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How Neuroplasticity Can Work for You During Recovery

What do you know about neuroplasticity? Did you know it may have a positive impact on you during recovery?

The brain is a remarkable organ.

It has the ability to change, adapt, and grow. About 25 years ago, experts believed that the brain reached a certain maturation point. They believed that the brain simply stopped growing after a certain age. However, recent research shows that the brain is continuously changing and growing. And what’s even better is that the brain does this throughout the life span. So no matter how old you are, you can learn new tricks. You can change your life, your habits, and your choices.

Neuroplasticity and Recovery

Because the brain has the ability to continue to grow, it can also repair itself when it’s been damaged. For instance, if you’ve used hard drugs and/or drank heavily in the past, then you might have damaged some of the neurons in the brain. However, even when neurons are damaged, the brain can create new neural connections and find other ways to make connects so that learning and growth can still take place.

Of course, this is good news for anyone in recovery. Because when you decide to heal from addiction – whether you’re abstaining entirely from drugs and alcohol or you’re gradually ending your substance use – you make the decision to do things differently. You make the decision to respond to life in new ways and learn how to make new choices. In recovery, knowing that the brain has the ability to change can provide you with hope, courage, and encouragement.

How Does It Work?

Here’s how neuroplasticity works.

Let’s say in recovery you’ve learned a new coping tool. Whenever you feel stress, you’ve been taught to pause, breathe deeply, and think about how to respond to the stressor (versus becoming anxious or experiencing panic). Although you’ve learned this tool in your support group, you haven’t yet applied it to your life. One day, you’re feeling very stressed and at first you feel anxious and you panic. After a few minutes, you remember that you can pause, take a deep breath, and then decide what to do in a healthy and conscious way. Because you remembered to use this coping tool, you’ve strengthened the neural connection that was created when you learned this tool in the first place. And each time you use this tool you strengthen the connection in the brain even more until suddenly you’re using this tool without thinking about it.

You can see how learning and practicing a new skill works to create and strengthen neural connections in the brain. Yet, it’s true that you have neural connections for unhealthy habits too. For instance, if you learned to have a drink every time you felt guilty, you formed a neural connection between the feeling and the unhealthy behavior. Yet, just like a connection can strengthen when you use it, a connection can also weaken if you don’t use it. For instance, if you were to journal, exercise, or talk to a therapist every time you felt guilty instead of drinking, you would weaken the neural connection between drinking and feeling guilty.

Neuroplasticity and the brain’s ability to change is pivotal to understanding how you can change your life!