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See Inside Scientific American Mind Volume 23, Issue 1

The Nuts and Bolts of Emotional Sobriety

When to engage with negative feelings and when to ignore them



Blair Kelly

ONE of the cornerstones of alcoholism recovery is a concept called emotional sobriety. The idea is that alcoholics and other addicts hoping to stay sober over the long haul must learn to regulate the negative feelings that can lead to discomfort, craving and—ultimately—relapse. Doing so is a lifelong project and requires cultivating 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. Take it one day at a time and do whatever works—prayer, exercise, meetings—to distract the mind from the compulsion to pick up a glass.

These approaches represent two very different kinds of emotional regulation, when you consider it. Distraction is unthinking—it amounts to cognitive disengagement from thoughts of alcohol and the anxiety of craving by any means possible. It is a blunt instrument in the toolbox of recovery. In contrast, long-term emotional sobriety requires the slow, steady rethinking about all the people, places and things that once did—and could again—throw us off kilter. New research suggests that a healthy mind deftly flips between these techniques when facing unpleasant emotions. By studying these mechanisms, researchers are beginning to understand how people cope with painful feelings and what goes wrong when those skills are missing.

Recovery programs teach these fundamental principles of emotional regulation because addicts do not know them intuitively. But the techniques apparently do come naturally to many healthy people. At least that is the conclusion of some recent studies by psychological scientist Gal Sheppes of Stanford University and his colleagues who have been examining the strategies that people choose for dealing with negative emotions of different kinds and intensities. The researchers had the idea that people process different kinds of emotional information in the two ways described in recovery literature—either by blocking it entirely or by thinking about it carefully in an effort to reevaluate it. For example, if an experience or thought were especially intense and threatening, people would nip it in the bud early. They would simply disengage and not pay attention, in that way blocking negativity from awareness, much as newly recovering alcoholics are advised to do. This technique would keep potent negative thoughts from ever gaining force.

Distract Me
People faced with milder negative emotions, on the other hand, would not block them out. These emotions would be regulated by a second cognitive mechanism, which applies more elaborate processing to these unpleasant feelings in an effort to render them harmless. But first, the negative thoughts and emotions must be stored in memory for reappraisal and reinterpretation. At least that is Sheppes’s theory, which he and his colleagues tested in a series of laboratory experiments. They hypothesized that healthy people would tend to distract themselves quickly from intense emotional experiences, and in contrast, they would tend to engage with milder, less threatening experiences to diffuse their emotional power.

The researchers recruited 20 volunteers and instructed them on the two methods of emotional regulation—distraction versus reappraisal—then had them view photographs depicting negative emotions of different intensities. A low-intensity image, for example, might show a woman holding her head in an ambiguous state of distress, whereas a high-intensity photograph might show a woman in extreme distress, with blood streaming down her face. The volunteers looked at a series of such pictures, gazing at each for half a second then narrating out loud for five seconds how they were processing the emotion—whether they were distracting themselves from it or thinking about how to reinterpret it. Other volunteers and observers characterized the subjects’ regulatory strategies as either distraction or engagement and reappraisal. Just to be sure the results were accurate, the subjects also pressed a button to indicate which emotional processing style they were using.

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