You Can Pray Relapses Away. Really.

New findings in neuroscience help clarify why spirituality improves success with sobriety.

Old-timers in Alcoholics Anonymous love to quote Carl Jung’s Latin pun “spiritus contra spiritum”—the Spirit against the spirits—for if, as the father of analytic psychology suggested, alcoholics drink spirits to fill a hole in their soul, then getting drunk on religion may fulfill the need to drink. Yet until recently the only evidence of this magic was in the doing; you had to stand in the drunkard’s shoes to grasp the appeal of spirituality firsthand.

Now neuroscientists are beginning to explain not only why minds crippled by craving require psychological crutches to stay sober but also why spiritual pursuits serve this purpose so well—God or no God: It’s not just that addicts’ addled brains are extra vulnerable to religious ideas and group-think (for example, the newbie’s familiar “addicted to AA” syndrome); they’re chemically drawn to them as well.

Research affirms that there is in fact a kind of hole in the addict’s soul; years of drinking or drugging mute the brain’s natural pleasure pathways. Active addicts and those fresh off their substance typically have inadequate levels of the neurotransmitter dopamine—and hence to suffer from poor concentration, lack of motivation and a pesky inability to enjoy things. And newly sober, they are fragile. “While recovering alcoholics may bob along on a daily basis, they haven’t really got any flexibility in their system to respond to major events,” says addiction expert Anne Lingford-Hughes, a professor at London’s Imperial College.

Brain scans of recovering addicts show that thankfully, much of the damage repairs itself in a matter of months (or years), including the ability to feel good—or good enough—sans self-medication. Quitters often report a gradually intensifying thawing of the emotions, an openness to beauty and joy…with wistful tales of forest canopies and newfound love that can be utterly nauseating to those still using!

Prayer, even when directed at loved ones, can make people relapse less; researchers speculate that it relieves the heavy “burden of self” that intoxicants are also so good at lifting.

But getting from here to there can be sheer white-knuckle misery.

Enter AA, whose churchy ways offer sanctuary in that most crucial first stretch of abstinence when withdrawal’s physical and psychological effects are at their fiercest. Like visiting a pew each Sunday, attendance at ritualized 12-step meetings offers communion with like-minded folk and a safe haven from anxiety and loneliness. Endlessly repeated conversion stories (known as “shares,” “chairs” or “qualifications”) help bolster the doubter’s resolve.

As The Bible has its Ten Commandments, so The Big Book has its 12 steps for clean living—complete with endless (often downright cornball) parables showing the benefits of hewing to the straight and narrow. Yet the gospel according to Bill W. does not end with abstinence. It is the critical instruction toward “service”—or “giving back”—that closes the virtuous circle, relieving 12-steppers’ of their narcissism and other personality flaws.

Even a religious sanctuary’s silver polishers, cleaners and flower arrangers have their AA equivalents—furtive smokers who sweep up cigarette butts and loyal group members hanging the scrolls and making the tea, grateful to be valued at last and no longer society’s outcasts.

The 12-step approach to spirituality long ago proved its benefits. What’s new is that science is backing spirituality as a recovery tool—and not just the 12-step version but also a wide range of practices, including prayer itself. Florida State University research by Nathanial Lambert and Frank Fincham recently found that people in recovery who pray more drink less—even if they’re not praying in order to stop drinking. Separate research at the University of Michigan discovered a correlation between the number of spiritual or religious experiences in early recovery and relapse rate—the more of the former, the less of the latter.

The part that veers off a little from the church model of spirituality and communion is AA’s God concept.

Surrendering to a Higher Power (HP) is, in the 12-step model, essential to recovery. And there is growing scientific support for this belief: Ken Pargament at Ohio’s Bowling Green State University showed that chanting mantras like “God is great” (or “Mother Earth is great” for the humanists) lets people keep their hands in ice water for twice as long as mantras like “Life is good” or “I am happy.” (Go ahead, try the ice water; it’s excruciatingly painful.)

Yet Bill W. famously wrote that God—or your HP—is whatever you understand it to be. While purists continue to insist on the Holy Trinity or a related Christian trope, quitters have proved to be remarkably more inventive.

“I’m in a religion of one and I ain’t looking for no converts,” says 15-year AAer Jim (who, like all 12-steppers interviewed for this piece, elected anonymity). In his drinking days, Jim felt that “no one was looking after me”; now he has a sense that “everything will be OK.” But getting down on his knees to pray is not his style; Jim’s morning ritual takes place in a swimming pool: “10 lengths of the Serenity Prayer, 10 lengths of the Step 3 prayer, etc…,” until exhaustion sets in.

So what exactly is Jim’s Higher Power? He can’t quite find the words, except to say that “He” has a cruel sense of humor: “When I was [drinking], my [soccer] team was always losing. Now they’re at the top of the league and I can’t have a drink on it! My Higher Power’s having a laugh at my expense.”

Delia, a high-powered London attorney, recites the Serenity Prayer in meetings but skips the (to her) uncomfortable “G” word. “I can’t pray,” she says, “as I would regard that as talking to empty air—and I’m not a meditator.” Delia is simply grateful to have discovered a path to sobriety that she can stick to: “In quiet times, for instance when driving, I’m just happy to have found AA and a sense of hope and belonging,” she says.

AA officials in Toronto, who last year banned two AA atheist meetings, would balk at such vague interpretations of 12-step spirituality. But psychologists and psychiatrists are more relaxed about what qualifies as spiritual, whether in the minds of addicts or others. They say it can range from conventionally religious activities to art appreciation, long outdoor walks, cooking, rewarding time with family and friends or even simple peace and quiet. The ability to soothe oneself comes in almost as many names as forms: call it a holding environment, emotional R&R, mental hygiene, self-care.

The late Alan Marlatt, a professor of psychology at the University of Washington and director of its Addictive Behaviors Research Center, showed that it is not necessarily faith but contemplation and community that work for addicts. More than a decade ago, Marlatt introduced courses in Vipassana Mindfulness meditation to drug- and alcohol-addicted prisoners at the King County North Rehabilitation Facility in Seattle. People end up at places like this when their crimes are alcohol- or drug-related; many have compounding mental health disorders.

Marlatt’s 10-day meditation course, conducted in a cellblock set apart from other prisoners, was almost entirely silent, with participants meditating for up to 11 hours a day (and living entirely on vegetarian food). Following the course, and up to three months after release from jail, the benefits seemed decisive. Participants reported significant reductions in alcohol, cocaine, crack and marijuana use, and they experienced less anxiety and depression than others. 

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