Neuroplasticity and Addiction Recovery

“Our brains renew themselves throughout life to an extent previously not thought possible.”

~Michael S. Gazzanica

The human brain is incredibly complex.  I recently wrote a blog post about the brain’s amazing ability to “learn new tricks.” I simply explained how synapses form new neural pathways, which leads to patterns and habits, and eventually forms one’s identity. Understanding this pattern is crucial for fully grasping the role of neuroplasticity in addiction–especially in addiction recovery.   As a brief refresh, scientists refer to the brain’s ability to modify, change, and adapt throughout life as plasticity or neuroplasticity. Neuroplasticity is formed by two base words: Neuro being the nervous system (of the brain) and plasticity coming from the greek root plastos, which means moldable. Because of neuroplasticity, we can learn new skills, solve complex problems, achieve challenging athletic goals, recover from injuries that damage the brain, etc etc. 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 or continue addiction. The good news is that new, healthy, and sober experiences can help the brain change once again–leading to a life free of addiction.

Neuroplasticity essentially means that the brain is always learning. That said, unfortunately, the brain does not differentiate between good or bad habits and experiences. The brain learns whatever habits we repeat, whether they are helpful or harmful. In other words, what we do habitually literally affects the way our brain functions. Which means that neuroplasticity can unintentionally encourage addiction.  Think about it–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; the brain adapts, strengthening synaptic connections that lead to continual substance abuse and eventually addiction. 

Thanks to neuroplasticity, we can overcome trauma, addiction, depression, anxiety, and obsessive-compulsive behaviors. When referring specifically to addiction recovery, the same brain plasticity that hard-wires poor habits into our brains can also help us unlearn these habits. The more we weaken unhealthy neural connections and strengthen helpful neural connections, the more we can retrain the brain. Here’s how neuroplasticity aids in the addiction recovery process:

  • Neuroplasticity after detox: Once the body is free of addictive substances, addiction recovery programs can then begin the treatment process, which 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 does not need drugs or alcohol to function properly or experience pleasure!
  • Neuroplasticity in therapy: Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) is one type of therapy and it focuses on recognizing, combating, and reframing unhelpful thoughts. Neuroplasticity increases the effectiveness of this and all methods of therapy 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 possibly use drugs and alcohol to cope, CBT teaches us how to repeatedly combat and reframe unproductive thought patterns until it is second nature. Neuroplasticity hard-wires this skill into the brain which helps produce lifestyle changes that encourage long-term sobriety.
  • Neuroplasticity in coping skills and resilience: 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.  Ultimately, neuroplasticity makes 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.

Even though the brain has the ability to adapt on its own, we can help our brain change for the better with the following simple activities: Eating a well-balanced diet; having healthy social interactions; learning a new skill, learning or practicing a hobby or language; playing music (or doing music therapy!); focusing on gratitude through journaling, etc; exercising; meditating, etc.  As recovering addicts work to rewire their brains by learning new skills and habits, their old, addictive patterns will be replaced, and they will be on the path towards recovery. Thinking about giving up addiction can be daunting, but when we look at it from the standpoint of forming simple, new, productive habits over time, it is feasible and more encouraging. It is all thanks to the powerful brain’s neuroplasticity and its ability to change and adapt to overcome addiction!

Melissa Cluff is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist based in North Texas, providing face-to-face and telehealth therapy options to clients in Texas.


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Melissa Cluff, MS, LMFT, CSAT

Melissa Cluff is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist based in North Texas, providing face-to-face and telehealth therapy options to clients in Texas.