As human beings, we all have an innate need for spirituality. Throughout history, the societies that have survived have had some spiritual component included in their culture. Even Neanderthals showed an element of spirituality by burying their dead.
Numerous studies have shown that there is a definite correlation between spirituality and substance abuse; the more spiritually minded a person is, the less likely they were to abuse substances.
Spirituality is at the core of all twelve step programs. Regardless of what an individual determines his or her personal higher power to be, the effect is the same – reduced negativity and increased positive associations.
Spirituality and Religion
Spirituality and religion are not the same. The word “spirit” comes from Latin word “spiritus,” which means “breath.” Someone can be spiritual, but not religious, and vice versa. Religion is an organized belief system, whereas spirituality differs from person to person.
Spirituality is an individual’s fundamental belief in and understanding of a power greater than oneself, whatever that power may be. This spiritual connection brings meaning to human existence and allows for a person to understand his or her world.
Effect of Mediation an Prayer on the Brain
Researchers have attempted to measure and scientifically explain why people who are spiritual are prone to live longer, healthier and more fulfilling lives. Studies have revealed the numerous ways that meditation and prayer affect the brain.
SPECT scans of the brain, which show the amount of blood flow, were done on people while they were meditating and compared it to what their brains looked like normally. During meditation, the area of the brain responsible for spatial orientation and sense of time had a decrease in activity. The theory is that by decreasing awareness of sensory stimuli the person increases the ability to feel free of form and more connected to something larger than oneself.
Other areas of the brain also are affected and have the effect of decreasing negative emotional experiences and increasing positive ones. The thalamus reducing sensory input results in a calming effect. The prefrontal cortex, which is where higher functioning, reasoning and planning are centered, is cleared of chatter and focuses instead on the object of meditative thought. The limbic system’s activity is reduced, which decreases levels of stress, anxiety and fear. Increased empathy and compassion results from an increase in the amount of anterior cingulate activity.
The neurochemicals dopamine, serotonin and GABA are also increased during meditation and prayer. All three neurochemicals are critical to creating a positive emotional and cognitive state. In essence, they play a vital role in creating happiness, peace and joy.
Serotonin is associated with happiness and a sense of well-being. The elevation of serotonin levels is the target of many anti-depressant drugs.
GABA involves the nervous system and is what dictates anxiety levels. Anti-anxiety drugs manipulate GABA and effectively calm the nervous system and lead to feelings of peace.
Dopamine is associated with reward-motivation aspect of the brain. It is released when something good happens and triggers a cascade of other pleasant neurochemicals that tell the brain to remember the event and to repeat it. It is fundamental to the brain’s ability to assign value, and therefore meaning, to everything that is encountered in life.
Dopamine is also released with drug use, which damages the pathways and normal functioning of this delicate system. Prayer and meditation, however, help build and strengthen new neuropathways and help heal the brain on a rudimentary level.
How it applies to 12 Step Groups
Twelve Step programs are spiritually based and promote meditation or prayer as a mechanism of recovery.
Step Eleven states, “Sought through prayer and meditation to improve our conscious contact with God, as we understood Him, praying only for knowledge of His will for us and the power to carry that out.”
Many who enter a Twelve Step program are weary of religious fanaticism and choose the group itself as a higher power. It is something greater than the individual, and therefore counts.
Becoming aware of a higher power allows people to focus more on the world outside themselves. This world also ceases to seem cold or overwhelming as the individual always has a higher power and the group to rely on.
The group has a common goal, to stay abstinent from all mood and mind altering substances. The nature of this teaching is to be nonjudgmental of others, giving everyone involved an increased sense of comfort and belonging. Because of this, the individual’s personal higher power is accepted, whatever it may be.
The group aspect of the program allows for the individual to gain human connection, which is typically nonexistent while a person is intoxicated. The social support triggers the release of oxytocin, the neurochemical responsible for feelings of attachment, comfort, and is associated with “love at first sight.”
The principles of Twelve Step groups help bring members closer together and increase well-being and reduce stress, which itself is often a trigger for relapse. These principles, such as humility, honesty, integrity, faith, and brotherly love, help promote human connection. The program is a healthy support network that brings people together and promotes positive relationships.
The disease of addiction is said to be comprised of three characters: an allergy of the body, an obsession of the mind, and a spiritual malady. The bodily intolerance is remedied with abstinence. The obsession of the mind is relieved through working the Twelve Steps and cleaning up the wreckage of the past. The spiritual malady is remedied with prayer and meditation.
“As we go through the day we pause, when agitated or doubtful, and ask for the right thought or action. we constantly remind ourselves we are no longer running the show, humbly saying to ourselves many times each day “Thy will be done.” We are then much less danger of excitement, fear, anger, worry, self-pity, or foolish decisions. We become much more efficient. We do not tire so easily, for we are not burning up energy foolishly as we did when we were trying to arrange life to suit ourselves.” Alcoholics Anonymous, (pp. 87-88)
The founders of Alcoholics Anonymous realized that addiction is centered in the mind and cannot be overcome with the same diseased organ. More than the individual, working alone, is needed to truly make peace with the past and forge forward into a bright and happy future.