12 steps

Why a “Spiritual Solution” to a Neurobiological Disease?

In the first in a series of blogs we discuss the topic of why does the solution to one’s alcoholism and addiction require a spiritual recovery.

This is a much asked question within academic research, although the health benefits of meditation are well known and life styles incorporating religious affiliation are known to increase health and span of life.

I guess people are curious as to how the spirit changes matter or material being when it should perhaps be rephrased to how does application of the ephemral mind affect neuroplasticity of the brain. Or in other words how does behaviour linked to a particular faith/belief system alter the functions and structure of the brain. We have discussed these points in two blogs previously and will do so again in later blogs. Here I just want to highlight in a short summary why spiritual practice helps alcoholics and addicts with with regulating themselves especially when the areas of their brains which govern self regulation have been taken over by the action of drugs and alcohol, so that they have very limited control over their own selves and their own behaviour.

This seems to be at the heart of addiction and alcoholism, this increasingly limited self control over addictive behaviors. In addressing this need for a spiritual solution we also hope to address choice versus limited control arguments. As we will see, the addicted or alcoholic brain is usurped to such a profound extent by effects of drugs and alcohol and this brain acts so frequently without conscious awareness of the negative consequences of these actions that it is appears undoubtedly the case that addicts and alcoholics have profoundly diminished control over their choices of behaviour.

This is especially pertinent in chronic addicts and alcoholics were the thrill is long gone so why would they continue doing something which has little reward other than because they are compelled to.

In addiction, vital regions of the brain and processes essential to adaptive survival of the species become hijacked or usurped or “taken over” by the combination of the effects of alcohol or drugs or addictive compulsive behaviours (acting as pharmacological stressors)  on pre-existing impairment in certain parts and functions of the brain. The actions of drugs and alcohol lead to a hyperactive stress system which enhances the rewarding aspects of drugs and alcohol in initial use, especially in those with maladaptive stress response such as individuals who have altered stress systems in the brain due to abusive childhood experiences (1-3).

In the second abusing phase, stress interacts with various neurotransmitters especially dopamine to drive this abusive cycle. In this phase of the addiction cycle  stress heightens attention towards cues and creates an  heightened attentional bias towards drugs and alcohol (4,5). Stress chemicals also increase activation of “addiction memory” (6,7). Thus there is multi-network usurping of function in the brain as the addiction cycle progresses (8). Recruited of attention, reward and memory networks are enhanced by the effects of stress chemicals.

Stress also enhances the rewarding effects of alcohol and drugs so makes us want them more (9). Enjoy them more. These are the so-called “good times” some of us look back on, in our euphoric recall.

In the final endpoint phase of addiction, stress incorporates more compulsive parts of the brain, partly by the stimulus response of emotional distress which automatically activates a compulsive response to approach drug and alcohol use while in distress, which is a common reality for chronic addicts and alcoholics.




Thus stress chemicals acting on mainly dopamine  circuits in the brain and other neurotransmitters eventually take over control of the brain in terms of the control of behaviour (8).

In usurping  “survival” or self regulation networks in the brain, control over behaviour “implodes” or collapses inwards, from control over behaviour moving inwards from the action outcome, or goal directed, conscious prefrontal cortex to the unconscious automatic, motoric, subcortical  parts of the brain (10).

This greatly limits one’s conscious self control over one’s own behaviour  if one is addicted or chronically alcoholic. Control of behaviour appears to have becomes a function of hyperactive stress systems in the brain and their manifestation as emotional distress (11,12).

This emotional distress constantly activates a “flight or flight” response in the brain and this means behaviour is carried out without reflection or without explicit knowledge of consequences, usually negative in the case of addiction (13,14).

The alcoholic or addicted brain becomes a reactionary brain not a forward thinking, considering of all possible options type of brain. The addict or alcoholic becomes driven by his brain and to a great extent a passenger in his own reality. Automatic survival networks act or react continually as if the addicted brain is on a constant state of emergency, constantly under threat.

There is a profoundly reduced conscious cognitive control over behaviour. This heighted, excessive and chronic stress and distress cuts off explicit memory of previous negative consequences of our past drinking and drug use and recruits implicit memory systems which are mainly habitual and procedural, they are “do” or “act” without conscious deliberation systems of the brain (14) .

It is as if our alcoholic or addicted brains are doing the thinking for us. Or not as the case may be. Alcoholics are on automatic pilot, fuelled by distress.  This neuroscientific explanation fits almost perfectly with the description of alcoholism in the Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous, “The  fact is that most alcoholics…have lost choice in drink. Our so-called will power becomes practically nonexistent. We are unable , at certain times,  to bring into our consciousness with sufficient force the memory of the suffering and humiliation of even a week or month ago. We are without defense against the first drink”

The” suffering and humiliation” are now called “negative consequences” in current definitions of addiction…”continued use despite negative consequences”. (15)

images (15)


We “cannot bring into our consciousness with sufficient force the memory” because this is an explicit memory cut off by the effects of excessive stress which “offlines” the prefrontal cortex and hippocampal memory in favour of unconscious habitual, implicit or procedural memory (14,16). The memory of drinking not the memory of the “ situations surrounding this drinking”. How is this not a disorder  that has placed us “ beyond human aid” and beyond our own human aid” ? 

The “unable at certain times” are possibly times of great distress or emotional dysregulation and they leave the alcoholic and addict vulnerable to  relapse.

“Once more: The alcoholic, at certain times, has no effective mental defence against the first drink.”

“His defence must come from a Higher Power”

In later blogs we will discuss, in terms of the brain, why we need to recruit parts of the brain, via selfless behaviours, which activate areas outside those implicated in self regulation.

The cited  power greater than ourselves in AA meetings, for example, often follows an experiential trajectory – first it is the first person an alcoholic asks for help whether a family member, loved one or a G.P. – this often leads to an AA meeting or a treatment centre – then they are presented with other alcoholics who suffer from the same disorder – in AA parlance this is the first, and for many alcoholics in recovery, their only experience or attempt to find G.O.D. – this Group. of. Drunks. is like all that preceded it, a power greater than ourselves, regardless on whether we attain a spiritual connection with God after that.

A sizable minority in AA remain agnostic or atheist. This does not mean they have not performed essentially “spiritual” acts such as asking for help, accepting powerless over their life at that present moment. These are all acts of humility of accepting one needs help from beyond oneself. They also attend meetings where no one is in charge apart from God as He may express Himself in our group conscience.

Our first sponsors (mentors) in AA are also a power beyond ourselves as are their sponsors and their sponsors and the people in all their lives who advise and support. From the moment one has wholeheartedly accepted the need for help, one has accepted that help will come from a power greater than themselves.  It is a humbling and I believe spiritual act. A new breath filling one’s life.

All these people are already doing something for us which we could not do ourselves, they are helping us recruit the prefrontal cortex and explicit memories of the disasters alcohol or drug addiction has wrought on our lives – they move, eventually, activity in the brain from the unthinking dorsal striatal to the reasoning prefrontal cortex, helped also by sharing our stories in meetings. They give us a new recovery alcoholic self schema to replace the former drinking alcoholic self schema and stores it in implicit memory.

These people helps us change positive memory association of alcohol with negative associations. They overturn old ideas about the good times with a deep awareness of how bad these so-called good times were. The attentional bias is avoided or is rarely activated as the distress and stress are greatly reduced so as not to activate it.

We find recovery rewarding in the way we formerly (but not latterly) found drinking. In fact we find recovery better than drinking even at it’s best. The worst day in recovery seems much better than the worst day in drinking. We learn how to regulate our emotions so as to avoid prolonged bouts of distress, we ring our sponsors when such moments arise, talk to a loved one.

Again an external prefrontal cortex helps us climb out of the sub-cortical “fear” areas of the dorsal striatum and the anxious amgydala. The solution  is in the prefrontal cortex, in it’s control over emotions, in it’s clear appraisal of our past, in it’s activation of negative, realistic  memories of the past and  in avoiding the people, places and things which remind us of drinking.

The prefrontal cortex becomes more in charge rather than our illness doing the thinking. The prefrontal also gets strengthened by us sharing our experience strength and hope at meetings, it uses a recovery narrative to reconcile the drinking self with the recovering self, making us whole,  it embeds in our mind the truth of the progressive nature of this illness. It helps us see what it was like, what happened and what it is today. It gives us the tools to help others.

In the follow up blog to this we will further explore how this works – this spiritual solution.



1. Cleck, J. N., & Blendy, J. A. (2008). Making a bad thing worse: adverse effects of stress on drug addiction. The Journal of clinical investigation, 118(2), 454.

2. Koob, G. F., & LeMoal, M. (2001). Drug addiction, dysregulation of reward, and allostasis. Neuropsychopharmacology, 24, 97–129.

3. Sinha, R. (2008). Chronic stress, drug abuse, and vulnerability to addiction. Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, 1141, 105–130

4. Peciña, S., Schulkin, J., & Berridge, K. C. (2006). Nucleus accumbens corticotropin-releasing factor increases cue-triggered motivation for sucrose reward: paradoxical positive incentive effects in stress?  BMC biology, 4(1), 8.

5. Ventura, R., Latagliata, E. C., Morrone, C., La Mela, I., & Puglisi-Allegra, S. (2008). Prefrontal norepinephrine determines attribution of “high” motivational salience. PLoS One, 3(8), e3044

6. Hyman, S. E. (2007). Addiction: a disease of learning and memory. Focus(2), 220.

7.  Adinoff , B. (2004) Neurobiologic processes in drug reward and addiction, Harvard Review of Psychiatry

8. Duncan E, Boshoven W, Harenski K, Fiallos A, Tracy H, Jovanovic T, et al  (2007) An fMRI study of the interaction of stress and cocaine cues on cocaine craving in cocaine-dependent men. The American Journal on Addictions, 16: 174–182

9. Berridge, K. C., Ho, C. Y., Richard, J. M., & DiFeliceantonio, A. G. (2010). The tempted brain eats: pleasure and desire circuits in obesity and eating disorders.Brain research1350, 43-64.

10. Everitt, B. J., & Robbins, T. W. (2005). Neural systems of reinforcement for drug addiction: From actions to habits to compulsion. Nature Neuroscience, 8, 1481–1489

11. Sinha, R., Lacadie, C., Sludlarski, P., Fulbright, R. K., Rounsaville, B. J., Kosten, T. R., & Wexler, B. E. (2005). Neural activity associated with stress-induced cocaine craving: A functional magnetic resonance imaging study. Psychopharmacology, 183, 171–180.

12. Goodman, J., Leong, K. C., & Packard, M. G. (2012). Emotional modulation of multiple memory systems: implications for the neurobiology of post-traumatic stress disorder.

13. Schwabe, L., Tegenthoff, M., Höffken, O., & Wolf, O. T. (2010). Concurrent glucocorticoid and noradrenergic activity shifts instrumental behavior from goal-directed to habitual control. Journal of Neuroscience, 20, 8190–8196.

14. Schwabe, L., Dickinson, A., & Wolf, O. T. (2011). Stress, habits, and drug addiction: a psychoneuroendocrinological perspective. Experimental and clinical psychopharmacology19(1), 53.

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

16. Arnsten, A. F. (2009). Stress signalling pathways that impair prefrontal cortex structure and function. Nature Reviews Neuroscience, 10(6), 410-422.


4 replies »

  1. Excellent article. But I can see no good reason to subsume this under the bogeyman of “spirituality.” Why not simply call this what it is: cognition. Conflating this with “spirituality” could alienate some who are repelled by the notion of spirituality. Individuals who are thoroughly secular in their worldview – surely they too engage in mindfulness. Everyone has a brain, and is free to guard it with diligent vigilance – this includes secular-minded individuals.

    • thanks John Paul – regardless of one’s world view it is essential to come to a more accurate understanding of what addiction is and one that alienates no one. We do not have to hold any views in relation to other medical or mental health conditions so why addiction? All treatment can and perhaps should be encouraged one day to continue on more rational lines if only to be more inclusive to all. Ultimately is via the mind that we heal the brain. Paul

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s