Twelve Step Programs and Neurobiology: How the Rooms Rewire Us

Why do we so often feel better after attending a twelve step meeting? Why, even on days when we don’t have any huge “ahas” do we still know we are somehow better off, calmer and more balanced emotionally just because we had our “soles” in the room?  Some of that answer lies in neurobiology. Because of the way our nervous systems are put together, going to meetings can actually restructure our limbic systems.

We, as humans, are physiologically patterned to resonate to each other at a deep neural level through a phenomenon called limbic resonance. Like it or not, we are wired to pick up on and process other people’s emotions through our own neurological  networks. Daniel Stern, an American scientist working at the University of Geneva has long been exploring these subtle interactions. “Our nervous systems, says Stern, are constructed to be captured by the nervous systems of others, so that we can experience others as if from within their skin.”  Thomas Lewis, author of A General Theory of Love says, “Our neural architecture places relationships at the crux of our lives, where, blazing and warm, they have the power to stabilize. When people are hurting and out of balance, they turn to regulating affiliations: groups, clubs, pets, marriages, friendships, masseuses, chiropractors, the Internet. All carry at least the potential for emotional connection. Together those bonds do more good than all the psychotherapies on the planet”. He goes on to connect parenting with emotional stability and strength, “ a parent who rejects a child’s desire to depend raises a fragile person. Those children, grown into adulthood, are frequently those who come for help.”

Those of us who have lived with addiction can find it difficult to allow ourselves to depend on other people. We have learned to go it alone. The idea of dependency brings up anxiety, resentment and fear of being disappointed or let down. It becomes fraught with fear and mistrust. Therefore, instead of being able to enter into a trusting and balanced sort of dependency, we may tend towards alternating between anxious clinging to relationships for respite and relief and avoiding emotional intimacy and closeness, a direct result of relationship trauma. The rooms let us take baby steps toward a new way of relating. In the rooms we can depend on the program and the healing energy of the group rather than any one person. This less threatening form of dependency can lead us gradually toward increased trust and  more manageable and meaningful connection with others.

So how does that happen? As we come close to each other’s limbic worlds, we find ourselves subtly affected, drawn in by and even changed through limbic resonance. We sit, we are stirred emotionally, we listen, we identify or notice that we do not identify. We neither affirm nor deny what is said nor do we shout back, give advice, attack or run out the door. We’re aware of feelings long forgotten, we experience their effect on us as we move through them to the other side, as we peel away layers of the onion. Over time, as this process repeats and repeats itself, something within us shifts into a more aware and understanding position, a more healed place. As this process, quiet on the outside but often noisy on the inside reoccurs countless times, we slowly and over time become new on the inside. Gradually we feel more whole, capable and confident as we internalize new skills of emotional regulation from those around us until eventually, we’re ready for independence and self-regulation. We’ve been, in a sense, re-parented.

Twelve step programs offer the opportunity to revise and re-pattern our limbic systems. Simply to experience powerful emotions in the presence of others and get from the beginning to the end of them without acting out or triggering a crisis or collapsing into helplessness is re-patterning and rewiring. Slowly, over time, it re-regulates our own emotional responses. It helps us to learn to listen to someone else while still tuning into our own inner voice; to be in connection with someone else while staying connected to ourselves. We learn how to be in the presence of other human beings without losing ourselves or wanting to annihilate someone else.

The relational patterns encoded into the limbic system do not necessarily respond to insight alone. Instead they respond to the slow re-patterning or recoding of the complex brain and body systems that hold the story of who we are. We cannot rush our own limbic re-regulation. Wishing someone “a slow recovery” carries with it this innate program wisdom.

Why Limbic Re-patterning is So Important

Our animal brain is part of what is referred to as our “limbic system” or that part of our brain/body network that governs moods, controls appetite and sleep cycles, promotes bonding, stores highly charged emotional memories, modulates motivation, and directly processes the sense of smell and libido. In short, our limbic system is central to how we feel, sleep, eat, operate in the world and relate to others. Our limbic systems are slowly nurtured and developed throughout childhood. A well regulated limbic system can allow us to live in balance, relate in balance, eat in balance, sleep in balance and feel in balance. Deregulation in the limbic system can lead to depression, anxiety, sleep disturbances and problems with self regulation. Addictions and deregulated behaviors; i. e. alternating between binging and being anorexic with food, money or sex, can reflect problems with limbic regulation. We can have trouble regulating these and other areas, such as emotions or our level of bonding when our limbic systems are stuck off kilter. We over do or we under do.

Working in the addictions field over the past three decades has taught me endless lessons about limbic regulation. Healing trauma takes time because it is healing neurologically, it’s healing the body. Those who do poorly are often the ones who, for some reason or another, don’t like the idea of putting in the hours; the ones who want the grand “aha,” the quick fix, the flash of insight that will take all their pain away. Forever. And NOW. Maybe they go to Twelve-Step meetings and are bothered by what people do or don’t say, maybe the idea of groups annoys, threatens or makes them feel vulnerable. Or perhaps a one-to-one relationship brings up more fear and mistrust than they can face feeling. But sooner or later they will need to come to terms with their aversion to connection and join something.  Twelve step rooms have the advantage of teaching about the disease of addiction while offering community and Good Orderly Direction. Understanding that the limbic system carries our emotion and that healing our neurological body circuitry is a slow process, can allow us to surrender to the process rather than clamp down on it. It can allow us to give ourselves the time to appreciate each small limbic renewal and consolidation; to savor our ever expanding ability to “hold” our own emotions and experience a new piece of ourselves.

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