Neuroplasticity and Recovery

An Old Dog Can Learn New Tricks

I came across a post this morning from Brain Chat with the above quote. My first thoughts were, “thank God for neuroplasticity” and “I still can’t believe it’s real.” Then, of course, I reflected on my life and the way my brain worked throughout the many years I spent in active addiction.

The old saying goes “you can’t teach an old dog new tricks.”

Fortunately, there is scientific evidence to support the old saying is simply not true! Recent findings in the study of neuroplasticity indicate that we have the ability to continue learning and changing our behaviors across our lifespan. The brain has the power to heal and build new neural pathways which means that the brain can heal from addiction. Considering that almost 21 million Americans suffer from some form of addiction, this is great news. 

What is neuroplasticity?

Neuroplasticity is defined as “the ability of the brain to form and reorganize synaptic connections, especially in response to learning or experience or following injury” (Dictionary.com). “Psychologist Deann Ware, Ph.D., explains that when brain cells communicate frequently, the connection between them strengthens and “the messages that travel the same pathway in the brain over and over begin to transmit faster and faster.” With enough repetition, these behaviors become automatic. Reading, driving, and riding a bike are examples of complicated behaviors that we do automatically because neural pathways have formed” (healthtransformer.co).

This amazing property of the human brain can be used as an advantage and a disadvantage. You can think about your habits and patterns of thoughts as well-travelled highways. You can create a super highway that results in a positive outcome or a negative outcome. This is called positive or negative neuroplasticity.

In many ways, addiction can be explained as a neuroplastic event. The brain gets trained to do a particular behavior—use drugs or alcohol or gambling—eventually to the exclusion of all else.” (Psychology Today).

My simple way of looking at this term is that my brain has the ability to heal, and can be retrained. Unfortunately, neuroplasticity was a key factor in my becoming dependent on drugs, but it has also proven to be the key to unlock recovery and allow my brain to finally heal.

My experience with neuroplasticity and addiction

It’s probably safe to say that most addicts and alcoholics don’t start off with the intention of becoming dependent on substances. For me, it started off as fun and games and I enjoyed the feeling that came with using mind-altering substances.  That quickly progressed until I found myself in a constant state of misery. I will not go into great detail about those years. If you are an addict or alcoholic, you understand all too well!

I remember in 2001, when I first started using opioids, my tolerance level quickly increased. This is a form of neuroplasticity. I began needing more and more to achieve the desired result.  I also recall becoming physically dependent pretty early in my opioid addiction, another form of neuroplasticity (O’Brien 2009).

My whole life I didn’t need this substance to get through the day, but once I began repeating that behavior, it didn’t take long for my brain to create a new pathway to allow this new substance to pretty much take charge of everything and dictate every element of my existence.

During active addiction, I was not able to accept that MY brain had the ability to repair itself. I knew people who were in recovery, and they always looked so happy, but I had a hard time believing I could ever be that way. I thought, “they probably didn’t use like I did.” I would often find myself jealous of their joy, but I was not willing to believe they could offer me any help nor was I willing to follow their suggestions.

I destroyed the reward center in my brain so that there was nothing on earth that could bring me joy except for my drug of choice. It progressed to a point that my life revolved around getting and using drugs, and then finding a way to do it all over again and again. This lasted for years. My brain chemistry was so out of whack that I felt like, in order to survive, I had to have this drug. I chose it over family, food, jobs, pretty much everything, and there was no consequence great enough to get me to stop.

I couldn’t go without the drug long enough to ever experience any relief. When I did go to different places to “get clean,” and there were many, I didn’t give myself a chance. I blocked out the “noise” that I heard there. People tried to offer suggestions, but I knew best, and that grandiosity kept me sick for many years.

People in the rooms of 12-step programs often say, “When the pain gets great enough, you’ll be willing to change.”  That was certainly true for me.  I ended up in 3 psych centers within 3 months wanting nothing more than to die. I have never experienced a greater pain and pray I never will again. I thought that I would never get any relief and I recall, at that point, even the drugs weren’t able to offer any. Eventually, I found myself in jail for a second time around and decided I had finally had enough.

I decided to surrender and accept that I had no clue how to stay clean, and I needed help. After close to 20 years in active addiction – my daily use began long before the opioids – I reached out for help and took advantage of every opportunity presented to me. I started listening and taking every suggestion that the people with time in recovery had to offer. I knew if I was going to have a real chance at a productive and happy life, I couldn’t listen to my own brain.

It was at this point that I started to build positive neuroplasticity so that I could heal. With help from my Higher Power and people in recovery, I began to construct my path to recovery. It began as a dusty country road, but with practice is becoming a super highway that leads to joy I thought I couldn’t have.

What does neuroplasticity mean for addiction treatment?

In a word, hope.

In early recovery you stop travelling that well-worn super highway you have been travelling on in addiction and, like me, start building a new road to recovery. It takes work to break the habits, which is why you must learn to identify your triggers and cravings. It takes time to develop healthy coping skills, which is why you need a community to support you as you travel down a new road.

“With intensive psychotherapy and other holistic interventions, we strengthen the new “recovery” loop within the brain. The brain then learns to enjoy recovery, those things that give us pleasure in our sober lives—family, work, interpersonal interactions. We retrain the brain and thus change our lives” (Psychology Today).

I have been out of jail and clean for close to 5 years now and can attest to the fact that our brains do learn to enjoy recovery and, because of the neuroplasticity of our brain, we can experience life better than we have ever known before. 

There is no question, it will take work, but the work will be worth it and we can have a life that is beautiful no matter what we have been through as a result of our disease.

Bridging the Gaps is designed to get to the roots of addiction by offering exceptional care using integrated best practices. With proper nutrition and education, we help quiet the brain down so it has the available cognitive resources to perform the deeper psychological work necessary to begin your journey in recovery. We use multiple modalities to support your recovery through the development of new neural pathways by changing your thinking and your behaviors.  

Bridging the Gaps provides compassionate, non-judgmental treatment to those struggling with Substance Abuse. If you or a loved one is struggling with addiction, please reach out to our admission director at 540-535-1111.

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