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Introduction to The SMART Recovery Science Corner

“This is the first post on this blog – The SMART Recovery® Science Corner. Its intent is to share information about the science supporting SMART Recovery (SR) and stimulate a conversation about this topic. The blog will also include posts in support of or to augment our new SR Science Seminars at the monthly training sessions. Please respond with thoughts, questions, dialog, critiques, etc… The success of the blog depends on our group’s participation and I encourage everyone to include their thoughts.

Also in this first post I’d like to introduce a new concept – that of “Emotional Management”. The meaning of this term will be clarified in the book review that follows which I prepared for the SR newsletter “News and Views”.

I recently read a very interesting and mind expanding book. I think this may well be of interest to our community and hence prepared this review. The name of the book is “The Emotional Life of Your Brain” written by Sharon Begley and Richard Davidson, PhD.

The primary author, Davidson, describes his lifetime of work in the realm of Affective Neuroscience – the understanding and management of emotion directly, as compared to (not in competition with) cognitive psychology — which is directed first towards thought and then on consequential feelings i.e. emotion. This whole concept of directly managing an emotion is a fascinating idea worthy of consideration. More on this to come.

Davidson describes, with the help of science writer Begley, what he defines as emotional style. This is an entity made up of six dimensions, each of which and altogether are specific to the individual and modifiable. The latter is so interesting and completely, at least to me, new. The work is based on Davidson’s many years of basic and clinical research work. This began at Harvard where he was a student and post-grad fellow. His area of study was counter to Harvard’s pursuits at the time and therefore Davidson received little encouragement toward what was considered a dead end street. However, he persisted and now this whole concept is becoming a hot topic.

Davidson moved to the University of Wisconsin and there developed a large group of investigators a number of very significant collaborators, and extensive financial and technologic support. He used rapidly developing imaging methods (fMRI and Spect) as well as advanced EEG (electroencephalography) plus verified psychology tools and testing. He widely uses and supports the concepts of mindfulness in his strategic approach to emotional style and hence to emotional management. This is shown to be helpful to individuals in general and to those with addiction in specific.

Davidson offers that emotional style is a characteristic, individual, and fundamental part of the person. This differs from emotional state, which is a current feeling (like being pissed off at someone), and emotional traits such as grumpiness or perpetual optimism. These differ from concepts like personality and temperament which are not basic and have too many definitions to be easily studied empirically.

As noted there are six differing dimensions, each with a distinct neural signature and objectively identifiable. Perhaps surprisingly these dimensions are:

1. Resilience – how quickly or slowly you recover from adversity

2. Outlook – how long (or short) you are able to sustain positive emotion

3. Social intuition – how adept you are at picking up social signals from people around you

4. Self-awareness – how well you perceive or are aware of bodily feelings that reflect emotion

5. Sensitivity to context – how good you are at regulating your emotional responses to take into account the context you are in

6. Attention – how sharp or blurred your focus is on what’s happening

Davidson describes how to assess where one fits into each of these domains and then describes methods to modify each of them. He heavily uses Mindfulness or Mindful Awareness. All of this is supported by objective research in clinical study. He has studied Buddhist monks. He has consulted with the Dalai Lama. He has collaborated with Jon Kabat-Zinn and studied volunteers in the MBSR program at the University of Massachusetts medical school.

The book tells a wonderful story of a scientist’s dedication and pursuit of an idea through years of progressive study including new technology as it became available (for example there was no such thing as fMRI when Davidson began his research.) This, now highly regarded neuroscientist, generated a new idea, and then carefully researched it to support, modify, and then clarify further studies until ultimately reaching some eye-popping and potentially important new ways of approaching a vast array of psychological issues and problems. Not only is the book interesting for its content but it is a great story of a scientist’s exciting career in research. Davidson began with a basic premise and over the years worked it into a complex theory: a group of ideas worthy of pursuit and potential application.

There is a lot of good science in this book, which I found exciting and stimulating. It is well referenced and seems potentially widely applicable to utilization for those who wish to live a better life. The book is eminently readable and I highly recommend it to anyone interested in exploring this rapidly growing field of interest.

Now you might not subscribe to the specifics of the emotional style idea he proposes in the book. However, the concept does open the door for a potentially new area of helping people with addiction who are coming to SMART seeking answers and solutions to their problems. This will add maybe to the science base that we all rely on to help each other. SR heavily relies on the concepts of motivational enhancement (Miller), the stages of change (Prochaska) and CBT in general and REBT in specific (Ellis). The latter of course is the familiar analysis of activating event causing rational or irrational thoughts which lead to negative and harmful emotions, disputing them, with resulting better consequences – both emotional and behavioral. This plus the acceptances (self, others, Life) and recognition of the cognitive distortions is the REBT package we are familiar with. In this we indirectly approach those pesky emotions.

Davidson’s and others’ work support a possible new strategy; that of Managing Emotions. This would be a direct attack on those negative emotions where it is hard to recognize where they come from—an often encountered experience when that damned emotion just comes out of the blue and you can’t find any specific thoughts regarding the emotion’s origin and therefore cannot conjure any disputations – no matter how you try.

Thinking big here, maybe in the future SMART will have two separate approaches to managing feelings: Managing Thoughts and Managing Emotions. Perhaps a 5-point program instead of 4. Or an expanded Point 2 – Managing Emotions (which includes urges). Time will tell. But I’m not the only one who likes this idea.

So read the book if you, are intrigued by these ideas. And for sure let’s discuss any and all parts of the book!Bill SMART – aka Abbott For more information on SMART Recovery New England, please visit

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