To predict whether an alcohol abuser or someone with the disease of alcoholism will hit the bottle again, ignore what they say and watch their body language for displays of shame, a University of British Columbia study finds. The University introduced its research in a news release February 4 in advance of publication in this week’s Clinical Psychological Science journal.
The study, which explored drinking and health outcomes in newly sober recovering alcoholics, is the first lab work to show that physical manifestations of shame – from slumped shoulders to narrow chests – can directly predict a relapse in people who struggle with substances.
“Our study finds that how much shame people display can strongly predict not only whether they will go on to relapse, but how bad that relapse will be – that is, how many drinks they will consume,” says UBC Psychology Prof. Jessica Tracy, who conducted the study with graduate student Daniel Randles.
Forty-six drinkers completed questionnaires about their physical and mental health while Tandy and Randles assessed their body language — finding unconscious physical mannerisms are a powerful sign of future relapse, while the written expressions of shame offer almost no clues. Tracy says the amount of shame displayed was directly tied to the number of drinks an alcoholic will have on that first binge after giving up sobriety.
The issue of shame is one of the four largest emotional situations tied to relapse. This may be the first scientific study to empirically link shame and drinking, however the concept has been around a long time, dating back to the work of psychologist John Bradshaw in the 1980s in his Healing the Shame that Binds You. According to the new relapse book, Every Silver Lining Has a Cloud, “The inability of an alcoholic to deal with the social stigma attached to the disease of alcoholism can be countered by group counseling and group self-help, e.g. Self-Management and Recovery Training (SMART) or 12-step groups, such as Alcoholics Anonymous. In any of those group environments, those attempting recovery see and accept they are not alone, that others feel the shame, too, and by talking through the emotional stressor they can stay sober.”
The UBC findings have important implications for people struggling with addictions, their friends and families, and researchers and clinicians who study emotion and addiction, the researchers say. “The research is also important in light of the fact that some policymakers and judges have argued for the use of public shaming as a punitive measure, or treatment, against crime. Our research suggests that shaming people for difficult-to-curb behaviors may be exactly the wrong approach to take,” Tracy and Randles argue. “Rather than prevent future occurrences of such behaviors, shaming may lead to an increase in these behaviors.”