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Updated 2:30 PM March 21, 2007




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Spirituality increases as alcoholics recover

For decades recovering alcoholics and those who treat them have incorporated spirituality into the recovery process—whether or not it's religious in nature. But few research studies have documented if and how spirituality changes during recovery or how those changes influence a person's chance of succeeding in the quest for sobriety.

New research from the U-M Addiction Research Center (UMARC) sheds light on this issue. In the March issue of the Journal of Studies on Alcohol and Drugs, researchers show that many measures of spirituality tend to increase during alcohol recovery. They also demonstrate that those who have increases in day-to-day spiritual experiences and an enhanced sense of purpose in life are most likely to be free of heavy drinking episodes six months later.

"While people's actual beliefs don't seem to change during recovery, the extent they have spiritual experiences and are open to spirituality in their lives, does change," says lead researcher Elizabeth Robinson, a research assistant professor in the Medical School Department of Psychiatry and member of UMARC. "This effect was also independent of their participation in Alcoholics Anonymous which has a strong spiritual aspect."

The researchers report data from 154 adults with a diagnosis of alcohol dependence or alcohol abuse who entered an outpatient treatment program.

At the beginning of the study, and again six months later, the researchers assessed 10 different measures of spirituality and religiousness using standard research questionnaires. These included views of God, religious practices—such as prayer or church attendance—forgiveness, spiritual experiences, using religion or spirituality to cope, and existential meaning. The researchers also assessed participant alcohol use and problems related to its use before the study began and after six months. All of these responses were combined with information about gender and AA participation, and analyzed using statistical techniques.

The study shows that half of the measures of spirituality changed significantly in the six month period, including daily spiritual experiences, the use of religious practices, forgiveness, positive use of religion for coping, and feelings of purpose in life. But the measures that assessed individual core beliefs and values about God or religion didn't change. At the same time, use of alcohol decreased significantly, and 72 percent of participants did not relapse to heavy drinking.

The researchers then looked at how changes in spirituality related to the likelihood that a person had relapsed to heavy drinking. Those who had reported an increase in daily spiritual experiences were less likely to participate in heavy drinking, as were those who had experienced an increase in feelings that their lives had purpose. Changes in the other measures of spirituality statistically were not associated with the likelihood of sobriety.

Robinson and her colleagues write that their results suggest proactive and experiential dimensions of spirituality, rather than cognitive ones, were contributing to the recovery and decrease in drinking in the first six months.

They note that this pattern is consistent with two AA slogans: "Bring your body, your mind will follow," and "Fake it 'til you make it." In other words, changes in core beliefs and values don't have to occur in order for someone to be more open to spiritual experiences or to take part in more of such activities.

These findings suggest that including spirituality of all kinds into the delivery of recovery services for alcoholism may help, researchers say. Many individual faiths or religious institutions have offered recovery services, and some advocates have suggested that faith-based recovery is most effective for all. But Robinson notes that the spirituality seen in the study was not necessarily a matter of believing in one interpretation of God, or even belief in a God of any kind.

Each individual's spirituality, and the ability to experience growth in it, appears to be paramount, the authors suggest. So, an alcoholic might do best by searching for a recovery program that best matches his or her existing belief system.

The team has begun a new phase of research involving people who are taking part in three different alcohol treatment programs and alcoholics currently not in treatment. The study will follow more than 360 people over three years. Researchers also are analyzing data from the 154-person group more in-depth, including looking at how the individuals defined and described their own religious and spiritual preferences and practices.

The study was funded by the Fetzer Institute and the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism.

In addition to Robinson, authors are Dr. Kirk Brower, associate professor of psychiatry and executive director of Addiction Treatment Services; James Cranford, of UMARC and the Substance Abuse Research Center; and Jon Webb, formerly of UMARC and now of East Tennessee State University.

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