Your Brain on Recovery

By Sarah Kelly

At four months sober, I stepped off of the metro in Washington, DC, to see the cherry blossom trees in full bloom. I stood there in awe at the beauty. I turned to my friend to share my excitement at how beautiful this moment was, and was met with a somewhat confused look. We had been getting off at this stop for four years together. I had never noticed trees, the cherry blossoms or the beauty of the city.

Using alcohol and drugs changes the chemical structure of the brain. In simplistic terms, substance use disrupts the natural functioning of the brain. Different substances can affect the brain in different ways, but three major areas of the brain are typically impacted: the basal ganglia, the extended amygdala, and the prefrontal cortex. These areas of the brain are responsible for motivation, pleasure, survival, stress receptors and decision-making.

Some drugs also affect other areas of the brain that are critical to the body’s functioning, such as cardiac and respiratory systems. Substance use has a direct negative impact on the body’s most complex organs.

The good news is that there is new proof that the brain is resilient. In addition to increased awareness of substance use disorder, there is a lot of new data on the brain that is the result of studies on posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and traumatic brain injury. These studies have found that just as substance use can impact the brain in a negative way, recovery can change the brain in a positive way.

The brain is capable of “rewiring” its structure. Neuroplasticity refers to the ability to form new neural pathways, meaning that the neurons find new patterns of connection within the brain. Transmitters and receptors can adapt to working around or even supporting the damaged brain cell to create a new system that works.

In a 2015 article in Psychology Today entitled “Recovery (like Addiction) Relies on Neuroplasticity,” neuroscientist Marc Lewis writes, “Recovery involves a major change in thoughts and feelings, and such changes require ongoing neural development or neuroplasticity.”
All pathways of recovery support neural development and neuroplasticity. Learning new behaviors and tools, and practicing these skills in daily life creates the new pathways.

The brain is reprogramming a person’s response and reaction. Taking daily action to use these new tools and skills helps solidify this new response system. Just like there are many pathways of recovery, there are many ways to help boost neuroplasticity. Mindfulness exercises, meditation, yoga, exercise, taking a class to learn something new and getting enough sleep are all ways that you can help boost your brain power.

While noticing cherry blossoms may seem like a small step forward, it was the first proof for me that my brain was learning a new normal. What I didn’t know then was that the cherry blossoms sparked a hope in my heart that life could be beautiful again. Getting sober is like waking up to the world again, and thankfully we all have the capacity to create a new normal.

Note: It’s always important to visit a health care professional to discuss your personal neurological make-up. Neuroplasticity practices are beneficial, but do not solve all issues related to addiction.

Sarah Kelly, NBC-HWC, M.A., B.A., owner of Sarah Kelly Coaching, is a writer, speaker, and board certified Health & Wellness Coach and trained Recovery Coach.