The brain is what makes us human. Our capacity to think, feel, use language, engage with others, create art, and solve complex problems all set us apart from other creatures. Researchers studying this organ have only scratched the surface of the complexity of the human brain. 

Our brains are also constantly rebuilding themselves. The old adage of “use it or lose it” is very applicable in neuroscience. The more we perform certain activities, think certain thoughts, and practice certain skills, the more those things are ingrained in our brains. The less we do those things, the less solidified they are. This “clean up” occurs through a process called pruning, where we start with an abundance of neurons that are cut down to what is necessary. This intricate process allows us to learn and makes possible great beauty and accomplishment, but it can also open the door for many things to go wrong. 

The Addicted Brain

One downside to the ever-changing nature of the brain is that harmful behaviors can be reinforced and perpetuated. Addiction is one such example. Drugs and alcohol are especially adept at rewiring the brain by hijacking the reward center of the brain that aids in reinforcing certain behaviors. The flood of neurotransmitters – the brain’s chemical messengers – that accompany the ingestion of substances can overwhelm the reward center and cause a physical and psychological dependence on that substance. Some drugs cause an excess of certain neurotransmitters to be released, while others actually mimic neurotransmitters and impact the brain that way. These abnormal neurotransmitter levels and interactions alter the brain, making addiction more than just a bad habit, but also an issue at the physiologic level.

The fact that substances can have this level of impact on the brain can be disheartening to hear. How can someone recover from a disease that affects something as crucial as the brain? Just as addiction changes the brain, the brain can change in treatment and recovery. New patterns can be created and reinforced, weakening the hold that substances have on the mind and body.

Neuroplasticity and Recovery

The notion that the brain can change and adapt is known as neuroplasticity. While many of our characteristics remain fairly stable, like our personality, the brain is pliable in response to certain stimuli. We can capitalize on this feature in addiction treatment and recovery by introducing new ways of thinking and new approaches to problems. 

Cognitive therapies are designed to do just that. For example, cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) helps an individual directly identify unhealthy patterns of thought and behavior. This type of therapy can be used to identify certain situations and places where they feel tempted to use substances and either develop coping strategies to manage those urges while in those situations or avoid them all together. 

The Connection Between Thoughts and Behavior

Outside of the context of addiction, you might be able to think of some situations where certain circumstances, thoughts, or feelings can lead to unwanted behavior that, in retrospect, would have been better to avoid. For example, some people eat when they are not hungry, instead doing so to alleviate some type of emotional burden or stress. This tends to have poor outcomes, such as leading to shame, physical discomfort, and self-esteem issues. In the moment, however, it is hard to rationalize what is happening, and the temptation to alleviate the emotional trigger is the most pressing issue, even though it will not actually solve the problem. 

As intellectual as we are, we can be creatures of habit, and it is easy to get stuck in ruts even when we know those behaviors are harmful or at least not helpful. Intervening in the process prior to engaging in the self-destructive behavior will have a better outcome and disrupt an unhealthy habit. Addressing this problem outside of the moment and coming up with a plan to engage in a healthier alternative when those feelings strike can prepare for when tensions are higher.

Being aware of the connection between thoughts and behavior can provide insight into an otherwise murky situation. Instead of wondering why certain intense urges seem to come out of nowhere and lead to an increased risk of relapse, a person can spend time removed from the situation in a safe environment to analyze those risk factors and adapt accordingly. Realizing that there is a rhyme and reason to cravings and urges and that they can be prepared for in advance can be a groundbreaking shift in perspective.

Rewarding Good Behavior

Another type of therapy is known as contingency management, where sobriety is met with rewards. These rewards can look different for each person, and the strategy is developed in partnership between an individual and their therapist. Whatever the reward, it is used to help associate sustaining sobriety with a pleasant outcome. Both CBT and contingency management help to forge new paths in the brain and lessen the hold that addiction has.

Treatment is not a switch that you can just flip on and change your brain. It is a slow process that requires a significant amount of intentional work, but the evidence shows that it works. Since addiction functions at such a fundamental level of the brain, it will take time to undo its effects and replace those tendencies with healthier routines. Those urges may never go away entirely, but they can be quieted and dimmed as you take back control of your brain.

Addiction is not just a hard habit you need to kick. It is a disease that affects the brain and can make you feel out of control. At Family-Centered Services we understand how necessary quality treatment is in disrupting substance use disorder. We offer therapy to cut to the core of your struggles and help you identify triggers and develop coping skills. We also have options for family therapy and a Family Recovery Program to help everyone get on the same page and give them the tools to support you in your recovery. Our sober monitoring services ensure that you are not struggling to maintain sobriety on your own outside of treatment. This non-invasive, at-home testing gives your treatment team live feedback and allows you to work together to identify what went wrong and how to better prepare for it in the future. Get started by calling (509) 991-5822.