We used to think of the brain as something solid, fully formed, unable to be changed. If a hole was poked, if something was bent- it would stay like that forever. Drugs and alcohol had warnings of permanent brain damage, and although damage is inevitable with addiction, we are learning now that it may be reversible.
Neuroscience studies are now showing that the brain is able to make sure pathways as ways to work around the damage, and literally create new brain connections for our bodies to operate. So although it can be hard to accept that while battling addiction, your health took a major toll, it can be inspiring to know that the plasticity (ability to change!) of our brains can offer us a healthy future!
What Does the Brain Have to Do with it Anyway?
Everything that has to do with who we are as a person (think our health, personalty, opinions, habits, etc) all stems from the brain. Pain stems from the brain, motor function stems from the brain, without a properly functioning brain, the rest of us is pretty much doomed. When we develop a habit, the brain creates a path to support, remember, and engrave that habit into us. It remembers emotions associated with it, places, frequency, etc. The longer we engage in a habit, the deeper the pathway becomes in our brains.
When you suffer from addiction, you spend a long time letting your brain carve into your mind that you need this drug for x reasons and x amount of times a day. You think in order to ever be happy, ever feel a release, you need that drug. Now, we know that’s not true, but if your brain is being told something over and over again, guess what you’re going to start believing? That’s right, you have the power to deepen these pathways, and at the same time, you can cut them off and build new ones.
The brain gets trained to rely on drugs and alcohol, but with the right treatment and dedication, we can retrain the brain to function on healthy habits and keep us satisfied in a sober lifestyle.
The brain has the capacity to experience pleasure from all sort of things in life. When the chemical dopamine is released into the brain pleasure center, it insured that people will continue to seek out whatever caused the release. Drugs and alcohol confuse this reward system, making the brain think it needs these drugs to feel any pleasure.
Scientists point out that there is a big difference between liking a drug and wanting it. Typically, liking decreases and wanting increases. People with substance abuse disorder keep seeking the drug not because they want to get high, but because they physically and emotionally feel like the need too in order to survive.
The Brain Change Solution- A Lot of Time!
There is little research on the specific amount of time it takes to repair the brain, likely because it’s going to be different for everyone. Studies have shown that the highest rate of recovery is shown within the emotionally charged areas of the brain, especially within adolescents and young adults.
Interestingly enough, studies have also shown that the likelihood of recovering the brain is dependent on external factors as well such as support, community, family, and even mindset. Those who had more support from family or groups they were a part of had higher rates of damage repair. The same goes for those who were said to have a “positive” outlook, which could be related to the support levels they had.
The “formula” for neuroplasticity (changing the brain) goes like this:
3.Make conscious decisions
4.Seek pleasure and reward from healthy pursuits
5. New pathway is strengthened
6. New healthy habit is formed
The brain is complicated, and taking a holistic approach to healing is so important. Just as its important to heal the physical damage from drug abuse, making mental health a priority is just as important.
Can You Think Your Way to Health?
The human brain has historically been a mysterious thing. For the majority of educational history, it was thought that the brain completed its development early and then sat fixed and vulnerable to damage from which it could not heal. Then, wheelchair bound men learned to walk. Blind people learned to see. Terminally Ill people found remission without conventional treatment. Some studies have proven that thinking about becoming something is just as efficient as actually practicing it. For example, two women wanted to improve their piano skills. One woman practiced every single day, the only simply imagined getting better. After the same period of time, both had improved at the same level.
So what can this teach us about addiction? That wanting, visualizing, and really picturing yourself as a happy and healthy can speed up the process of your brain healing. Take a few minutes a day to picture what your brain looks like, and then imagine any broken pieces being sewed back together and beaming with light. These kinds of practices sound a little weird if you’ve never had them- but everytime they will feel more normal. Even if at first it doesn’t work, the act of thinking in this way will increase your mood just by being positive.
It’s a Marathon, Not a Sprint
When you embrace the possibility of positive change, you’re more likely to dedicate yourself to the process. Addiction recovery is complex with so many moving parts, but your brain powers all of them. Integrating neural-pathway training into your recovery can help you harness your healing abilities and walk into sobriety stronger and sharper than you were, even prior to addiction! You don’t need to be fully repaired today, just a little but more than you were yesterday.