Alcoholics Anonymous as a spiritual experience
December 14th, 2010
04:00 PM ET

Alcoholics Anonymous as a spiritual experience

Only the first of the 12 steps of Alcoholics Anonymous mentions alcohol. The other 11 talk about redemption, restoring moral character, and devotion to God (or other higher power).

From that perspective, it makes sense that a new study finds that Alcoholics Anonymous increases spirituality. But it goes further than that: Spirituality may actually play a role in successful recovery from alcoholism, says research in the journal Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research.

The way that Alcoholics Anonymous members share their experiences of suffering is akin to what happens in a military unit or a musical group or a family, where the idea of "we’re all in this together" becomes particularly strong, said Keith Humphreys, professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Stanford University.

"Someone will say something profound that everyone can connect with beyond themselves, and it can be very moving," said Humphreys, who was not involved in the study but also researches the effects of Alcoholics Anonymous. "That is a spiritual process."

Alcoholics Anonymous has more than 1.2 million members in the United States, encompassing more than 55,000 groups across the country. Founded in 1935, participation in this group has shown to be effective in short-term and long-term outcomes in numerous scientific studies. Since a large body of research has found that this and similar groups work (Narcotics Anonymous for drug use, and other organizations), more studies are turning to a deeper question: Why do they work?

Meetings of 12-step support groups vary according to how "religious" they seem, Humphreys said. Some of them are full of discussion about God; others don't emphasize it as much, but focus more philosophically on the nature of being and existence.

"Certainly the basic frame is about minimizing selfishness, minimizing grandiosity, giving to others, accepting character flaws, and apologizing when you’re wrong," Humphreys said.

Addiction to any substance, be it alcohol or marijuana or harder drugs, raises common issues prompting spiritual questions, Humphreys said. These experiences include loss of control, terror, doing things you’re ashamed of, and being close to death, he said.

The new study looked at data from 1,726 adults randomly assigned to different psychosocial treatments for alcoholism. Researchers asked the participants questions at the beginning of the study and then every three months.

They found that participants in Alcoholics Anonymous said they increased their spiritual beliefs and practices, especially people who were low on those measures when they first began Alcoholics Anonymous. Moreover, spiritual beliefs and behaviors appear to at least partially be responsible for successful recovery from alcoholic behaviors. Perhaps that also relates to findings from a separate study that religion breeds happiness because of personal connections made in a congregregation.

Still, spirituality and religiosity don't probably operate alone in Alcoholics Anonymous - the coping skills, support, and other encouragement of abstinence from alcohol likely also help participants in recovery, the authors wrote.

Also, the study does have limitations.  For instance, most participants were Caucasian men participating in a larger study called Project MATCH. Also, what is meant by "spirituality" varies and means different things to different people.

This wasn't the only news in favor of Alcoholics Anonymous today.  A study published in the same journal found that women returning from prison decreased their drinking habits after weekly meetings of the group for six months.

Of course, Alcoholics Anonymous isn't for everyone, and there are plenty of secular programs out there, such as Rational Recovery, that don't overtly make religiosity part of the process.

Here are some guiding questions to help you decide if you need help with a substance problem: Do you need to consume more and more to get the same effect? Do you find yourself repeatedly consuming more than you intended to? Do you find yourself thinking about your next use? Does your habit end up taking more and more of your time? Are you waking up in the morning thinking about it?

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