More and more moms are coming out of the woodwork to confess their alcoholism, a trend made all the more disturbing by new research that shows alcoholics have trouble reading others' emotions — even after they stop drinking.
According to Melissa Healy of the LA Times, the study in question showed pictures of faces to 15 currently abstinent alcoholic and 15 non-alcoholics. The non-alcoholics had elevated activity in the amygdala and hippocampus when looking at faces that displayed "anger, joy, sadness or disappointment." However, alcoholics had the same amount of activity whether looking at an emotional or a neutral face. This "emotional insensitivity" in the brain may explain earlier research that shows alcoholics often misread others' feelings.
A difficulty reading facial cues obviously poses a problem for moms. Especially in babies and very young children, facial expression may be the only clue that something is wrong. This is added to the more obvious problems associated with drinking too much around young kids — in a Times profile on Friday, blogger and author Stefanie Wilder-Taylor recalls waking up fully dressed on her couch and realizing, "I have these kids who are depending on me, and I have a bad problem."
But study author Ksenija Marinkovic points out an interesting conundrum — scientists don't know whether alcohol abuse causes emotional insensitivity, or whether this insensitivity is pre-existing, perhaps the result of brain problems that gave rise to alcoholism too. Healy says some studies indicate "that a child's cognitive deficits — especially in the realm of emotional intelligence — may set off a cascade of events leading to alcoholism." When people have trouble relating to others, might this lead them to seek comfort in alcohol? And might their difficulties with relationships be exacerbated by other factors?
Wilder-Taylor writes that she and her friends drank "to express that we're still fun people. Just because we have babies doesn't mean we can't have an adult side." The idea that moms aren't fun is a pervasive one in our culture, but women might feel more vulnerable to it — and be more likely to use drink as a refuge from it — if they have difficulty clicking with people in other ways. Plenty of people use alcohol to reduce social anxiety, and people who don't read emotional cues well might easily be more socially anxious than others. Of course, this doesn't mean that Stefanie Wilder-Taylor, or any other mom with alcohol issues, necessarily has pre-existing brain problems. These problems might, for all scientists know, be caused by alcohol itself. But when treating alcoholism, it's worth paying attention to other issues that may be in play, including a susceptibility to negative social messages and a difficulty understanding the feelings of others.
Healy points out that other studies have shown children of alcoholics to have similar emotion-reading problems. This may support the notion that alcoholism stems from other abnormalities in brain function. However, it also provides an opportunity for clinicians to treat whole families when a mom has alcohol problems. Whether or not her drinking has affected her kids directly, it may be related to problems with emotion processing, problems that may be passed down genetically. If therapists can address these problems in kids and provide tools for dealing with them, they may be able to break the cycle by which children of alcoholics so often become alcoholics too.