The Brain’s Recovery from Addiction–Reversing the Damage of the Illness

The brain’s recovery from addiction can often be a difficult subject to address. Many people who are overcoming addictions worry about any damage their brains might have suffered as a result of drinking or using substances, and it can be painful to consider. However, understanding the process of the brain’s recovery from addiction can be helpful as you go through the treatment and recovery process.

The brain has to heal from active addiction, and this involves reversing the damage of prolonged toxicity. Substance use toxifies the brain with every intoxication, altering brain functioning and also brain structure. In recovery, the brain resumes normal functioning in most cases, although some damage can be permanent. The brain heals because it is ‘plastic’ or malleable, and can regrow damaged neurons. Just as it changes in active addiction, it can change in recovery.

Brain Changes Occur Naturally

The human brain changes throughout our lifetimes. And, does so in response to the things we are exposed to in our environments, both good and bad. As we grow, learn and develop, the brain will change. If we are traumatized or become addicted, it changes as well, and there are countless other influences. The changeable nature of the brain helps us adapt to our worlds and our lives. Without it, we wouldn’t develop and mature.

Neuroplasticity and neurogenesis are the means through which the brain organizes and reorganizes itself by forming new neural connections, or connections between nerve cells. A very simplified explanation of these processes is that the brain continually adapts throughout life, and as it does, it can be said to be learning. Yet, the learning process occurs on a structural level as well as a functioning one. If we could see the deep workings of the brain as it adapts and learns, we would see new connections are formed, and older unused ones fall away. This happens as we grown and develop in healthy ways, as well as in dysfunctional ones.

Our the brain adapts to our internal and external environments, our nerve cells, or neurons, sprout new nerve endings and connect with other nerve cells. Connection continue until new pathways are developed, and the brain is ‘rewired’, able to perform in new ways. This process can work for us or set us up for difficulties. For example, we can learn to use new parts of the brain after one has been injured–such as occurs after a stroke. The brain can build new pathways to compensate for lost abilities because of the stroke. Similarly, and with much less helpful results, when one becomes addicted, new pathways in the brain are made that perpetuate the addiction. The brain’s recovery from addiction then requires that we create new neural pathways that support us in recovery.

Addiction as a Brain Disease

Addiction is often called a brain disease, and in many ways, it can more specifically be called a disease of brain neuroplasticity. As we use and abuse substances, our brains learn addiction, progressively building new neural pathways that support compulsive substance use. Essentially, the brain changes, becoming a different brain as we expose it to enough substance use or the ‘right’ period of time. In many real ways, we can say that substance use creates a new brain. The brain’s recovery from addiction also does.

Repeated episodes of intoxication become incorporated into our lifestyle, our mindset and our coping strategies as we have more and more of them.  We become used to them, want them more, and seek them out more. As we do so, we eventually ignite an addictive illness that will be up and running neurologically, driving us to compulsive drug use. This is the result of using mind and mood-altering drugs heavily enough, and long enough to alter our brains.

You can think of this in another way: if our brains were not changed by substance use, we wouldn’t use substances. When we reach for an addictive substance, we want to feel the effects of an altered brain. As that behavior becomes more familiar and is incorporated more into who we are and how we live, our brain wiring and functioning also reflect that. In addiction treatment and recovery, we can these same principles of brain change to work for us in recovery. In the brain’s recovery from addiction, we retrain it to seek and enjoy sobriety.

Recovery Reverses the Damage of the Illness

Fortunately, our brains can not only learn how to be addicted, but they can also learn to be sober. The neural pathways of addiction fill us with the memory traces of how to be and stay addicted.  Once these pathways are opened, and we travel them frequently, we don’t have to think about our addictions much. Being addicted, and staying addicted become ‘second nature’ because we have learned it well. These memory traces result in the core symptoms of addiction such as:

  • Compulsive use—continuing to use addictive substances despite a desire to cut down or stop use; having unsuccessful attempts to cut down or stop; recurrent use despite continuing social or interpersonal problems related to use; continuing to use despite awareness of physical or psychological harm done by using, and spending a great deal of time obtaining, using, and recovering from use.
  • Cravings—having strong desires, impulses, and urges to use; being triggered by both external and internal experiences to use (people, places, things, feelings, thoughts).
  • Tolerance—needing more of the substance over time to achieve the desired effects of intoxication.
  • Withdrawal—have physical and psychological symptoms of distress and discomfort when using is abruptly stopped or the usual dose of a substance is lowered.
  • Other behavioral changes—Behavioral changes also occur across a range of life experience such as withdrawing from usual activities because of use; participating less in social or family interactions; reducing work or school performance; and failing to meet responsibilities, obligations, and commitments.

It Takes More Than Detox and Abstinence to Heal the Brain

The brain’s recovery from addiction requires more than abstinence. It heals on multiple levels, but its basic and most fundament step in healing begins with withdrawal and detox. This first stage of treatment stops the inflow of toxic substances, and so essentially protects the brain from further assault from the chemicals. As the remaining substance in the system process out, more levels of healing become possible.

Counseling and other recovery-related activities can progress with a detoxified system. And, little by little, new brain circuitry is established that supports abstinence and continuing recovery. Of course, this process is a vast and complex one, but it is very responsive to our recovery efforts. For example, as we learn healthy coping strategies, the brains learns new pathways and new functioning, too. Just as it once learned to support addiction, in recovery it learns to support sobriety.

The recovery process often moves too slowly for us when we are impatient, and want to hurry up, reclaim what addiction took, and quickly feel better. If we could see inside the brain’s recovery from addiction, we would see that long after people think they are safe from relapse, their brains are quickly and deeply triggered to cravings in the ‘right’ circumstances. This is strong evidence that the brain’s ‘lessons’ of addiction linger into abstinence, and the brain’s recovery simples takes time. Counseling, sober time, insight, emotional processing and practicing new behaviors are needed.

It is tempting to think of addiction recovery as simply not taking drugs and remaining drug-free. Of course, abstinence is an essential, but recovery happens on so many levels of one’s life that physical recovery is not enough. An addictive illness has emotional, mental, behavioral, social and spiritual aspects that all support taking addictive substances. The pervasive nature of the illness is directly reflected in the pervasive nature of recovery from it. Just as the addiction gradually builds and spreads its consequences to many aspects of life, so recovery gradually builds and restores various aspects of life.

If You Need Help, or a Loved One Does

If you or a loved one has a substance problem, and want to overcome it, it may be your time for treatment. Even if you are still in the process of accepting the need for help, it is important to gather information, know your options and be aware of what it takes to get well. Recovery is more than possible, and with the right help, you or your addicted loved one can recover as countless others have.

As overwhelming as an active addiction is, there are solutions. And, you have more power of choice in your situation that you may think. In fact, the addicted person has to be the one to take action and to willingly participate in the treatment process, as well as the recovery process after. Even despite the feelings of powerlessness, helplessness, and hopelessness that addiction deeply instills in us, we have the ability to seek help and follow the guidance we are given. Reach out for yourself or someone you love. It is never too late to overcome addiction and to dramatically improve your life.

If this is the time for you or your addicted loved one to get help, we can help you find appropriate treatment options. We will discuss your particular clinical needs and what types of treatment settings would be a good match, We will also identify your preferences and financial situation so our recommendations are feasible in every way possible. Give us a call today for a free consultation. We will help clarify your situation and make recommendations for effective and viable treatment options.