This is Your Brain on the Twelve Steps Method

The Twelve Steps method is widely held to be a dramatically different perspective that the clinical, scientific approach in that the Twelve Steps method is an overtly spiritual recovery process. However, despite the apparent disparity between the two approaches to addiction recovery, recent studies have found that much of the efficacy of the Twelve Steps method can, in fact, be validated by and unified with the scientific approach to addiction treatment.

Science and the Twelve-Step Perspective of Addiction

According to our scientific understanding of addiction, alcohol and drug dependency is a disease. This means that addiction is predominantly physical and mental in nature, requiring treatments that address those specific components of dependency (i.e., detox treatment and psychotherapy, respectively). The twelve-step perspective of addiction is often assumed to be a vastly different concept, but the literature of Alcoholics Anonymous acknowledges addiction as a disease and recognizes the physical and mental effects of chemical dependency.

The difference between the scientific and twelve-step perspectives of addiction is that the latter suggests that despite the prevalence of the physical and mental components of addiction, there is actually another component that is much deeper and more central to the severity and encompassing nature of addiction, which is the spiritual aspect.

In essence, the twelve-step method views addicts as having become addicted after searching for meaning and fulfillment in the wrong places, causing them to become self-centered, which is why they obsessively seek intoxication and will resort to any means to achieve that goal. As such, the purpose of working the Twelve Steps method is to help individuals regain their humility and selflessness by forging a stronger relationship with the higher power of their understandings.

While it may seem like seeking strength and fortifying one’s sobriety through spirituality would oppose the more scientific perspective of addiction recovery, recent research has sought to determine whether there are more scientific mechanisms underlying the process of twelve-step recovery and to determine what kinds of measurable, quantifiable effects the twelve-step method has on the brain and physiology.

Sponsorship and the Concept of Mirroring

In Alcoholics Anonymous and its numerous derivative groups, sponsorship refers to the relationship established between a newcomer who is just starting out working the Twelve Steps method and a more experienced member who has already worked the Twelve Steps method and, therefore, has useful knowledge and experience that can be used for guidance.

In fact, the last of the Twelve Steps method actually suggests that individuals help others to achieve sobriety using the twelve-step method, effectively making the transformation from member to sponsor the final step. A sponsor is a valuable source of information for the individual who has begun working the steps as this strong, supportive relationship offers encouragement, serves as guidance while working the steps, and can be a resource during times of weakness and uncertainty.

However, the newcomer can also model their behavior after the sponsor, which is a concept in the field of psychology called mirroring. Mirroring can entail mimicking bad behaviors as is the case when someone is considered a bad influence on others, but in the case of the sponsor-sponsee relationship the newcomer has a model for positive behavior that can reinforce sobriety and make him or her more successful in achieving long-lasting recovery.

Does Sharing During AA Meetings Affect the Brain?

An important part of the twelve-step method is actually attending and participating in the meetings. During twelve-step meetings, individuals often share stories about their experiences or provide updates on the current status of their recovery journeys. While it’s not required for individuals to share, it’s typically encouraged and according to studies, this may be because sharing, or “storytelling,” has a positive effect on an individual’s brain.

MRI scans have indicated that the act of storytelling activates the mesolimbic dopamine system, which serves to cause rewarding, pleasurable feelings. This is why individuals tend to feel better after they get things off their chests; the actual act of telling their story activates the reward and pleasure pathways with an increase in the neurochemical dopamine.

According to the tenets of the twelve-step method, this storytelling, or “qualifying” as it’s called in the program, helps individuals to feel part of the group’s shared identity and purpose while helping to lay the foundation for a conception of a new, sober self.

Cognitive Dissonance: Using the Twelve Steps Method to Overcome Contradictory Behavior

There’s a concept in the field of psychology called cognitive dissonance, which is used to refer to the state of having two or more contradictory beliefs or ideas. In the case of addiction, an example of cognitive dissonance would be an individual who continues to habitually abuse drugs despite knowing that the substance abuse can cause serious health problems and make him or her susceptible to legal consequences.

Cognitive dissonance tends to activate a very particular part of the brain, observed in brain scans as heightened activity in the anterior cingulate cortex. Twelve-step recovery seeks to resolve cognitive dissonance by encouraging individuals to turn themselves over to the higher powers of their understandings.

While this is the most overtly spiritual aspect of the twelve-step method, this works to overcome cognitive dissonance because individuals are no longer behaving in opposition of what they know to be true. In other words, they turn their lives over to the higher powers of their understandings so that they won’t pursue behaviors that they know to be harmful.

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It may seem that the twelve-step method is in opposition of scientific conceptions at a glance, but when you take a closer look at some of the underpinnings of the twelve-step method, it becomes clearer that there are more quantifiable processes at play in twelve-step recovery.

If you or someone you love is suffering from chemical dependency and would benefit from learning more about treatment or the science of addiction, Drug Treatment Center Finder can help. Just one phone call to (855) 619-8070 can rid you or your loved one of the chains of addiction. Let one of our recovery specialists give you a free consultation and assessment today so that you can begin the journey to a life of health, happiness, and fulfillment.

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