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Prayers can reduce cravings among recovering alcoholics

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For long-term members of Alcoholics Anonymous (AA), praying helps to reduce alcohol cravings when confronted with a triggering situation. This is according to a new study, which explored the brain physiology of recovering alcoholics who had been involved with the program for years. 

For long-term members of Alcoholics Anonymous (AA), praying helps to reduce alcohol cravings when confronted with a triggering situation.This is according to a new study, which explored the brain physiology of recovering alcoholics who had been involved with the program for years.

Participants who recited AA prayers after viewing drinking-related images reported fewer alcohol cravings and displayed increased activity in the brain regions that control attention and emotion.

The serenity prayer is the common name for a prayer authored by the American theologian Reinhold Niebuhr, and has been adopted by several twelve step programmes, including the AA, who use this version: God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change; Courage to change the things I can; And wisdom to know the difference.

The study, conducted by researchers from New York University (NYU) Langone Medical Center, is thought to be the first to explore brain physiology in AA members.Researchers recruited 20 long-term AA members to participate in the study.

These participants, who reported no alcohol cravings in the week before testing, were then placed in Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) scanner and shown pictures of alcoholic drinks, or of people drinking.

Each person was shown the pictures two times.In the first round, the participants were asked to read neutral material from a newspaper following the viewing.

In the second, they recited an AA prayer, which promotes abstinence from alcohol.Across the board, the research subjects all reported some degree of craving after viewing the images.But, craving lessened after reciting an AA prayer.

“Our findings suggest that the experience of AA over the years had left these members with an innate ability to use the AA experience – prayer in this case – to minimize the effect of alcohol triggers in producing craving,” says senior author Marc Galanter, MD, professor of psychiatry and director of the Division of Alcoholism and Drug Abuse at NYU Langone.

“Craving is diminished in long-term AA members compared to patients who have stopped drinking for some period of time but are more vulnerable to relapse.”

Researchers recruited 30 participants who reported no alcohol cravings in the week before testing.They were placed in an MRI scanner and shown pictures of alcoholic drinks, or of people drinking.All of the subjects reported some degree of craving after viewing the images.But, reports of cravings lessened after reciting an AA prayer.With data from the MRI scans, the team was also able to detect physical responses in the brain…”
“We wanted to determine what is going on in the brain in response to alcohol-craving triggers, such as passing by a bar or experiencing something upsetting, when long-term AA members are exposed to them,” Galanter says.

This addresses the different ways people understand situations based on their perspective, they explain.“The findings suggest that there appears to be an emotional response to alcohol triggers, but that it’s experienced and understood differently when someone has the protection of the AA experience,” Galanter says.

Galanter has studied the role of spirituality in long-term AA members for a decade, and found that members experience a ‘spiritual awakening’ which marks the transition to a different attitude toward drinking.

Reductions in craving are associated with the amount of time that has passed since this transition.“Our current findings open up a new field of inquiry into physiologic changes that may accompany spiritual awakening and perspective changes in AA members and others,” Galanter said.



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