The Neuroscience of Recovery
Woah-woah-woah, what’s with the neuroscience terms in a recovery blog? Well, once you find out what neuroplasticity is (if you don’t know already), then you’ll be keen to see how this relates to recovery. Neuroplasticity is the brain’s ability to form and reorganize synaptic connections. Essentially, the brain is not a fixed organ, and it changes, develops, and even gets conditioned to work certain ways. This is why we get so habituated to acting and even reacting certain ways to certain stimuli, we have trained our brains to do so. Traumatic events, major injuries, and life-threatening situations have been proven to rewire the brain in a matter of moments, and consequently, it takes some time to put the neuropathways back in order. So now that we know what neuroplasticity is, it shouldn’t be hard to see how this relates to recovery.
For years, in our active addiction, (and often before that) we act and even think in a defective way. The years of lying, stealing, cheating, and lashing out literally wired our brains to live like this. We become habituated to utilize these negative responses, and they become so normal to us that they seem like the only way to live, and often this provokes a feeling of uselessness and helplessness. “I’m just like this” “I don’t know why I do these things” “I can’t help it”: These are the things we tell ourselves, which in turn affirms the responses even more. The saying in the neuroscience community is “those that fire together wire together, ” and this has proven time and time again to be true, especially for the person suffering from SUD. This is why these defective responses carry into one’s sobriety even after the drugs and/or alcohol is gone. The substances have been removed but the neuro pathways have remained, which is why new paths must be created in order to have a successful recovery. Ironically the same way that these habits formed is the same way that they can be changed: repeated, and consistent action.
This is why recovery takes so much time to earn, the brain literally needs time to rewire the way it reacts to certain stimuli. The first few months of recovery (well the first 6-9 months in my case) are so challenging for this very reason, the escapist thought patterns, the negative self-image, the dishonesty, and all of the defective behavior is ingrained in the person recovering. Recovery isn’t complete without a major focus on the behavior of the individual because through changing the behavior, you can literally change the way you think. The old adage of acting your way into right thinking, really does turn out to be true, and through a consistent appropriation of action, then the person can start to think about the world a little differently and respond to it more effectively. This is exactly why it’s essential that individuals take “contrary action,” because these actions are the ones that help rewire the brain into a more effective state when they’re done consistently.
Therefore 30, 60, and 90-day programs rarely provide the foundation for long-term recovery. I’m not saying that it’s not possible, but depending on the severity of the person afflicted with the defective thought life, it just may not be long enough to acquire new habits and a refined way of thinking and responding. I went through a year-long program, and it definitely took that long (combined with a focus on my behavior) to change the way I reacted to the world around me. At the very least, I wouldn’t set the expectation that recovery only takes a few months to obtain, because it took myself over a year to create and sustain an effective thought life and positive habits.