Appraising Alcohol-Related Thoughts

In this first in a series of blogs addressing the similarities between addiction and obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD).

This blog looks at the nature of obsessive thoughts about alcohol. It brings to focus the great sense in your sponsor suggesting the reason you may be having thoughts about alcohol, especially in early recovery, is because you are an alcoholic. Alcoholics have obsessive thoughts about  alcohol. Normal, healthy people don’t!

The other interesting thing about this study (1),  in addition to echoing that these thoughts are a natural occurrence to alcoholics, is that the authors explain how the nature of these thoughts are similar to those experienced in OCD, such as thought-action fusion. It also looks at how Metacognition which refers to higher order thinking which involves active control over the cognitive processes can be important to how we appraise our alcohol related thoughts and ultimately how we react to them.

 

“… the idea that abstinence will automatically also decrease alcohol-related thoughts might be too optimistic. Empirical research contradicts this expectation, demonstrating instead that alcohol-related thoughts can resemble obsessive-compulsive thinking (Caetano, 1985; Modell, Glaeser, Mountz, Schmaltz, & Cyr, 1992). This finding is also supported by clinical observation and leads to the expectation that among abstinent alcohol abusers, alcohol-related thoughts and intrusions are the rule rather than the exception.

Relatively little is known about how alcohol abusers appraise their alcohol-related thoughts. Are they aware that alcohol-related thoughts occur naturally and are highly likely during abstinence? Or do they interpret these thoughts in a negative way, for example, as unexpected, shameful, and bothersome? Finding answers to these questions has implications for relapse prevention, because misinterpretations of naturally occurring thoughts may be detrimental for abstinence (Marlatt & Gordon, 1985).

Metacognitive theory provides a theoretical context for analyzing these open questions about alcohol-related thoughts. It focuses on the role that beliefs about one’s thoughts and appraisal of these thoughts play in the development and persistence of psychological disorders (Nelson, Stuart, Howard, & Crowley, 1999; Purdon & Clark, 1999; Wells, 2000; Wells & Matthews, 1994).

A number of conceptual papers and empirical studies have shown that individuals’ appraisal of their intrusive thoughts as detrimental and potentially out of their control may lead them to dysfunctional and counterproductive efforts to control their thinking. These efforts to control can explain the development and maintenance of various disturbed cognitive processes, including those seen in generalized anxiety disorder (Wells, 1999), obsessive-compulsive disorder (Purdon & Clark, 1999; Rachman & Shafran, 1999), depression (Teasdale, 1999), hypochondriasis (Bouman & Mijer, 1999).

Although these disorders clearly differ from one another in their clinical presentation, the basic assumption unifying the metacognitive models for each of them is that ‘‘metacognitive beliefs are always involved in guiding the content and nature of cognition that modulates emotional disturbance’’ (Wells, 2000, p. 31).

If alcohol abusers do experience alcohol-related thoughts that they metacognitively monitor and evaluate on the basis of metacognitive knowledge, they are likely to use various metacognitive strategies in an effort to control the thoughts.

Alcohol-related thoughts cause an individual to experience strong emotional reactions; however, alcohol abusers will increase their efforts to control their thinking only when they have negative metacognitive knowledge structures and beliefs that are activated. For instance, spontaneous positive memories about alcohol (‘‘It was so nice to hang out at parties and to drink with my buddies’’) may be appraised—and misinterpreted—as ‘‘the first steps toward a relapse’’ and as ‘‘a bad sign’’…or as documenting the person’s inability to stay away from alcohol.

Such an appraisal of one’s thoughts about alcohol as problematic may instigate thought suppression and other efforts to control the thoughts. Because these efforts must be assumed to be counterproductive (Fehm & Hoyer, 2004), they will predict rather than prevent negative feelings, and they may even demoralize alcohol abusers who are trying to remain abstinent.

If …alcohol-related thoughts are not appraised as problematic but as a normal part of abstinence, the awareness of these thoughts would be a neutral mental event, or might even lead to the selection of more adaptive coping responses, which could help to reduce the risk of relapse

The analysis of metacognitive appraisal of alcohol-related thoughts may also help to solve a core theoretical problem in craving research (Drummond, 2001): The validity of craving for predicting relapse is ambiguous. The assumption that metacognitive variables mediate reactions to alcohol-related cues may help to explain why craving does not inevitably lead to relapse.

 

Based on the results of two samples of alcohol abusers receiving cognitive-behavioral treatment in this study, the Metacognition Questionnaire for Alcohol Abusers (MCQ-A) was developed and refined and preliminary validation was conducted. The latest version of the MCQ-A measures two factors identified in Study 1 and replicated in Study 2. They were named Uncontrollability/Thought-Action Fusion and Unpleasantness. A third dimension of metacognition about alcohol-related thoughts was examined in Study 2. It is called Subjective Utility of the Thought was developed through theoretical and clinical considerations.

These factors covered the following:-

Factor 1: Uncontrollability/Thought-Action Fusion.

This thought is stronger than my will. I cannot stop this thought once I have it in mind. This thought has too much impact on me. I can control this thought.  I cannot push away this thought. This thought increases my desire to drink. This thought stimulates craving for alcohol.  This thought can really make me drink.

Factor 2: Unpleasantness

I feel bad when this thought comes up. This thought makes me lose my good mood. It is unpleasant to have this thought. I get annoyed at this thought. This thought disturbs me. I wish I could stop thinking this thought. I do not want to have this thought. It is annoying that this thought always returns.

Factor 3: Subjective utility

This thought can be of help by waking me up. This thought serves as a warning signal for me. I can use this thought when I understand it as a warning sign. This thought can warn me. I can learn something through this thought.

…nearly all of the alcohol abusers in both studies indicated having experienced intrusions and thoughts about alcohol during the prior weeks. This result is not surprising considering that research has suggested that craving is associated with enhanced processing of alcohol-related episodes and recollections. Thus, the result confirms the relevance of studying the role that alcohol-related thinking plays in the process of abstinence.

Uncontrollability/Thought-Action Fusion and Unpleasantness scales were positively correlated, as expected, with detrimental social-cognitive variables, such as craving and thought suppression, and negatively with drug-taking confidence.

The study clearly showed that metacognitive appraisal of alcohol-related thinking can be measured in alcohol-abusing patients. The appraisal is linked to symptoms such as craving and may lead to counterproductive coping efforts, such as thought suppression.”

I cite this study because the factors it identifies are the types of reactions to thoughts I experienced myself in early recovery.

As I am mentioned it is a cognitive-affective reaction to these naturally occurring thoughts via e.g thought suppression that gives rise to “craving”. If we remain mindful of them and accept them as being natural, a neutral event, they can pass without prompting a craving episode.

One aspect that is not mentioned in this article but which is a part of OCD type thinking is the notion of ego dystonic thoughts.

I believe that thoughts about alcohol move from being egosyntonic in active drinking to egodystonic in recovery.

Egosyntonic is a psychological term referring to behaviors, values, feelings that are in harmony with or acceptable to the needs and goals of the ego, or consistent with one’s ideal self-image.

Egodystonic (or ego alien[1]) is the opposite of egosyntonic and refers to thoughts and behaviors (e.g., dreams, impulses, compulsions, desires, etc.) that are in conflict, or dissonant, with the needs and goals of the ego, or, further, in conflict with a person’s ideal self-image.

Hence we may react to these thoughts because we feel they are not longer consistent or are threatening to our new found sense of self as a recovering person.

 

As we shall see in the next few blogs there are similarities between OCD and addiction.

 

References

1.  Hoyer, J., Hacker, J., & Lindenmeyer, J. (2007). Metacognition in alcohol abusers: How are alcohol-related intrusions appraised?. Cognitive Therapy and Research, 31(6), 817-831.

 

 

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.

120px-Orbital_gyrus_animation_small2

 

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.

128px-Amyg

 

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.

“Abstract

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.

References

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.