Our understanding of the human brain has changed a lot over time. Not so long long ago we thought of it in a way that’s not entirely different from how we think about our bone tissue: flexible at birth, but gradually turning brittle and increasingly in danger of irreparable damage. We now know, however, that our brains are much better at fixing themselves than we realised. But what does this mean for addiction and recovery?
In short, it means a lot. The essence of the human brain, it turns out, is plasticity. That means it’s flexible, adaptable and most importantly, healable, and it’s these qualities that help us learn new skills. It’s what lets us evolve. But adaptability, or neuroplasticity, can be a double-edged sword, making us susceptible to addiction and at the same time giving us the tools to combat it.
Each time we do something new, there are changes occurring in our brains that help us learn. The human nervous system is connected by neural pathways, roads which information is carried down from one part to another. If you start learning an instrument, neural pathways will appear that didn’t exist before you started playing. We’re all aware that by repeatedly doing something, that thing becomes familiar and easier to do over time. So at first, playing an instrument might seem like an impossible task but eventually you can do it without even having to think. That’s because repetition strengthens the neural pathway. When it first appears, its like a new route through the jungle. You can see the way but there’s more jungle than there is path. Walking through it again and again, what takes shapes is a nice clear route to your destination. When we learn things, then, our brains are transformed.
The reverse is true when we stop doing things too. The less a pathway is used the more overgrown it becomes, and the dust and cobwebs settle in. When dopamine is added to the picture things get dangerous because you start clearing a path in pursuit of pleasure that ends up as a fast lane to addiction. When the pleasure’s all gone the habit remains as an automatic response because the brain has moulded itself to support addiction.
In spite of all this, the plasticity of our brains is a good thing. Unlike our hardening skeletons, the brain remains flexible, even when addiction takes hold. The addiction might lead us to neglect healthier activities as we focus on our feeding our cravings, but those old pathways in place from our healthy, pre addiction days don’t vanish. Like the jungle path, they just become overgrown. But the paths remains, and not only are we able to reestablish them over time, we can create new neural pathways to support the types of behaviour that help us deal with addiction.
This is no easy fix though. We are more likely to develop cravings for activities that are immediately rewarding, than those that are healthy but only rewarding in the long term. Generally speaking, a salty bacon sandwich dripping with fat is probably more desirable to your average meat-eater than a plate of steamed vegetables. So if you need and want to give up bacon, how, then, can the neuroplasticity of our brains help beat the cravings?
Here, abstinence is the key. On the one hand, abstinence from bad habits and repetition of good habits will reinforce the neural pathways you want to strengthen, whilst the others go into decline. In this way, the brain physically remoulds itself away from addiction. But changing behaviours and responses that have become automatic takes work. Just as you can revive the old pathways of good habits, the pathways of addiction (no matter how long they’re left alone) can also be restored and, unfortunately, with relative ease. This is why abstinence is so important for recovering addicts.
Gaining popularity in recent years is the mindfulness-based relapse prevention (MBRP) approach. By learning what triggers our own addictive behaviours, we can eventually make our responses to emotional and physical discomfort less automatic and break the cravings. It’s thought that MBRP is effective because it is able to restructure the brain and reverse the changes that occur with addiction. In other words, it makes use of the neuroplasticity of our brains. Our exceptional ability to learn and adapt might have its pitfalls, but at least it gives us the ladder to climb out of them.
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