Updated: Oct 5, 2020
Science has confirmed that your life shapes your brain. From birth until death, your experiences, behaviors, thoughts, and emotions physically change the form and function of your brain through what is known as neuroplasticity.
Neuroplasticity is an umbrella term referring to the ability of your brain to reorganize itself, both physically and functionally, throughout your life in response to your environment, behaviors, thoughts, and emotions. It used to be believed that neuroplasticity only occurred during critical periods in childhood. While it’s true that plastic change happens much easier in youth, your brain is capable of making alterations until the day you die. Harnessing the process of neuroplasticity in adulthood isn’t quite as easy, but it can be accomplished under specific circumstances.
What you do repeatedly – both good and bad – literally gets wired into the structure of your brain.
Neuroplasticity Is the Problem
Neuroplasticity follows what's known as Hebb's law: "Neurons that fire together, wire together." This means that the brain reorganizes its circuitry based on experience. In other words, brain activities which occur together, strengthen their connections to increase their “teamwork” which is the basis for all learned brain patterns. Because of neuroplasticity, your habits, thought patterns, and ways of reacting to the world get reinforced and etched into your brain.
Worrying about money
Catastrophic thinking about a relationship
Having a drink to unwind at the end of the day
Replaying painful memories from your past over and over in your head
Over time, all these things change the neuronal pathways in your brain. Hence, it’s because of neuroplasticity that some of the major brain illnesses and conditions show up in humans. Schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, depression, obsessive-compulsive disorder, addictions, phobic behaviors, and more occur because of neuroplastic changes that take place in the brain. These things become established patterns in your brain, which then perpetuates more of the same. Your brain is a self-reinforcing feedback loop.
Neuroplasticity Is Also the Solution
Thank goodness for us. brain plasticity is fundamentally reversible. The opposite of Hebb's law is also true: "Neurons that don't fire together won't wire together." The same neuroplasticity that allows addictions and problematic mental health conditions to take hold in the first place can be harnessed to establish new patterns in your brain. It is possible to overcome a mental health condition, for example, a phobia, an addiction, depression, schizophrenia, by driving a brain back towards normal operation through neuroplastic change.
Unlearning a brain pattern involves weakening connections between neurons through disuse and is just as plastic a process. The same neuroplasticity which allows not-so-good-for-you habits to be carved into your brain also gives you the ability to change your brain and life for the better. Recovery is also a neuroplastic process. In order for you to change a default brain pattern, an addiction, for instance, the addictive neuronal circuits in the brain will become weaker and less active over time without the regular reinforcement of the behavior or substance.
What are you etching into your brain?
By making conscious choices and leveraging neuroplasticity, you can change your brain and life for the better. At Start Recovery, we understand how mental health conditions take shape in your brain. We also understand the process of harnessing neuroplasticity to help your brain unlearn unhealthy patterns and recover. Start Recovery will work with you as an individual, putting together a personalised care plan to ensure that you have the best possible information, help, and guidance in your recovery journey from substance abuse, alcoholism or addiction.
Thanks to Debbie Hampton from The Best Brain Possible for this guest blog article written specifically for Start Recovery.
About The Author
Debbie Hampton recovered from depression, a suicide attempt, and resulting brain injury to become an inspirational and educational writer for Huffington Post, MindBodyGreen, and more. On her website, The Best Brain Possible, Debbie shares how she rebuilt her brain and life. You can learn the steps to a better you in her book, Beat Depression And Anxiety By Changing Your Brain or get inspiration from her memoir, Sex, Suicide and Serotonin: How These Thing Almost Killed And Healed Me.