What are the Four Horsemen of AA?

Robert Gerchalk

Robert is our health care professional reviewer of this website. He worked for many years in mental health and substance abuse facilities in Florida, as well as in home health (medical and psychiatric), and took care of people with medical and addictions problems at The Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore. He has a nursing and business/technology degrees from The Johns Hopkins University.

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Understanding the Four Horsemen of Alcoholics Anonymous

Recovering from alcohol use disorder (AUD) can be a long and challenging process. That’s why many people who are trying to remain sober seek out the help of organizations like Alcoholics Anonymous (AA). Founded in 1935 by two men in Ohio who helped each other get sober and then reached out to other alcoholics, this is a fellowship of alcoholics who help one another work through the struggles of recovery. They do this by attending meetings, communicating about what they’re going through, and sharing experiences and advice. If you or someone you know is recovering from alcohol addiction, interacting with people who are dealing with the same challenges can be extremely helpful.

Most members of AA are familiar with the publication titled “Alcoholics Anonymous,” commonly known as “The Big Book.” This book outlines the main tenets of the program as well as the experiences of many former and current members. In Chapter 11, you’ll find what the organization refers to as the Four Horsemen of AA. This is a metaphor for some of the things that alcoholics typically feel and experience as they progress further into alcohol addiction. Here, we take a closer look at the Four Horsemen of AA and what they signify.

The Four Horsemen of AA

When someone starts drinking alcohol, it’s typically an enjoyable experience. Many people can continue drinking periodically without ever developing a dependence on this substance, but for a variety of reasons, others cannot. Instead, they begin drinking more and more frequently until they develop an everyday habit. For many people, this is when consuming alcohol stops being fun and instead becomes a necessity. According to AA, this is when the Four Horsemen start to appear and negatively affect the lives of those dealing with AUD.

The Four Horsemen of AA are terror, bewilderment, frustration, and despair. Here, we’ll define them and explain how they can create obstacles to recovery.


The first of the Four Horsemen of AA is terror. Unfortunately, terror is a feeling that many people suffering from alcoholism become very familiar with. There are many reasons why someone with an addiction to alcohol would feel terror regularly in their lives. For example, if you or a loved one has issues with binge drinking, you may feel terror after a particularly bad binge. That terror may be based on a fear of the consequences of your actions or a fear of what you could be capable of. If you’ve made bad choices because of alcohol use, such as driving drunk or saying hurtful things to a loved one, you may also feel terror about those regrettable actions.

That said, terror during alcoholism isn’t always related to specific events or choices. As a person’s alcohol addiction becomes more serious and has more negative effects on their life, a general feeling of terror often becomes commonplace. For example, if you are deep into alcoholism, you may start to regularly experience fear for the direction in which your life is heading. You may also feel terror about the possibility of things continuing to get worse and your alcohol issue continuing to get more serious. Unfortunately, the feeling of terror on its own is not usually enough to make someone stop drinking — especially when they’re already heavily dependent on alcohol. So, as the drinking continues, the terror becomes more frequent, creating a cycle that can be extremely difficult to cope with.


Another of the Four Horsemen of Alcoholics Anonymous is bewilderment. Most people who enjoy drinking don’t ever expect to become alcoholics. Oftentimes, they see drinking alcohol as a harmless activity that they enjoy socially or just for the purpose of having a little fun now and then. So, when they find themselves struggling with an AUD later on, they’re often bewildered about how they’ve come to that point. If you or someone in your life is dealing with alcoholism, you may be bewildered about how the situation became so serious. You may also question when the fun, harmless activity turned into something that’s having so many negative effects on your life and health.

Another source of bewilderment for people with alcoholism tends to be other people. For example, if you have an issue with drinking, you may become bewildered as to why other people are able to regularly drink alcohol without having similar problems. This can seem unfair and lead to feelings of depression and resentment. If your friends and family members all enjoy alcohol, why are you the only one who can’t seem to practice moderation? Ultimately, there are many reasons why some people are more prone to alcohol dependence than others. But when you’re the one experiencing the difficulties of alcohol addiction, it tends to feel cruel and bewildering.


Frustration is the third of the Four Horsemen of AA, and it’s a feeling that anyone dealing with an addiction is likely to be very familiar with. Frustration can be a common feeling in several different stages of AUD. It can start when you notice that you are making poor decisions due to your alcohol use. For example, you might say regretful things to people you care about, injure yourself, or even get in trouble with the police. When any of these things happen, it’s entirely normal to feel frustrated with yourself.

As an alcohol addiction becomes more serious, the frustration can evolve into a general frustration with life. You may notice that your overall circumstances have worsened due to your drinking, and that’s a very frustrating realization. Frustration is also common when you’re attempting to stop consuming alcohol. If you try to quit and fail to do so, you’ll likely be very frustrated with your failure. That can easily progress to feeling demoralized and losing your motivation to work toward sobriety. Frustration can also lead to anger and potentially even aggression, both of which can cause you to make more decisions that you’ll eventually regret.


The last of the Four Horsemen of AA is despair. Fortunately, not everyone who deals with alcohol addiction reaches a point where they experience true despair. And for those who do, it’s an emotion that typically doesn’t arrive until the person’s addiction has progressed significantly. Despair is defined as an utter loss of hope, and it often accompanies serious addictions of all kinds. If you or your loved one has been battling alcohol use disorder for months or years, you may have tried to stop drinking several times throughout that period. And if you’ve been unable to quit alcohol, it can be natural to start feeling hopeless. As humans, failing at anything repeatedly tends to make us feel like we’ll never be able to accomplish it, and overcoming an addiction is no exception.

No matter how bad a person may feel about their life and their alcohol issues, it’s important not to give in to despair. As dark and hopeless as alcohol addiction can feel at its worst, there is always help available to you. Although it may be a cliché, “It’s always darkest before the dawn” rings true. Whether you’ve been trying to stop drinking for a day, a year, or a decade, it’s never too late to find sobriety and a more fulfilling life. Whether you decide to attend Alcoholics Anonymous or an inpatient treatment program, resources are available to you. Ultimately, you may not be able to prevent yourself from feeling despair, but you can decide how you react to it.

What Is Alcoholics Anonymous All About?

Most people have heard of Alcoholics Anonymous, but many people don’t know all that much about the organization. If you or someone in your life is interested in recovering from alcohol use disorder, you may have heard someone recommend attending an AA meeting. However, if you’re not familiar with the group and don’t know what to expect, the idea may be intimidating. Truthfully, though, there’s nothing to be nervous about when it comes to Alcoholics Anonymous.

AA meetings are entirely free to attend, and you don’t need to be currently living a sober life to join the fellowship. In fact, the only requirement for joining is a desire to stop drinking and improve your life. When you attend a meeting, you’ll be surrounded by other people who are looking to achieve and maintain sobriety. In the group, people will share their experiences and discuss the struggles of alcoholism. This provides you with the opportunity to meet and talk with people to whom you can truly relate. Only someone who has experienced addiction can fully understand the feelings and difficulties that come with it.

The 12 Steps

If you or your loved one decides to join Alcoholics Anonymous, you’ll be introduced to the organization’s 12-step program. The 12 steps serve as the guidelines for recovery for alcoholics within the group. Every member of AA progresses through the steps at their own pace, each one having a different purpose toward the ultimate goal of sobriety.

By the time you’ve completed all 12 steps of the program, it’s likely that you will be able to maintain sobriety. You should reach a point where you’re more fulfilled by your life and you are at peace with yourself. Of course, every person is different, and the recovery process is unique for every person suffering from AUD. However, AA’s 12-step program has been a very effective way for numerous people to permanently stop drinking. The organization has helped millions of people to recover and maintain their sobriety. AA now has over 2 million members in 180 nations and more than 118,000 groups.

These are the 12 steps of Alcoholics Anonymous:

1. We admitted we were powerless over alcohol — that our lives had become unmanageable.
2. Came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.
3. Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood Him.
4. Made a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves.
5. Admitted to God, to ourselves, and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs.
6. Were entirely ready to have God remove all these defects of character.
7. Humbly asked Him to remove our shortcomings.
8. Made a list of all persons we had harmed, and became willing to make amends to them all.
9. Made direct amends to such people wherever possible, except when to do so would injure them or others.
10. Continued to take personal inventory and when we were wrong promptly admitted it.
11. Sought through prayer and meditation to improve our conscious contact with God as we understood Him, praying only for knowledge of His will for us and the power to carry that out.
12. Having had a spiritual awakening as the result of these Steps, we tried to carry this message to alcoholics, and to practice these principles in all our affairs.

As you work your way through these steps, you may find it helpful to regularly attend meetings and discuss your progress. Most likely, some members of the group will have already finished the steps. So, they’ll be able to share their own experiences and advice to help you continue moving forward.

Help Is Always Available

If you or anyone in your life is dealing with alcohol addiction, you mustn’t forget that you have resources available to you. Alcoholics Anonymous is a tremendously effective organization, but if it’s not for you, there are always other options. For example, you can use the National Helpline run by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMSHA) to find a reputable addiction recovery center in your area. There, trained professionals can help you through detox by providing you with a safe and supportive environment. They can also provide you with a personalized treatment program to help you find long-term success in recovery.