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Displays of Shame Can Predict Relapse

By February 7, 2013

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When trying to determine if someone in recovery will relapse, looking at their body language, rather than what they say, may produce a more accurate prediction. Researchers have found that recovering alcoholics who exhibit signs of shame are more likely to relapse in the future.

They are also more likely to experience declining health now and in the future, a study has found.

It has long been thought that punishment that shames individuals -- such as making drunk drivers display a special license plate -- was motivation for them to not repeat the behavior.

Effect of Shame on Relapse

Researchers at the University of British Columbia theorized that shaming people for difficult-to-curb behavior, such as alcohol dependence, might actually increase the behavior, rather than preventing it.

Jessica Tracy and colleagues studied 105 recovering alcoholics who were members of Alcoholics Anonymous groups in Vancouver. They met with the participants twice, once at the beginning of the study and again four months later.

Participants were asked about their feelings of shame and guilt, their physical and mental health and their drinking. But the researchers also observed the individuals' body language in the first 10 seconds after asking them to "describe the last time you drank and felt badly about it."

Analyzing Body Language

The sessions were videotaped and the researchers carefully analyzed each participant's body language for signs of shame, such as the slumping of their shoulders or the narrowing of their chests.

The study found that those who exhibited displays of shame:

  • Were more likely to be in poorer physical health.
  • Were more likely to relapse within four months.
  • Were more likely to display later distressing psychiatric symptoms.
  • Were more likely to be in poorer health four months later.

Relapse and Poor Health

"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," Tracy wrote.

During the first session, participants were asked if they felt shame and guilt about their drinking. The researchers found that self-reported shame did not predict the likelihood of relapse, the number of drinks consumed or health problems.

Likewise, self-reported guilt was not linked to any of the outcomes.

Shame a Barrier to Recovery

The researchers said treatment programs that encourage people to view their behavior as something to feel guilty, but not shameful about, may be more effective.

"Treatment providers have long suspected that shame is a barrier to recovery, but this is the first time we've seen this link evidenced so robustly," the authors wrote. "Our research suggests that shaming people for difficult-to-curb behaviors may be exactly the wrong approach to take. Rather than prevent future occurrences of such behaviors, shaming may lead to an increase in these behaviors."

If you know someone in recovery, watching their body language may tell you more about their chances of relapsing than anything they say.

Source: Tracy, JL, et al. "Nonverbal Displays of Shame Predict Relapse and Declining Health in Recovering Alcoholics," Clinical Psychological Science 16 November 2012.

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February 11, 2013 at 1:29 pm
(1) Rochelle says:

I agree with the findings of this article. Playing the blame and shame game doesn’t do anyone any good. Patience, understanding, and acceptance will lead more toward a clean and sober life rather than focussing on shaming a person. Learning to make healthy decisions rather than falling back on old habits, such as dringing or drugging, will lead to a more positive outlook and positive behavior changes.

February 12, 2013 at 5:23 am
(2) Paul says:

A good article, the alcoholic has the the answer within him/her shaming them cannot in any way be productive.

February 12, 2013 at 11:54 am
(3) harvey says:

Great point about shame being counterproductive to long term health and recovery. During one of my relapses my wife had a recurrence of breast cancer. i told that to the director of my outpatient program, and she said, “.. wow, you both got sick again… ”

i believe that knowing alcoholism is a ” sickness ” can be a helpful explanation, CERTAINLY NOT an excuse for continued active addition.

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