A cognitive-affective theory of craving and relapse

Emotional dysregulation, recovery and relapse

Throughout our blogs thus far, we have attempted to highlight how emotional dysregulation appears to prevalent to all aspects of alcoholism and addiction from pre-morbid vulnerability to endpoint compulsive addictive behaviours.

Here we highlight a few articles which have considered how prevalent is emotional dysregulation in alcoholism and addiction in early abstinence/recovery. 

Early abstinence from chronic alcohol dependence is associated with increased emotional sensitivity to stress-related craving as well as changes in brain systems associated with stress and emotional processing. Early abstinence from alcohol is associated with changes in neural stress and reward systems that can include atrophy in subcortical and frontomesal regions (1). Moreover, recent imaging studies have shown that these brain regions are also associated with the experience and regulation of emotion (2). While alcohol-related changes in emotion, stress and reward-related brain regions have been well documented difficulties in emotion regulation (ER) have not been studied much.

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One study (3) examined ER in early abstinent alcohol-dependent individuals compared with social drinkers using the Difficulties in Emotion Regulation Scale (DERS).

The DERS is an inclusive scale and defines ER in terms of four major factors: the understanding of emotion, the acceptance of emotion, the ability to control impulsive behavior and the ability to access ER strategies benefiting the individual and the specific goals of the situation. The scale has been validated in cocaine dependent patients (4) and on alcohol dependent individuals.

ER difficulties in treatment-engaged alcohol dependent (AD) patients during a period of early abstinence that is marked by an overall distress state. AD patients reported an overall problem with emotion regulation compared with SDs in the first few days of abstinence; in particular with emotional awareness and impulse control. Following protracted abstinence, AD patients significantly improved awareness and clarity of their emotional experience, and only significant problems with impulse control persisted.

This is consistent with neuro-imaging studies showing chronic alcohol abuse to be associated with stress and cue-related neuroadaptations in the medial prefrontal and anterior cingulate regions of the brain (6), which are strongly implicated in the self-regulation of emotion and behavioral self-control (7 ). As impulsivity in distress states may reflect a change in priority from self-control to affect regulation (8).

As we have seen in other blogs and articles (5) these areas are those which improve in short term abstinence/recovery.

Cocaine-dependent individuals also report emotion regulation difficulties, particularly during early abstinence (4). Additionally, protracted distress-related impulse control problems suggest potential relapse vulnerability Difficulties concerning emotional clarity and awareness compared with controls were observed which suggests that cocaine dependent individuals were less able to acknowledge and/or have a clear understanding of their emotions.

Clarity and awareness of emotions could represent early processing components of emotional competence (9) and may be integral to the maintenance of drug use.

The cocaine addicts appeared to have greater difficulty in developing effective emotional coping strategies  (i.e. they would be more likely to believe that little could be  done to change an emotionally stressful situations. They were also found to report significantly higher scores on the Impulse subscale of the DERS compared with controls, indicating difficulties with regard to inhibiting inappropriate or impulse behaviors under stressful situations which can prompt relapse.

References

1. Bartsch, A. J., Homola, G., Biller, A., Smith, S. M., Weijers, H. G., Wiesbeck, G. A., et al. (2007). Manifestations of early brain recovery associated with abstinence from alcoholism. Brain, 130(Pt 1), 36−47

2. Fox, H. C., Hong, K. A., & Sinha, R. (2008). Difficulties in emotion regulation and impulse control in recently abstinent alcoholics compared with social drinkers. Addictive Behaviors33(2), 388-394.

3. Ochsner, K.N., Gross, J.J., 2005. The cognitive control of emotion. Trends Cogn. Sci. 9, 242–249

4. Fox, H. C., Hong, K. A., & Sinha, R. (2008). Difficulties in emotion regulation and impulse control in recently abstinent alcoholics compared with social drinkers. Addictive Behaviors33(2), 388-394.

5. Sinha, R., & Li, C. S. (2007). Imaging stress- and cue-induced drug and alcohol craving: Association with relapse and clinical implications. Drug and Alcohol Review, 26(1), 25−31.

6. Connolly, C. G., Foxe, J. J., Nierenberg, J., Shpaner, M., & Garavan, H. (2012). The neurobiology of cognitive control in successful cocaine abstinence. Drug and alcohol dependence121(1), 45-53.

7. Baumeister, R.F., Heatherton, T.F., Tice, D.M., 1994. Loosing Control: How and Why People Fail at Self-regulation. Academic Press, San Diego, CA

8.  Tice, D.M., Bratslavsky, E., Baumeister, R.F., 2001. Emotional distress regulation takes precedence over impulse control: if you feel bad, do it! J. Pers Soc. Psychol. 80, 53–67.

9. Salovey, P., Stroud, L.R., Woolery, A., Epel, E.S., 2002. Perceived emotional intelligence, stress reactivity, and symptom reports: further explorations using the trait Meta-mood scale. Psychol. Health 17, 611–627

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