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For most, early recovery from alcohol use disorder is an incredibly difficult time. Individuals feel bombarded on numerous fronts as they attempt to manage withdrawal symptoms, health problems, problems with work and school, and strained relationships. Hardest still are the emotional difficulties many face in early recovery, with acute and chronic stress greatly increasing risk of relapse.

Identifying emotional states as triggers

Of course, stress doesn’t always lead to alcohol lapses, but when alcohol use lapses do occur, interactions between acute and chronic stressors are commonly a major contributing factor. Additionally, for individuals in early recovery from alcohol use disorder, stress tends to coexist with craving, such that stress gives rise to craving, and craving produces stress.

To make matters worse, many people in early recovery struggle to identify and effectively label emotional states, which means they may be slow to respond effectively to their own distress. This in turn increases risk, as the mind seeks relief via alcohol and other drugs.

New Technology to offset risk

It’s no wonder that overcoming alcohol use disorder is one of the hardest things a person can do, even for individuals with a lot of treatment experience and high motivation to recover.

And yet the advent of smartwatches, with their ability to monitor physiological states like heart rhythm, which is closely linked to stress and craving, has given rise to exciting possibilities for technology-based interventions that could potentially offset some of this risk.

If we could identify the physiological signatures of stress and craving in people’s heart rhythm, we could turn any smartwatch into a stress/craving detection tool. This kind of technology could be especially useful to people in early addiction recovery who could receive objective, real-time feedback about stress states.

Ultimately, we could link this stress detection technology to existing smartphone apps that provide relapse prevention coaching, to enable app-based, just-in-time notifications triggered by stress episodes, to improve peoples’ self-awareness of emotional states, encourage active stress management, and reduce alcohol use risk.

Funded research at Massachusettes General Hospital

With these goals in mind, we are conducting NIAAA-funded research at Massachusetts General Hospital to develop this technology. If you’re in or seeking recovery from alcohol use disorder, you may be able to participate in this research.

Participants come to Massachusetts General Hospital to complete questionnaires and then participate in 6 days of mini-survey completion on their smartphone while wearing a smartwatch and small heart rate monitor. After 6 days, participants return the study equipment to Massachusetts General Hospital.

Participating in this study is free, and we compensate up to $200 for study completion, which is paid by Visa gift card. To be eligible for this study, you must be 18+ years of age, and in a current alcohol use disorder recovery attempt. Study participants are not asked to make any changes to their routines or treatment. 

If you’re interested in learning more about this research, visit the study website, or reach out to us at (617) 643-7730 or You can also complete this brief pre-screener form, and we’ll respond if you are potentially eligible for the study.

David Eddie, PhD, ABAP

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