New Study Asks: “Does Shame Contribute To Relapse?”

The power of the prefix – RE

Just about 90 days ago, we published a post about Hurricane Sandy. At that time, we talked about the emotional toll that a natural disaster can present our fellow human beings. In early November it was reported that a number of celebrities would participate in creating public service announcements (PSA) for the Empire State Relief Fund. When we watched one such PSA, we were struck by the power of the simple prefix – RE. The PSA is called simply – REBUILD!

If you are having trouble viewing the video, you can watch it here.

Do you see how powerful these six words are: Repair, Restore, Revive, Regain, Rejuvenate, and Rebuild? Each of these words sends a positive message. They inspire us to start over or to start anew.

What about the word “Relapse”?

If you suffer from the disease of addiction, or if you have a family member who is an alcoholic or addict, or if you are a caring addiction professional, then you know the power of the word relapse and you work on relapse prevention. You are taught how to recognize signs of relapse, you are guided to create a daily and weekly living schedule and to build a support network all with the goal to prevent relapse and what to do if you or your loved one experiences a relapse. Sadly, all too often, the word relapse has a negative connotation and many who experience a relapse feel shame.

New study looks at the effect of shame and relapse

On February 4, 2013, ScienceDaily reported on a new study published first online in the journal of the Association for Psychological Science: Nonverbal Displays of Shame Predict Relapse and Declining Health in Recovering Alcoholics. 

This study was conducted at the University of British Columbia; the authors are Jessica Tracy and Daniel Randles. They looked at drinking and health outcomes in a sample of newly sober recovering alcoholics.

Study parameters:

  • Studied individuals self-identified as newly sober (within the past six months)
  • Individuals were recruited from Alcoholics Anonymous meetings in Vancouver, BC
  • 105 individuals were studied, 54% were women
  • Participants were paid $40 for each session (two sessions)
  • Participants were asked to complete questionnaires about their physical and mental health
  • Time between each session was approximately four months
  • 44% of the participants returned for the second session

Study results…

According to ScienceDaily‘s article, “the results were revealing.”

People who displayed more shame-related behavior were likely to be in poorer physical health at the time of the first session.
More surprising, though, was the finding that behavioral displays of shame predicted whether participants would relapse after the first session.
“How much shame participants displayed strongly predicted not only whether they relapsed, but how bad that relapse was — that is, how many drinks they had if they did relapse,” say Tracy and Randles. Shame behaviors at the first session also predicted distressing psychiatric symptoms at the second session. And the data indicate a possible association between shame and worsening health over time. In contrast, self-reported shame did not predict likelihood of relapse, number of drinks consumed, or health outcomes, providing further evidence that self-report may not be an accurate way of measuring shame.

Going forward…

We invite you to read the study’s original abstract and the related articles provided below. Feeling shame can have a powerful impact on a person. As the study’s authors profer: “studies suggest that shame may be a detrimental response to problematic behavior because it motivates hiding, escape, and general avoidance of the problem.”

Suggesting that a person should feel shame about some action or event is not unusual. How many parents have uttered these phrases to a small child or teenager: “You should be ashamed of yourself!” or “Shame on you!”? Often parents feel or felt that this kind of admonishment would bring great results. We might be able to assume that if shaming a young person about biting their nails doesn’t help that person…there is a pretty good evidence that shaming an addict or alcoholic will not help prevent relapse. This new study suggests that feeling shame may add to the probability of relapse.

The next time you or your loved one experiences a relapse consider it an opportunity to Repair, Restore, Revive, Regain, Rejuvenate, and Rebuild, as opposed to feeling shame.

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