This post was originally published on June 6, 2016.
Many people question how the 12-step approach to recovery works. Some even question if it does work, despite probably being surrounded by people who are sober through the fellowship. How do I know this? Because I am one of those people, most of my friends are those people and I attend meetings and functions with thousands of even more of those people. Oddly though, some folks still find it necessary to speak out against Alcoholics Anonymous (there, I said it). They often attack the spiritual aspect of the program, labeling it “religious” or even cult-like. And while none of that mishigas has ever concerned me, it’s still nothing short of awesome to read in Medical Daily that (and this is for all you angry atheists out there) scientific research has been done about the positive effects of spirituality.
Prayers Being Answered
A recent study by researchers from NYU Langone Medical Center examined AA members with long-term sobriety. First they were given a newspaper, then a prayer from the Big Book, before being shown seductive images of alcohol. While every participant showed some degree of craving in the prefrontal cortex after reading the newspaper, evidence of these cravings drastically decreased after simply reciting an AA prayer.
Dr. Marc Galanter, Professor of Psychiary at NYU and senior author on the study said, “This finding suggests that there appears to be an emotional response to alcohol triggers, but that it’s experienced and understood differently when someone has the protection of the AA experience.” Boom. Eggs-actly.
Placebo Effect Realness
Not to make this about me (though I’d hardly be an alcoholic if I didn’t) but back in October, I wrote an essay about this very sentiment. While spirituality is often criticized for being silly because it’s not “scientific,” there is a scientific explanation for the effectiveness of believing in something greater than yourself. This study further validates that.
After a decade of studying the role spirituality plays in the lives of recovering alcoholics, Galanter’s data proves that long-time members of AA undergo a measurable shift in perspective. This is what they refer to as a “spiritual awakening” and Galanter’s studies indicate that it’s this transition that decreases their craving to drink.
But Wait, There’s More!
Although I like where he is going with this, I feel it’s necessary to add that a person does not need to have a “white light” experience to have a shift of this kind. Simply taking the first step to go to a meeting is often a sign of an important change in perspective. It is also very possible to stop drinking and stop having cravings to drink well before having a spiritual experience. But Galanter is right, a significant change on how you see the world (and the effects of your drinking) makes living life sober a whole lot easier.
“Our current findings open up a new field of inquiry into physiologic changes that may accompany spiritual awakening and perspective changes in AA members and others,” Galanter says, and this is exciting news. Because the sooner we are collectively able to understand and accept all the components necessary for addiction recovery, the sooner will start seeing better long-term results. Treatment for addiction is just that—treatment. What the addict does after he or she is released back into the real world is entirely up to them. There is not quick fix pill or machine we can hook up to that will keep anyone sober—addicts have to understand the many sides of their disease, as well as the severity of it, before they can truly be expected to do their part in staying clean.
And sadly, sometimes even then isn’t enough.