Updated: Sep 8, 2019
It's the start of a new year and a good time to give some thought to ways to start, make progress in, or maintain your recovery in the coming year ahead. One of the simplest things you can do to help yourself in this process, yet one which will have a huge impact, is put your brain to work for you.
Your brain affects everything you do. How you feel, think, and move, what you see and hear, literally every single thing originates in, or is processed by that three-pound mass in your head. Your brain can enable you to go after and be successful in the profession of your dreams, maintain healthy relationships, maintain sobriety, and be fairly happy on most days.
On the other hand, your brain can mercilessly criticize and ridicule your every move, hold you back from going after what you really want in life, sabotage and second-guess every part of your relationships, and keep you addicted and depressed.
Is Your Amygdala Controlling Your Life?
The part of your brain largely influencing your actions and decisions is your amygdala. Your amygdala is an ancient structure primarily responsible for processing memory and emotions – mostly fear. It acts as your brain’s threat radar and alarm. While you were born with certain innate fears, you accumulate many more, learned from the world around you, the people in your life and your experiences. These subjective influences are typically below your conscious awareness and determine how you respond to the world, act in relationships, and think of and talk to yourself.
Your brain is constantly scanning its environment looking for anything it has learned to be a threat - ready to activate your fight-or-flight stress response. Back when our ancestors were hunted for food, this was a good thing. However, today your amygdala might sound the alarm when your partner gives you that look, your friend doesn't reply to your text message quick enough, or you get cut-off in traffic. And it may be part of the reason so many of us are stressed, anxious, and depressed.
You're Not Stuck With The Brain You're Born With
The good news is that you can change your brain. Neuroplasticity, the ability of your brain to alter its physical structure and function based on incoming stimuli, happens from the day you are born until the day you die. It used to be believed that the adult brain was pretty much fixed. Today, we know that's not true.
Your brain is changing all the time in response to your behaviours, emotions, and even thoughts - whether it's to your benefit or not. Because of neuroplasticity, your life literally shapes your brain. The more often you perform an action or behave in a certain way, the more it is physically wired into your brain.
Your brain forms neuronal connections based on what you do repeatedly in your life. Panicking at the slightest sign of trouble. Smoking cigarettes. Biting your fingernails. Doing drugs. Going to the gym. Calming yourself. Your repeated mental states, responses, and behaviours become neural traits.
Forming a habit or addiction involves neuroplastic change in the brain. A person experiences a wanting for something because their brain has become sensitized to the substance or experience and craves it. When that urge is satisfied, dopamine, a feel-good neurotransmitter, is released. The same shot of dopamine that gives pleasure is also an essential component of neuroplastic change and assists in forming connections which reinforce the behavior in the future.
The first time you do something, the dopamine reward follows the event. Subsequently, dopamine gets released earlier and earlier until just thinking about something in anticipation causes a dopamine surge. The dopamine before the action motivates you towards the behavior, which is why habits are so hard to break. They're actually wired into your brain.
Every time you follow the same routine, a specific neuronal pattern is stimulated and becomes more defined in your brain. Neurons that fire together wire together. Over time, the pathway becomes easier and easier to activate. Your brain, being incredibly efficient, consistently takes the easiest, most familiar route, and a habit or addiction is formed.
Changing Your Habits Requires Changing Your Brain
When it comes to your recovery – and in life, in general, you’ll have much more success by understanding how your brain works and helping it help you. You can change habitual behaviours - no matter how entrenched - by building alternate pathways in your brain.
The same neuroplasticity which allows not-so-good-for-you habits to be carved into your brain in the first place also gives you the ability to change your brain and life for the better. Want to quit smoking? Interrupt the pattern habitually, and your brain will become your ally in the effort. Your brain can help you stop compulsive eating, end a drug addiction, or quit worrying obsessively.
Research has shown beyond any doubt that talk therapy successfully helps a person change their brain and behaviours. That's where I can help. I deliver one-to-one couselling for all kinds of drug and alcohol problems and any other addictive behaviors as well as anxiety and depression. I know how to help you put your brain to work for you.
What habits are you etching into your brain? Are you ready to start recovery? By making conscious choices and leveraging neuroplasticity, you can change yourself, your habits, and your life for the better. You can do it. I can help.