Science has discovered amazing things that are beyond even your wildest imagination, but surprisingly, we still know very little about the human brain. For much of recent medical history, researchers were led to believe that your brain developed from infancy into puberty, then stopped sometime in early adulthood. Previously, we thought that someone with damage, illness, or trauma would not be able to repair their brains, as it was a static organ. With innovation, however, researchers and medical experts began to notice cases where people were making remarkable recoveries after traumatic injuries that impacted their brains. These groundbreaking instances pushed researchers to discover that the brain is, in fact, much more resilient than initially understood.
The name of this concept, Neuroplasticity, is quite literal. Science has discovered that the neuro center of the human body, the brain, is capable of plasticity, or reshaping and reforming. As you are exposed to new and interesting stimuli, the thoughts and mechanics the brain uses to understand and learn behaviors all build new pathways inside your brain. As these behaviors are repeated and practiced, the pathways become stronger, and your brain begins to reinforce them. Much like a shortcut or unpaved pathway through a field or forest, the more times you tread and walk through it, the clearer the pathway becomes and is easier to identify and follow. This is how the brain begins to form habits, but it’s also how it forgets certain things as well.
Neuroplasticity is a two-sided coin. It’s useful in learning and developing new pathways in the brain, but those that are unused or contradict the newer and stronger pathways, become weaker and smaller. By the same token, neuroplasticity doesn’t always discern between good and bad pathways, healthy or unhealthy. This becomes important when we look at the role it plays in addiction. As much as neuroplasticity can help heal the effects of substance use disorder through behavioral therapy, it’s also one of the reasons that the effects of drugs, especially the euphoric sensations that release dopamine, are able to take over the brain’s reward center so quickly.
Rewiring the Brain
Much of the groundwork that you do in treatment with substance use counselors and other mental health professionals can help you grasp the underlying reasons that may have led you to addiction, as well as helping you build coping mechanisms to get you through your treatment and ease back into life in recovery. There is much more work ahead though. Rewiring your brain in recovery will take time, persistence, and patience to achieve.
CBT: or cognitive behavioral therapy, has been successful in helping those with substance use disorder overcome some of the underlying trauma and experiences that may have led to self-medicating with substances. This can also help identify triggers once you’ve entered recovery and work on relapse prevention. Most sessions with a therapist involve a lot of talking and reflecting on maladaptive behaviors, and the training of coping skills and drug-refusal.
Trigger response training: This is not recommended for those in early recovery, but rather for those who are ready to take the next step and advance into confronting their triggers, or stressors, head-on. With relapse always being a possible risk, overcoming your old methods of responding to triggering events or stress is critical. The concept is referred to as “what fires together, wires together,” identifying that a response in your brain can fire and be rewired to a different response pathway from before, which was substance use. Replacing your habit of using or wanting to use substances to deal with trigger stress with a better alternative, and practicing it regularly, will help strengthen those positive reaction pathways and weaken the ones that drive your brain to use drugs or alcohol.
MBRP: Mindfulness-based Relapse Prevention is a method that encourages patients to step outside of themselves and observe their feelings and actions as if they were someone else. This can help you understand your thoughts better and experience your habits as though you were watching from the outside, in. Another exercise includes positive affirmation and practicing identifying your urges and cravings and naming them. When you feel that impulse, you stop, ask yourself what drove you to it, identify and label it, so you can identify and recognize it when it happens in the future. Breathing exercises can also help with this, along with meditation.
Living with Intent: There’s a split second between the thought or urge that occurs in your brain and the decision to act on it, according to research. That means you have very little time to be caught off guard. Living intently means doing everything you set out to do with purpose, not allowing too much wiggle room for negative decisions to be made. Every day you wake up and plan to live your life with the intention of not allowing triggers to shake your recovery, and you are working to replace harmful behaviors with more positive ones.
Recovering from substance use disorder doesn’t mean that you are “damaged goods” and that your brain will be forever destroyed by the effects of drugs. The brain and mind are much more powerful than we have ever thought before. Treatment allows you to heal your body from the chemical dependency so you can regain your health and energy to work on other aspects of recovery, like replacing toxic patterns with new and improved behaviors that will help you achieve your goals.
We are here to help! Reach out to Recovery Services of New Mexico today to learn more.