One of the cornerstones of alcoholism recovery is what’s called “emotional sobriety.” The idea is that alcoholics and other addicts, if they hope to stay sober over the long haul, must learn to regulate the negative feelings that can lead to discomfort, craving and—ultimately—relapse. It’s a lifelong project, a whole new way of thinking about life’s travails.
But the recovery literature also says “first things first”—which simply means “don’t drink.” Especially in the early days of recovery, alcoholics are counseled not to analyze why they are addicted, or how they might have avoided alcoholism: “Don’t think and don’t drink” is the maxim. One day at a time, do whatever it takes—prayer, exercise, meetings—to distract the mind from the compulsion to pick up a glass.
These are really two very different kinds of emotional regulation, when you think of it. Distraction is unthinking—cognitive disengagement from thoughts of alcohol and the anxiety of craving by any means possible. It’s a blunt instrument in the toolbox of recovery. By contrast, long-term emotional sobriety requires the slow, steady rethinking of all the people, places and things that once did—and could again—throw us off kilter.
Recovery programs teach these fundamental principles of emotional regulation because, surprisingly, addicts don’t know them intuitively. But they apparently do come naturally to many healthy people. That at least is the conclusion from some new research out of Stanford University, which has been examining the strategies that people choose for dealing with negative emotions of different kinds and intensities. Psychological scientist Gal Sheppes and colleagues had the idea that people process different kinds of emotional information differently–and at different stages. If an experience or thought is especially intense and threatening, people can nip it in the bud early. They simply disengage and don’t pay attention, in that way blocking negativity from awareness, much as newly recovering alcoholics are advised to do. This keeps potent negative thoughts from ever gaining force.
Milder negative emotions are often not blocked out, but they can still be regulated by a second cognitive mechanism, which engages negative emotions for elaborate processing. This requires storing the negative thoughts and emotions in memory for reappraisal and reinterpretation. At least that’s the theory, which the scientists have tested in a series of laboratory experiments. They hypothesized that healthy people would tend to distract themselves quickly from intense emotional experiences, and that they would tend to engage with milder, less threatening experiences, in order diffuse their emotional power.
They recruited volunteers and had them view photographs depicting different levels of negative emotions. A low-intensity photo, for example, might show a woman holding her head, in an ambiguous state of distress, while a high-intensity photo might show a woman in extreme distress, with blood streaming down her face. The volunteers looked at a series of such photos, half a second each, then they narrated, out loud for five seconds, how they were processing the emotion. Volunteers and observers characterized the volunteers’ regulatory strategies as either distraction or engagement and reappraisal.
The results were unambiguous. Many more volunteers opted for cognitive engagement when confronted with a low-intensity photo, and many more chose to distract themselves from high-intensity photos—suggesting that switching strategies is a normal, healthy way of dealing with negativity in life. The researchers also gave the volunteers a “surprise” memory test at the end of the experiment, and found—as expected—that memory for the emotional photographs was impaired whenever volunteers opted for distraction and disengagement. This suggests that distraction, as a strategy for emotional regulation, works by not allowing the emotional information to enter memory at all.
Emotional photographs are powerful stimuli for priming negative emotions, but even so, the scientists wanted a test that was closer to real-life events. So in another experiment, the scientists used the anticipation of electrical shocks to create a life-like state of anxiety for volunteers. They hooked them up to electrodes, with which they administered 20 shocks of varying intensity. But just prior to each shock, the volunteers viewed a brief written description of the intensity level of the upcoming shock, allowing them time—12 seconds on average—to choose and use a strategy for regulating their anxiety before getting zapped. The scientists crunched together the data on shock intensity and cognitive choices, and the results were essentially the same as before. As reported in the on-line edition of the journal Psychological Science, volunteers were much more likely to opt for a reappraisal strategy when confronting an unpleasant but tolerable shock, and they were much more likely to try distracting themselves when they anticipated a strong and intensely painful shock. In short, people have the cognitive flexibility to adapt their regulatory choices for the situation at hand.
It’s not surprising that people naturally choose to engage with only mildly unpleasant emotions. Reinterpretation of emotional events has long been known to be an effective coping strategy. The findings on distraction run contrary to a long-held view that it’s important to engage with intense emotional challenges—and harmful to avoid them. But this view has been losing some of its hold recently. Evidence is mounting that, under extremely adverse conditions, some emotional disengagement may indeed be tonic. This appears to be true for disaster victims; for people with severe, ruminating depression; and of course, for alcoholics in early recovery.
Wray Herbert’s book, On Second Thought, has just been released in paperback. Excerpts from his two blogs—“We’re Only Human” and “Full Frontal Psychology”—appear regularly in The Huffington Post and in Scientific American Mind.