How to Rewire Your Brain After Addiction
Addiction is a complex condition that affects the brain’s reward, motivation, and memory functions. As you continue to use drugs or alcohol, they continue to alter the structure and function of your brain in numerous ways. However, with proper treatment, anyone can get sober and heal themselves after addiction.
Breaking free from addiction requires more than sheer willpower; it involves rewiring the brain to create new, healthier pathways that aren’t seeking drugs and alcohol. While the brain heals after addiction, it’s essential to understand exactly how addiction affects the brain and what it will take for you to repair the damage done. In this article, you can explore the effects of substance abuse on the brain, how long it takes to rewire the brain from addiction, and how the healing happens.
Understanding How Addiction Affects the Brain
Drugs and alcohol can have profound effects on the brain, influencing various neurotransmitters (the chemical messengers that transmit signals between neurons) and neural pathways. For example, alcohol and benzodiazepines like Xanax enhance the effects of gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA), an inhibitory neurotransmitter, leading to sedation and relaxation. Opioids, on the other hand, act on opioid receptors to reduce pain signals and produce euphoria.
Most drugs, including alcohol, stimulate the release of dopamine, a neurotransmitter associated with pleasure and reward. This surge in dopamine levels contributes to the euphoria or “high” experienced with substance use. Over time, repeated drug or alcohol use can desensitize the brain’s reward system, making it more difficult to produce dopamine or other essential neurotransmitters without the drug that has been being abused.
Then, the brain adapts to the presence of drugs or alcohol by adjusting its own natural chemistry through a complex process known as neuroadaptation. The body is less sensitive to the effects of the same drug over time, so tolerance develops, requiring individuals to consume larger amounts of the substance to achieve the same effects. This contributes to the cycle of progressive substance use and reduces neuroplasticity in the brain, affecting one’s overall well-being.
In addition to changing the brain on a chemical level, substance abuse can cause structural changes, too. Three areas of the brain that are affected by addiction are:
- Basal ganglia – This area of the brain is involved with pleasure, motivation, and habits. It also plays a role in cognitive function and motor function. The basal ganglia is part of the “reward circuit” in the brain. When people repeatedly use substances, the basal ganglia starts to view the effects of the substances as a “reward” leading to drug cravings, tolerance, and escalating use.
- Extended amygdala – This part of the brain helps regulate stress, anxiety, and irritability. With regular substance abuse, it can begin to rely on drugs and alcohol to mediate these emotions rather than controlling impulses as usual. This can result in compulsive drug use.
- Prefrontal cortex – The prefrontal cortex is part of the brain that deals with problem-solving, decision-making, and rational thinking. This area of the brain becomes more sensitive after regular drug use, resulting in poor decision-making, impulsivity, and the inability to control one’s substance abuse.
The neurotransmitters mentioned, as well as the three areas of the brain that can be structurally affected, are all essential for healthy functioning. With healthy neuroplasticity, they work together to regulate sleep, appetite, mood, emotions, thought processes, stress, and more. As a result, addiction can end up affecting every area of your life–even after you stop using drugs and alcohol. This is why it is essential to participate in therapy and create healthy habits to help you rewire your brain after addiction.
Can You Heal Your Brain After Addiction?
Healing or “rewiring” the brain after addiction simply means the brain is able to heal itself from the way addiction breaks down neuroplasticity. Neuroplasticity refers to the brain’s ability to reorganize itself by forming new neural connections. Engaging in activities that challenge the brain, such as learning a new skill or practicing mindfulness, supports neuroplasticity and aids in breaking addictive patterns.
Although it sounds complicated, rewiring the brain after addiction is entirely possible. The best approach is to stay sober, attend a treatment program that uses evidence-based therapies, and engage in healthy lifestyle changes. These modifications can help support synaptic plasticity, which are the connections between neurons, and improve neuroplasticity.
How Long Does it Take to Rewire the Brain From Addiction?
How quickly the brain heals is different for everyone. Some people get sober after a brief or mild substance use disorder and they’re able to heal their brains in less than a month. But for most people, healing is a long-term process that requires patience and sustained abstinence.
Generally, the longer you’ve abused drugs and alcohol and the more severe your substance abuse is, the longer it may take to heal. People with a history of trauma or co-occurring disorders and those who are older may require more time to recover.
How to Rewire Your Brain After Addiction
Rewiring your brain after addiction is a challenging but achievable process that involves making positive changes to thought patterns, behaviors, and neural pathways. The goal is to create new, healthier habits and break the cycle of addiction.
A balanced diet plays a pivotal role in recovery, brain health, and neuroplasticity. Nutrient-rich foods support brain health and contribute to the repair of damaged neural pathways. Omega-3 fatty acids, in particular, have been linked to improved cognitive function. It is best to adopt a routine that includes regular exercise, proper nutrition, and sufficient sleep.
Regular physical activity not only promotes overall well-being but also stimulates the release of neurotransmitters like endorphins. Exercise has been shown to have positive effects on mood and cognitive function, supporting the rewiring of the brain.
Individual or group therapy sessions, such as cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) or dialectical behavior therapy (DBT). Therapy can help you explore underlying issues, challenge negative thought patterns, and develop healthier coping mechanisms. In fact, CBT is considered a learning-based intervention that utilizes neuroplasticity.
Other types of therapy that may be used include:
- Motivational enhancement therapy (MET)
- Rational emotive behavior therapy (REBT)
- Contingency management (CM)
- Family behavior therapy
- 12-Step facilitation therapy
- Medication-assisted treatment (MAT)
Establishing a strong support system is essential for sustained recovery. Engaging with peer support groups, such as 12-step programs or SMART Recovery, connects individuals with others facing similar challenges. Shared experiences and mutual support contribute to a sense of belonging.
Mindfulness and Meditation
Mindfulness practices, including meditation and deep breathing exercises, can help you stay present in the moment and manage stress. These practices promote self-awareness and contribute to rewiring the brain by fostering a calmer and more focused mindset. They can also produce endorphins and dopamine in the brain.
Let Us Help You Break the Cycle of Addiction Today
At South Carolina Addiction Treatment Detox & Residential, our continuum of care takes clients through each phase of early recovery, starting with detox and ending with aftercare. As your brain and body heal, you’ll step down to lower levels of care until you’re ready to continue your recovery on your own.
We capture all the comforts of home in our elegant and amenity-rich campus in Greenville / Simpsonville, South Carolina. Each client will have the option of their own beautifully appointed private room or semi-private room in which to rest, relax, and rejuvenate.
To learn more about our addiction treatment programs or to get started with a confidential, risk-free assessment, please contact us today.
Medically Reviewed: November 21, 2023
All of the information on this page has been reviewed and verified by a certified addiction professional.