People have long known that there’s something powerful about the spiritual aspect of Alcoholics Anonymous, which uses prayer-like rituals and invokes a Higher Power. The joke is that more people find God in church basements (during AA meetings) than in the sanctuary.
Now there’s a scientific argument to underlay the folk wisdom. A top British science journalist, Tracey Logan, writing for The Fix, an addiction and recovery Web site, says
“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.
Over time recovering addicts will see their dopamine levels return to at least passable levels. But in the interim, they need help, and spiritual practices like prayer can help.
Logan cites research on how prayer correlates with reduced drinking and fewer relapses. Other research shows that surrendering to a Higher Power boosts self-control. And some researchers have theorized that praying for others reduces self-consciousness, one reason why people turn to drink.
Alcoholics Anonymous is now in 61 different countries with vastly different cultures. In a country like Great Britain, where belief and participation in organized religion have experienced a steep decline over the last few decades, invoking a Higher Power might seem suspect. In fact, Logan reports that AA is seen as an organization “that verges on the cultish.” But the UK’s Information Network on Religious Movements (INFORM), based at the London School of Economics, does not classify AA as a cult, calling it instead “quasi-religious.” One distinction between AA and a cult: each chapter determines its own practices.
The research Logan cites shows that one doesn’t have to believe in God for the rituals to work.
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.
The article cites a number of people have found ways to make rituals like meditation work for them.
For Georgia, another AA longtimer, serenity rests on daily spiritual rituals of the kind she once thought only religious people participated in. Georgia once felt alienated in AA because of her inability to believe in the traditional notion of God. But over time she has discovered her own versions: for a while she had contact with it through Tai Chi; these days she’s more likely to use nature walks or daily Buddhist meditation.
“The thing about spirituality is that it is an exploration that is endless,” she says. “It’s about being open-minded. What works for me today may not work for me tomorrow.”
Longevity is indeed a challenge for addicts. Logan notes that addicts often lack gamma-Aminobutyric acid or GABA. GABA is “the chemical that acts like a brake to keep your mental wiring from sending too many messages,” increasing anxiety and insomnia, two causes of overdrinking. She suggests that the lack of GABA is one reason why alcoholics may need external support for the rest of their lives. The people she quotes seem glad to have found methods that let them tap into other powers, whether or not they believe in them.