When psychologists talk about the “neuroplasticity” of the brain, they are referring to the ability of the brain to learn, remember, and adapt to new experiences. Another way to understand neuroplasticity is to think of it as a kind of rewiring of the brain to improve another part of the brain. For example, the peripheral vision of deaf people is significantly more acute than the peripheral vision of non-deaf people. To compensate for hearing loss, the vision area (occipital lobe) of the brain enhances a deaf person’s awareness of their environment by increasing connections among neurons involved in vision.
Neuroplasticity is just one of the brain’s many remarkable properties. For substance abusers, however, neuroplasticity is a primary reason for addiction and relapse. Research involving the brain scans of addicts has found that drugs change the way neurons communicate in the memory and reward centers of the brain. Essentially, the brain learns to expect the pleasurable feelings provided by drugs because it remembers that feeling. In fact, researchers think repetitive memories of being high may become part of an addict’s long-term memory storage system. This partially explains why preventing relapse can be difficult for some recovering addicts.
Using Neuroplasticity to Overcome Substance Addiction
According to Harvard Health Medical, overcoming addiction may be facilitated by taking advantage of the brain’s neuroplasticity. Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is an effective approach to “unlearning” the brain’s craving for drugs, especially when used in combination with medications and support services.
CBT counselors teach substance abusers to identify and correct maladaptive patterns disrupting their thought patterns, emotional regulation, and coping abilities. CBT also shows addicts how to separate false beliefs and thoughts from misguided emotions and behaviors that threaten their sobriety.
For example, a heroin addict who thinks they will never be strong enough to turn their life around will use this self-defeating belief to justify their addiction. After receiving CBT for several weeks, this same addict, now in recovery, has learned to stop these thoughts by concentrating on more realistic assumptions, such as “nobody can predict the future”, or “I don’t know if I can stay sober until I try staying sober.” Practicing CBT techniques every day has been shown to generate new connections between brain cells that do not involve learned addiction behaviors.
Therapeutic Modalities, Neuroplasticity, and Addiction
Your brain needs to learn new things to stay healthy. It needs to be kept active and energized by the regular input of external stimuli. This powerful need for the brain to be stimulated has been proven by the results of isolation experiments with humans. When submersed in sensory deprivation tanks for more than 24 hours, humans will start hallucinating. This is the brain’s way of saying “Hey, I need new sensory stimulation right now!”
To help rewire the brain during recovery, patients in addiction treatment programs often find relief from symptoms of withdrawal and cravings by participating in challenging neurotherapeutic activities. Sometimes called holistic therapies, neurotherapies include learning to play a musical instrument, arts and crafts, journaling, writing poetry or short stories, taking online college courses, or finding other activities that are inherently satisfying and enjoyable. Focusing your brain’s cognitive energies on learning something new is one of the best ways to take advantage of neuroplasticity for the purpose of defeating an addiction.
For information about receiving immediate help with an addiction, please call Hickory Treatment Centers today.