Subjects viewed drinking-related images, then read newspaper or prayed. Study found those who recited AA prayers reported fewer alcohol cravings. MRI revealed response in brain regions that control attention and emotion.
For long-term members of AA, praying helps to reduce alcohol cravings when confronted with a triggering situation.
This is according to a new study which explored the brain physiology of recovering alcoholics who had been involved with the program for years.
Participants who recited AA prayers after viewing drinking-related images reported fewer alcohol cravings and displayed increased activity in the brain regions that control attention and emotion.
The study, conducted by researchers from NYU Langone Medical Center, is thought to be the first to explore brain physiology in AA members.
Researchers recruited 20 long-term AA members to participate in the study.
These participants, who reported no alcohol cravings in the week before testing, were then placed in an MRI scanner and shown pictures of alcoholic drinks, or of people drinking.
Each person was shown the pictures two times.
In the first round, the participants were asked to read neutral material from a newspaper following the viewing.
In the second, they recited an AA prayer which promotes abstinence from alcohol.
Across the board, the research subjects all reported some degree of craving after viewing the images.
The authors write:
Four methodologically diverse studies (N = 1,758) show that prayer frequency and alcohol consumption are negatively related. In Study 1 (n = 824), we used a cross-sectional design and found that higher prayer frequency was related to lower alcohol consumption and problematic drinking behavior.
Study 2 (n = 702) used a longitudinal design and found that more frequent prayer at Time 1 predicted less alcohol consumption and problematic drinking behavior at Time 2, and this relationship held when controlling for baseline levels of drinking and prayer.
In Study 3 (n = 117), we used an experimental design to test for a causal relationship between prayer frequency and alcohol consumption.
Participants assigned to pray every day (either an undirected prayer or a prayer for a relationship partner) for 4 weeks drank about half as much alcohol at the conclusion of the study as control participants. Study 4 (n = 115) replicated the findings of Study 3, as prayer again reduced drinking by about half.
These findings are discussed in terms of prayer as reducing drinking motives.
The Serenity Prayer
The serenity prayer is the common name for a prayer authored by the American theologian Reinhold Niebuhr, and has been adopted by several twelve step programmes, including the AA, who use this version:
God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
Courage to change the things I can,
And wisdom to know the difference.