The brain is the most complex organ in the human body. In addition to controlling every process that regulates the body, the brain can also change, modify, and rewire itself. Scientists call this miraculous ability neuroplasticity or brain plasticity. Because of neuroplasticity, we can learn new skills, solve complex problems, achieve challenging athletic goals, and recover from injuries that damage the brain. At the same time, harmful habits, such as habitual drug use or excessive drinking, can cause the brain to change in ways that can lead to addiction. The good news is that new, healthy, and sober experiences can help the brain change once again — this time for the better.
Understanding Brain Plasticity
The brain is made up of synapses, small structures that neurons use to communicate with each other. As we age, some synaptic connections can grow stronger while others weaken. This process, which is called synaptic pruning, allows the brain to adapt to changing circumstances and environments.
There are four main ways synaptic connections can encourage brain plasticity.
- Neurogenesis, the continuous creation of new neurons in certain areas of the brain. Neurogenesis begins when a baby develops in the womb, and the development of new neurons continues into adulthood in two regions of the brain: the subventricular zone (SVZ) and the subgranular zone. The subgranular zone, which is located in the hippocampus, helps us learn new skills, create new memories, and change how we behave. The subventricular zone, located in the lateral ventricles, contains cerebrospinal fluid that helps maintain healthy brain functionality.
- New synapses. As we learn new skills and have different experiences, the brain creates new neural connections. These new neural connections help keep the brain young and active. Developing new synapses can also help prevent neurodegenerative diseases and mental health disorders, such as Alzheimer’s disease and depression. New synapses can also help combat poor learning skills, memory trouble, and other cognitive impairments.
- Strengthened synapses. Repeating and practicing certain behaviors strengthens neural connections. Consistently using drugs, for example, encourages sensory neurons in your brain to perceive addictive substances as healthy forms of energy and pleasure. Fortunately, recovery activities such as art therapy and meditation and healthy coping skills such as deep breathing and progressive muscle relaxation can strengthen the neural connections that encourage sobriety.
- Weakened synapses. When we don’t use certain synaptic connections, they become weaker. This form of neuroplasticity can help us overcome anxiety, phobias, trauma, and other adverse patterns that contribute to substance abuse.
Neuroplasticity and Addiction
In many ways, neuroplasticity means that the brain is always learning. Unfortunately, the brain doesn’t differentiate between good or bad habits and experiences. The brain simply learns whatever habits are repeated, whether they’re helpful or harmful. In other words, what we do habitually — good or bad — literally affects the way our brains function. Because of this, neuroplasticity can unintentionally encourage addiction.
Drugs and alcohol increase the release of dopamine, a chemical messenger in the brain that triggers pleasurable feelings. Repeated drug or alcohol exposure leads to consistently high levels of dopamine, which influences neuroplasticity. The brain adapts, strengthening synaptic connections that favor addiction. These neuroplastic changes “teach” the brain to continue the drug use habit, leading to more substance use, and eventually, addiction.
Luckily, neuroplasticity can play an equally important role in addiction recovery.
Neuroplasticity and Recovery
The same brain plasticity that hard-wires poor habits into our brains can help us learn new habits. Thanks to neuroplasticity, we can overcome trauma, addiction, depression, anxiety, and obsessive-compulsive behaviors. The more we weaken unhealthy neural connections and strengthen helpful neural connections, the more we can retrain the brain. Here’s how neuroplasticity can benefit addiction recovery.
- Brain plasticity teaches the brain how to function without addictive substances. After going through detox, the body is free of addictive substances. Addiction recovery programs then begin the treatment process, which often includes behavioral therapy, group counseling, substance abuse education, peer support groups, and aftercare support. During this time, the brain re-learns how to function without drugs or alcohol. Brain plasticity helps this process. Every day the brain functions without alcohol, neural connections that encourage addiction grow weaker. Dopamine levels stabilize and the brain begins to recognize healthy meals, exercise, walks, and other drug-free activities as sources of pleasure again. In time the brain learns that it doesn’t need drugs or alcohol to function properly or experience pleasure.
- Neuroplasticity can increase the effectiveness of behavioral therapy. Most behavioral therapies rely on neuroplasticity to be effective. Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT), for example, focuses on recognizing, combating, and reframing unhelpful thoughts. Neuroplasticity increases the effectiveness of CBT and other therapies because the brain’s ability to change helps us break old habits and learn new ones. Instead of letting a negative thought make us feel bad and using drugs and alcohol to cope, CBT teaches us how to repeatedly combat and reframe unproductive thought patterns. Neuroplasticity hard-wires this skill into the brain which helps produce lifestyle changes that encourage long-term sobriety.
- Plasticity can hard-wire new behaviors and coping skills in the brain. Plasticity allows repeated behaviors to change the brain. Because of this, spending 30 to 90 days learning new skills in a recovery program can help hard-wire new behaviors and coping skills into our brains. In recovery, meditation, deep breathing, stress management, gratitude journaling, peer support groups, and other recovery practices can become deeply rooted habits that ultimately result in healthier, more productive behaviors. Without brain plasticity, learning these kinds of skills would have little to no significance because the brain wouldn’t be able to change from its current state.
- Neuroplasticity can increase resiliency. Ultimately, neuroplasticity can make us more resilient. We can learn how to better manage stress, deal with challenges, and live life without drugs or alcohol. Being able to do all of this increases resilience which can help prevent relapse.
Practical Ways to Encourage Neuroplasticity
Even though the brain has the ability to adapt on its own, we can help our brains change for the better. We can help encourage positive brain changes by:
- Having healthy social interactions
- Eating a balanced, nutrient-rich diet
- Seeking out healthy new experiences
- Learning new skills, hobbies, or languages
- Creating music or participating in music therapy
- Managing our emotions well
- Concentrating on positive aspects of life (i.e. gratitude journaling)
Treatment That Encourages Brain Plasticity & Changes Lives
Addiction can wreak havoc on the brain. But here at StoneRidge, we know that the brain can change. That’s why we use expert-level brain science to treat addiction. Our whole-person approach to treatment encourages recovery and lifestyle activities that encourage brain plasticity. Our treatment programs can help restore your brain to optimal health. Let us help you get there. Contact us today to learn more.
Innovative, Evidence-Based Therapies
Because mental health and addiction concerns are so often interconnected, we utilize research-based approaches with evidence-based outcomes that promote overall healing and recovery.