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Changing Addictive Behaviours Means Changing Our Brains

Updated: Dec 11, 2023

Leeds based drug and alcohol support specialist Mark Franklin from Start Recovery teams up with Debbie Hampton from Best Brain Possible, for her to explain a little more about our brain and addictions. Your brain changes its physical form and function based on what you do repeatedly in your life. This capability, known as neuroplasticity, can help you and hurt you. It’s because of neuroplasticity that addictions and habits become ingrained in your brain, valuable skills are lost as your brain ages, and some brain illnesses and conditions show up in humans. Fortunately for us, neuroplastic change works both ways. It's reversible. You can also overcome addiction, improve your brain’s function, and achieve better mental health through the same neuroplastic processes. Your Behavior Gets Wired Into Your Brain Your consistent behaviours, habits, become wired into your brain. Neurons change their firing patterns and as your brain "learns" the behaviour, it doesn't really have to think about it anymore. It’s because habits are etched into your brain that you don’t have to actively think about them – which also makes them very hard to change Intentional actions are handled by your thinking brain, the prefrontal cortex. Habits are handled by the striatum, an ancient processing centre located deep in the brain. Your striatum is part of your subconscious, instinctual limbic system. Of course, all of your actions aren’t unconscious and are coordinated and controlled jointly by your nucleus accumbens, striatum, and prefrontal cortex. Your nucleus accumbens is motivated by what's pleasurable, and your striatum decides what to do based on what you've done in the past. The only part that cares about what's actually good for you is your prefrontal cortex. As you may know all too well, it often gets overruled. Not All Bad Habits Are Created Equally Every time you execute the same behaviour, that specific pattern is activated and becomes more defined in your striatum, and it becomes easier to activate the circuit the next time. Pretty soon, the neuronal pathway for that habit becomes the unconscious default. Being incredibly efficient, your brain takes the easiest route, and a bad habit is born. Interestingly, not all bad habits are created equally. The ones which release the most dopamine require less repetition to form. All drugs of abuse, from nicotine to heroin, cause a particularly powerful surge of dopamine, the pleasure neurochemical, in the nucleus accumbens. The likelihood that the use of a drug or participation in a rewarding activity will lead to addiction is directly linked to the speed with which it promotes dopamine release and the intensity and reliability of that release. Even taking the same drug through different methods of administration can influence its addictiveness. Smoking a drug or injecting it intravenously, as opposed to swallowing it as a pill, for example, generally produces a faster, stronger dopamine signal and is more likely to lead to addiction. Changing Your Habits and Your Brain When it comes to breaking bad habits, you’ll have much more success by putting your brain to work for you. You can accomplish this by substituting a new behaviour in place of the old habit you are trying to quit. When first trying to insert a new habit, it’s going to require conscious effort, intention, and thought. You actually want to have to think about what you're doing — to switch control to your frontal lobe. This means that in the beginning, your prefrontal cortex has to use conscious will to override the old patterns — the nucleus accumbens and striatum — until the new pattern becomes the unconscious default in those parts of your brain. You’ve probably heard that it takes 21 days to form a new habit. Unfortunately, that's not generally true. The amount of time required to adopt a new habit depends on what you’re trying to accomplish and can range anywhere from three weeks to many months or longer. Research shows that there's a curved relationship between habit and automaticity where you make big gains at first and then progress levels off. At Start Recovery in Leeds, we understand how habits and addiction happen in your brain and how to put your brain to work for you in the recovery process. Start Recovery will work with you as an individual, putting together a personalized care plan to ensure that you have the best possible information, help, and guidance in your recovery journey from substance abuse, alcoholism or addiction.

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