Psychology Insider: Spiritual Resources in Successful Recovery from Addiction—A Summary of Recent Research

Aug 28, 2013 by Barbara Grimes, PhD

Recently, the topic of addiction recovery has not only been in the news, it also has been the subject of a wealth of scholarly publication. Not long ago, I came across two research articles published on the National Institute of Health website (see “references” below). Both articles specifically explored research conducted on individuals with the diagnosis of alcohol abuse or dependence.

The Kelly et al. article from Harvard Medical School and the Center for Addiction Medicine at Massachusetts General Hospital found that attendance at Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) meetings increases spiritual practices, and of even more importance, that spirituality is highly correlated with successful recovery from alcohol addiction.

Not only does AA meeting attendance increase spirituality and thus, successful recovery, but it also aids the movement toward sobriety by helping recovering alcoholics to create new, healthier social support systems characterized by altruistic behavior—a reaching-out toward others struggling with similar challenges. It also increases their skills in coping with triggers and provides increased incentive for continuing sobriety, while decreasing depressed mood and enhancing the sense of psychological wellness.

The authors even suggest that the increased utilization of spiritual resources at the root of active AA participation is likely to lead to changes all the way down to the neurobiological level. (I would like to refer those interested in this topic to the recent work of interpersonal neurobiologists, specifically to Daniel Siegel from UCLA, author of The Mindful Brain.)

The Robinson et al. article was spearheaded by the University of Michigan Addiction Research Center and is highly complementary to the previously discussed research. Specifically, Robinson et al. found statistically significant changes at six months across a varied group of alcoholics with regard to their spirituality. Increased spirituality was associated with favorable outcomes in terms of abstaining from drinking alcohol.

Their research discovered that, independent of AA involvement, positive changes in spiritual values and practices serve as strong predictors of successful sobriety. Two variables were seen as the strongest predictors: increases in both personal, private spiritual practices (e.g., meditation and prayer) and self-forgiveness.

This latter finding—regarding the role of forgiveness in recovery from addiction—reminds me of how, in the Buddhist recovery movement, there is actually a time-proven approach to mindfulness meditation which operates under the title of “Forgiveness Practice.” Here, there is an active integration of the forgiveness of self (for wrongs done, amends yet to be made) directly at the heart of the meditation practice.

In summary, it is clear from both of these currently published research studies that spirituality is at least one significant mechanism of change and transformation in the life of the recovering addict, something which the 12-Step program has been encouraging for its past near-century of mission and outreach.

References: Kelly, J. F., Stout, R. L., Magill, M., Tonigan, J. S., & Pagana, M. E. (2011, March). Spirituality in recovery: A lagged meditational analysis of Alcoholics Anonymous’ principal theoretical mechanism of behavioral change. Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research, 35. Retrieved from

Robinson, E. A. R., Krentzman, A. R., Webb, J. R., & Brower, K. J. (2011, July). Six-month changes in spirituality and religiousness in alcoholics predict drinking outcomes at nine months. Journal of Studies on Alcohol and Drugs, 72. Retrieved from

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