Prayer in AA Helps Reduce Alcohol Cravings, Study Finds

By May Wilkerson 05/13/16

A new study examined the brains of long-term AA members to see their response to alcohol triggers with and without prayer. 

Prayer in AA Helps Reduce Alcohol Cravings, Study Finds

Whether or not you believe in God or a higher power, all that praying in 12-step meetings might actually be working. While there is no known “cure” for alcoholism, 12-step programs, like Alcoholics Anonymous, have helped countless people maintain sobriety from drugs and alcohol. The group’s reliance on God or a “higher power” draws skepticism from AA critics, but a new study found that the prayer aspect of AA may actually be responsible for its success, with science to back it up.

"Our findings suggest that the experience of AA over the years had left these members with an innate ability to use the AA experience—prayer in this case―to minimize the effect of alcohol triggers in producing craving," said the study’s lead author Dr. Marc Galanter. "Craving is diminished in long-term AA members compared to patients who have stopped drinking for some period of time but are more vulnerable to relapse."

Researchers from the NYU Langone Medical Center examined the brain scans of 20 long-term AA members, who reported no cravings for alcohol in the week prior to the study. In two separate sessions, researchers showed the participants pictures of booze and people drinking—the first time after reading a newspaper, and the second time after reading prayers from The Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous (aka “the AA Bible”). 

Every patient reported craving alcohol after reading the newspaper, but when they read prayers and viewed the same pictures, their cravings were significantly diminished. And after looking at MRI scans of participants’ brains, researchers noticed that reading prayers stimulated changes in regions of the brain that control attention as well as regions that control emotion.

"We wanted to determine what is going on in the brain in response to alcohol-craving triggers, such as passing by a bar or experiencing something upsetting, when long-term AA members are exposed to them," Galanter explained in a statement. "This finding suggests that there appears to be an emotional response to alcohol triggers, but that it’s experienced and understood differently when someone has the protection of the AA experience."

Past research has found that long-term AA members tend to undergo a transition, often called a “spiritual awakening” in AA literature, that is followed by reduced alcohol cravings and a changed attitude towards drinking. "Our current findings open up a new field of inquiry into physiologic changes that may accompany spiritual awakening and perspective changes in AA members and others," said Galanter.

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May Wilkerson is a writer, comic and Managing Editor @someecards. Co-host of the podcast Crazy; In Bed w/alyssalimp. She is also the top Google result for "insufferable lunatic." Follow this insufferable lunatic on Twitter.