Recent research on the development of the brain indicates that this organ is forever changing. Any time you learn something new or anytime you do an old task in a new way, neurons in the brain are firing and making new connections. These new connections and the ability of the brain to continue to change has everything to do with recovery. It has everything to do with learning to respond to life in new and healthy ways.
It’s clear that one of the factors that contributes to addiction is unhealthy behavior that is learned. For instance, a person who recently experiences the loss of a loved one and then turns to drinking to cope learns something new – they learn that alcohol will suppress emotions and keep the pain of loss and grief at bay. Over time, perhaps this person might continue to drink and continue to do what they’ve learned through drinking, which is to turn to substances in order to avoid stress or uncomfortable emotions.
And here’s where neuroplasticity comes in. Each time we learn something, a connection forms in the brain. In recent brain research, those connections in the brain are called neurons. And as a person continues to repeat that learned behavior, the connection in the brain strengthens. It becomes strong and stronger and also more difficult to change. However, thanks to the brain’s wondrous capacity for learning and rewiring itself – neuroplasticity – it’s not impossible to change those patterns regardless of how strong they are. The good news is that research points to the brain’s ability to rewire itself and form new and different connections.
Rewiring the Brain
Each time a person learns to respond to life in a new way, they are literally rewiring the brain. They are changing the very structure of the brain. For instance, returning to the example above, when a person learns to choose healthy responses to grief versus drinking, they are changing the development of the brain. A person might learn to stop themselves when suddenly they feel sad. Instead of reaching for a drink, they might call a friend, schedule a therapy session, go for a walk, or exercise. Each time a person makes this new choice, they are strengthening a new connection in the brain. Creating new neural connections in the brain is precisely what neuroplasticity is all about.
Neuroplasticity also requires paying close attention to the present moment and keeping an eye on your behavior. Recovery requires becoming aware of your present circumstances to avoid unconsciously making similar choices to those you made in the past. What helps is staying keenly aware of what you are doing while you are doing it in order to facilitate finding a different response to stressful moments in life. Responding to stressful moments in positive and healthy ways may be challenging at the start, but with practice, they too can become habitual. And this, in time, will be a new strengthened neural connection in the brain.
It’s important to keep in mind that rewiring the brain is a very important part of getting sober. However, it’s not everything. A person in recovery might also need to unravel deep seated and destructive beliefs, perhaps heal from childhood trauma, let go of repressed emotions, and learn new coping mechanisms in order to experience sobriety that is long-lasting.