Neuroplasticity and Addiction: Part Two

neuroplasticity and addiction recoveryJust as neuroplasticity and addiction are strongly associated, so are neuroplasticity and addiction recovery. The neural pathways and networks continuously strengthened in active addiction gradually weaken in recovery as pathways and networks in recovery strengthen. In recovery, a person establishes purpose and meaning, then begins to actively pursue recovery goals on a regular basis. I’ve written here about Recovery Management, and this is what that’s about — managing the recovery process with purpose and focus. We are what we think, in a sense.

Tasha had always told herself that she didn’t fit into groups. In high school, even when she had a chance to improve her social connections, her negative thoughts sabotaged potential relationships. After a lonely and mostly frustrating college term, she began a career. Tasha eventually became depressed and told herself over and over that this was her fate, to be lonely and unloved. It became so bad that Tasha couldn’t leave home except when absolutely necessary. Tasha sought help and began a program of changing her brain. Sasha was asked to look fearlessly at reality. Sasha accepted that she could change her brain, that she could become a different person. Sasha was intelligent — Sasha was empathetic — Sasha was funny when she let herself loosen up — Sasha began sending different messages to herself, taking note when she was negative, then changing that message to something more realistic.

Sasha found that she didn’t have to be less than she is or pretend to be more than she is, she only had to accept what and who she is and begin a program of gradual improvement as she reached her personal goals. Gradually, Sasha began seeing herself in a different way. First she was able to establish a clinical relationship with her therapist, which transferred to social relationships with co-workers and then to social connections she made outside work. The old neural pathways that once sent out-of-touch-with-reality messages to her brain weakened, as in-touch-with-reality messages strengthened new neural pathways and networks. It’s simpler to say Sasha discarded old ideas that were destroying her self-esteem, as Sasha empowered new ideas that lead to human flourishing. we are not stuck with the brain (thoughts and feeling) we have — we can change. The brain is plastic, not hard-wired.

In neuroplasticity and addiction recovery, the same thing happens. For the recovering addict, all they have to do is stop drinking alcohol or using whatever is their drug of choice and begin the recovery process. The problem is that it’s more than just changing ideas from negative to positive then living a beautiful life from that point on — it’s a long and sometimes arduous process. There are many people with life problems who have a tent and sawdust revival experience, only to fall back into the old way of thinking and acting once the dust clears and the revival show has left town. When a person goes through treatment, they’ll usually develop insights that create the revival experience — they are gung-ho for a short period, but then it gets difficult and they stop managing their recovery. The old neural pathways that told the brain drugs are good and necessary are still strong, so the person usually returns to alcohol or their drug of choice, thus, strengthening the idea they can’t change — they tell themselves they can’t stay sober and clean — it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

In the next couple of days I’ll finish this with more about how people are successful in recovery, how they change over time. I’ll also write about mindfulness and meditation, which have proven to be powerful tools for neuroplasticity and addiction recovery.