impulsive action when emotionally aroused. The current findings may help explain why alexithymia has been identified
as a risk factor for many psychological problems that involve emotional and behavioral regulation deficits, including substance use related disorders (Kauhanen et al., 1992; Troisi et al., 1997).”

Essentially this study on undergraduates has observed similar findings as seen in addicted individuals but this does mean the findings generalise. It means that there is theoretical utility in further exploring this link between emotional processing deficit, alexithymia, the psychological trait of impulsivity and the behavioural manifestation of chronic addiction. Finally it may also be possible by scrutinizing results to identify key differences between these two samples which may aid treatment, intervention and even prevention. We have often mentioned that prevention may in the future involve the identification of emotional processing and regulation deficits in “at risk” children and helping them process emotions more adaptively and effectively.

Addiction seems even more tragic if one considers addiction as the consequence of processes that could possible be rectified or improved in early childhood. Emotional dysregulation heightens the effects of drugs and alcohol also and sets up a viscous cycle of use that often leads to chronic addiction.

It may be the source or rather the heart of the problem.  Prevention would then need to act at the heart of this disorder.



Shishido, H., Gaher, R. M., & Simons, J. S. (2013). I don’t know how I feel, therefore I act: alexithymia, urgency, and alcohol problems. Addictive behaviors, 38(4), 2014-2017.

AA helps to reduce Impulsivity


One constant in studies on addiction and in alcoholism, in particular is the  fundamental role played by impulsivity in these disorders. It is seen to be present in early use but appears to be more distress based (i.e. more negative urgency based) as the addiction cycle becomes more chronic. This impulsivity has obvious consequences for propelling these disorders via impulsive behaviours and decision making difficulties.

Thus it then follows that any treatment of these addictive disorders must have treatment of impulsivity at the core as it appears to a fundamental pathomechanism.


Here, we review a study that on links  AA attendance and reduced impulsivity using a 16-year prospective study of men and women, who were initially untreated for their drinking problems. Across the study period, there were significant l decreases in impulsivity, and longer AA duration was associated with reductions in impulsivity.

Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) is linked to improved functioning across a number of domains [2,3]. As the evidence for the effectiveness of AA has accumulated, so too have efforts to identify the mechanisms of change associated with participation in this mutual-help group [4].

This study concluded that help-seeking and exposure to the “active ingredients” of various types of help (i.e., AA principles/practices, sponsors), which, in turn, leads to improvements in reduced impulsivity.

Impulsivity is typically higher among individuals in AUD treatment than among those in the general population [5] and, impulse control deficits tend to predate the onset of drinking problems [6-9].

Contemporary research has revealed that traits such as impulsivity can change over time [10]. Mutual-help groups like AA may promote such changes, given that they seek to bolster self-efficacy and coping skills aimed at controlling substance use, encourage members to be more structured in their daily lives, and target deficits in self-regulation [11].


impulse control.preview


Such “active ingredients” may curb the immediate self-gratification characteristic of disinhibition and provide the conceptual grounds to expect that AA participation can press for a reduction in impulsive inclinations. In turn, given the range of outcomes related to impulsivity (e.g., legal, alcohol-related, and psychosocial problems), decreases in impulsivity may account for part of the association between AA participation and improvements in these outcomes.

AA’s vision of recovery as a broad transformation of character [12], and  explores individual differences in emotional and behavioural functioning as potential mechanisms of change (13,14).

Such groups encourage members to be more structured and goal-directed, which may translate into greater efforts to delay gratification of one’s impulses and  to improve clients’ general coping skills (e.g., reduce avoidance coping).

Given that impulsivity is a risk factor for a host of problematic behaviors and outcomes beyond drinking-e.g., criminality [15], drug abuse [16], reckless driving and sexual practices [17],  lower quality of interpersonal relationships [18], and poor health [19] this reduced impulsivty is beneficial in other aspects too.

Notably, this effect was buffered by a higher quality of social support-a probable active ingredient of AA. Thus, the impact of reducing impulsivity may be widespread across a range of outcomes that are critical for long-term sobriety.


Our main caveat on this study is that it does not distinguish between different types of impulsivity and does not mention negative urgency (or distress-based impulsivity) which is more commonly seen is this sample group.

AA’s “active ingredients” may reduce distress, via a new found emotional regulation gained via the steps and use of a sponsor (acting as an external prefrontal cortex to help us inhibit our impulsive and distress based responses)  which in turns reduces our tendency to impulsive decision making and behaviour.


It would have been interesting in this study to have also measure how emotional dysregulation changed in the time span of 16 years (using the DERS scale) and to have used a different impulsivity scale i.e. used the UPPS-P scale which would both have helped more specificallylook  at the interaction of how emotional regulation and impulse control changed over the 16 year period.




1.  Blonigen, D. M., Timko, C., & Moos, R. H. (2013). Alcoholics anonymous and reduced impulsivity: a novel mechanism of change. Substance abuse, 34(1), 4-12.

2. Humphreys, K. Circles of recovery: Self-help organizations for addictions. Cambridge Univ Pr; 2004.

3.. Tonigan JS, Toscova R, Miller WR. Meta-analysis of the literature on Alcoholics Anonymous: Sample and study characteristics moderate findings. Journal of Studies on Alcohol. 1995

4. Kelly JF, Magill M, Stout RL. How do people recover from alcohol dependence? A systematic review of the research on mechanisms of behavior change in Alcoholics Anonymous. Addiction Research & Theory. 2009; 17(3):236–259.

5. Conway KP, et al. Personality, drug of choice, and comorbid psychopathology among substance abusers. Drug and alcohol dependence. 2002; 65(3):225–234. [PubMed: 11841894]

6. Caspi A, et al. Behavioral observations at age 3 years predict adult psychiatric disorders: Longitudinal evidence from a birth cohort. Archives of General Psychiatry. 1996; 53(11):1033. [PubMed: 8911226]

7. Cloninger CR, Sigvardsson S, Bohman M. Childhood personality predicts alcohol abuse in young adults. Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research. 1988; 12(4):494–505.

8. Elkins IJ, et al. Personality traits and the development of nicotine, alcohol, and illicit drug disorders: Prospective links from adolescence to young adulthood. Journal of abnormal psychology. 2006; 115(1):26. [PubMed: 16492093]

9. Sher KJ, Bartholow BD, Wood MD. Personality and substance use disorders: A prospective study. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology. 2000; 68(5):818. [PubMed: 11068968]

10. Caspi A, Roberts BW, Shiner RL. Personality development: Stability and change. Annual Review of Psychology. 2005; 56:453–484

11. Moos RH. Active ingredients of substance use focused self help groups. Addiction. 2008; 103(3):387–396. [PubMed: 18269361]

12. White WL. Commentary on Kelly et al. (2010): Alcoholics Anonymous, alcoholism recovery, global health and quality of life. Addiction. 2010; 205:637–638. [PubMed: 20403015]

13. Kelly JF, et al. Mechanisms of behavior change in alcoholics anonymous: does Alcoholics Anonymous lead to better alcohol use outcomes by reducing depression symptoms? Addiction. 105(4):626–636. [PubMed: 20102345]

14. KELLY JF, et al. Negative Affect, Relapse, and Alcoholics Anonymous (AA): Does AA Work by Reducing Anger? Journal of studies on alcohol and drugs.

15. Krueger RF, et al. Personality traits are linked to crime among men and women: Evidence from a birth cohort. Journal of abnormal psychology. 1994; 103(2):328. [PubMed: 8040502]

16. McGue M, Slutske W, Iacono WG. Personality and substance use disorders: II. Alcoholism versus drug use disorders. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology. 1999; 67(3):394. [PubMed: 10369060]

17. Caspi A, et al. Personality differences predict health-risk behaviors in young adulthood: Evidence from a longitudinal study. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. 1997; 73(5):1052. [PubMed: 9364760]

18. Ozer DJ, Benet-Martinez V. Personality and the prediction of consequential outcomes. Annu. Rev. Psychol. 2006; 57:401–421. [PubMed: 16318601]

19. Bogg T, Roberts BW. Conscientiousness and Health-Related Behaviors: A Meta-Analysis of the Leading Behavioral Contributors to Mortality. Psychological Bulletin. 2004; 130(6):887. [PubMed: 15535742]









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?