Forging a Path
Imagine that you are standing on one side of an enormous field. You need to get all the way across to reach your destination—and later, you will need to return to where you are now. There are no sidewalks in sight. So you just start walking across.
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Now imagine that you walk across this field—once in the morning and once in the evening—each and every day. Eventually, you’ll wear a path in the field, right? And once you do that, it is unlikely that you will deviate from this path on your daily walks. After all, the path you have made is familiar and easy and reliably gets you where you want to go.
We might think of addiction in a similar way. Over time, the repeated behaviors of a substance abuse disorder become like that well-worn path across the field.
The difference, of course, is that this path is worn into your brain and made even more enticing by the “rewards” substance use brings: a momentary high, a lessening of anxiety or depression, an escape. Happily, the concept of neuroplasticity suggests that new paths can be charted in the brain as the habits and feelings associated with treatment and recovery take hold.
Neuroplasticity – Fancy Word, Simple Concept
“Neuroplasticity” is a ten-dollar word, but it is easy to understand when broken into parts. “Neuro” refers to the brain and/or the nervous system while “plasticity” refers to the ability of something to be molded into a new shape. So, “brain moldability” captures the concept nicely.
The idea here is that the brain has the ability to make new connections and to acquire new neural pathways. In doing so, the habitual path created by an addiction will become less of a pull.
Closed for Construction – Building a New Path is a Process
We all hate the delays caused by road construction—especially when we can’t see any real progress. But big projects take time and resources, and progress happens slowly. The same is true when it comes to taking advantage of neuroplasticity to chart a new course for someone with a substance abuse disorder.
You might even think of detoxification, treatment, and recovery as three interrelated construction projects designed to create a new route through the brain—one that never goes back to the neighborhood where the addiction can be found.
As Dr. Constance Scharff wrote for Psychology Today, “With intensive psychotherapy and other holistic interventions, we strengthen the new ‘recovery’ loop within the brain. The brain then learns to enjoy recovery, those things that give us pleasure in our sober lives—family, work, interpersonal interactions. We retrain the brain and thus change our lives.”
Detour Ahead – What About Relapse?
Have you ever been driving along, lost in thought, and suddenly realized you have driven to a house you moved out of years ago, or an old job site, or the former address of a store that has relocated? It is surprisingly easy to slip back into old habits when we don’t stay focused on our destination.
That can happen to someone in recovery, too, even after new paths have been forged in the brain. Dr. Scharff put it this way:
“Essentially, the pleasure centers of the brain are hijacked by the addiction. Eventually, it is only the addictive behavior that brings the addict any sense of joy or at least freedom from pain. This is not only a biochemical process, as the drugs themselves affect the brain’s biochemistry, but also a process of habit. The addict’s brain becomes accustomed to the addictive act being the source of pleasure—not family, friends, a good meal, or a job well done. We can retrain the brain, and we can rebalance the addict’s biochemistry, but the old neuropathways, the old links between addiction and pleasure, are still there.”
Neuroplasticity makes it possible to relegate those old neuropathways to the past.
Getting Back on the Right Road
Just like your GPS can help you find your way when you are lost, committing to lasting sobriety can help you change direction. Fortunately, neuroplasticity—or brain moldability—ensures that you can change paths (and return to a good path even after relapse) and find your way to a sober and satisfying destination.
We Are Here to Help You Navigate the Road Ahead
Right now, the path forward for you or a loved one struggling with a substance abuse disorder may be hard to see. Maybe every time you’ve tried to move forward, you’ve encountered roadblocks and obstacles. At Bel Aire Recovery Center, a leading Kansas addiction treatment center, we understand that you might feel lost. The good news is, we have a map—a map in the form of resources, compassion, and expertise—that can help you find your way. Your brain can change, and that means you can, too.