What is Neuroplasticity?
The brain is one the most complex organs in the human body. It is composed of synapses, or small structures that neurons use to communicate with each another. Over time, some synapse connections can grow stronger, while others weaken as we get older. Because our brains are so adaptable, they change according to our circumstances and environments that we live in.
Not only does the brain play a key role in regulating the processes of our bodies, the brain grows and changes significantly over our lifetimes. In fact, the brain has the ability to change, modify, and rewire itself. This incredible process is called neuroplasticity.
Neuroplasticity and Addiction
But what does the brain’s plasticity have to do with substance abuse and addiction? According to an essay in Alcohol Research, “neuroplastic changes can be acute or take place over time and can either be positive or negative, depending on the experience.” Therefore, neuroplasticity can work for or against your body. Your brain’s capacity to change allows you to suffer damage, but it also allows your brain to heal and rewire.
These changes apply to substances, experiences, and repeated behaviors. When you’re addicted to a certain substance, your brain physically changes. Most notably, the way your brain perceives pleasure is significantly altered. Substances such as opioids and nicotine induce a powerful form of stress-relief like to a feeling of elation, or a “high,” which causes changes in how your brain functions.
What Happens to Your Brain During Substance Withdrawals?
Just as your brain changes when it uses substances, it also changes when you abstain. When your body doesn’t consume these substances for a certain time, withdrawal symptoms kick in. Both the body and the brain then begin crave the substance. This is, in a way, a result of our brain’s evolution. Our brains have learned to associate essential things in life like food, water, shelter, and sex with pleasure and “reward.”
What makes addictive substances so dangerous, however, is that they produce an artificially high amount of pleasure. This hijacks the brain’s “reward system” designed to help you survive and tells you need more of the substance in order to continue living. Behavioral addictions can be regulated by these same mechanisms, too, and are based on simple things like pain and pleasure.
At the same time, neuroplasticity makes it possible for you to learn new skills and solve problems. The same ways your brain got wrapped into addictive patterns are the same paths that can lead you to rewiring and retraining you brain. Therefore, with the right treatment program support, there’s hope for those in recovery with the help of the brain’s neuroplasticity.
Neuroplasticity, Relapse, and Resiliency
The brain is an incredible organ in the human body, indeed. Thanks to its neuroplasticity, our brains rewire themselves and learn how to function without drugs or alcohol after we go through detox and treatment. And by staying sober longer, the neural connections that encourage addictive behavior grow weaker as time goes on.
But this doesn’t mean the journey is easy. According to Dialogues in Clinical Neuroscience, the dopamine release of taking harmful substances is greater than that of natural day to day activities. This is why a person who struggles with substance abuse or addiction is more susceptible to repeat the harmful behavior, i.e. relapse.
But the sooner you stop engaging in substance abuse, the sooner your brain can recover and relearn healthy behaviors. Through neuroplasticity, you can learn to manage your stress levels better and deal with life challenges without the need for outside substances. In time, the brain will no longer recognize drugs and alcohol as forms of pleasure, but will instead find its satisfaction in healthy habits such as exercise and nutritious food.
How to Encourage Neuroplasticity
While it’s true that the brain can form new synapses on its own, there are a number of things that you can do to encourage positive changes in the brain. For example, as we learn new skills, our brains create new neural connections. These new connections keep our brains young, active, and can prevent disease. Developing new synapses, for instance, helps the brain prevent certain neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s and mental health disorders.
Other day to day activities can help stimulate neuroplasticity in the brain and make new synapse connections. These activities might include:
- Forming and maintaining healthy social interactions
- Eating a healthy and balanced nutrient-rich diet
- Learning new skills (e.g. hobbies, languages)
- Participating in healthy new experiences (e.g. traveling, new foods, adventures)
- Engaging in music therapy
- Exercising regularly
- Cultivating a meditation or mindfulness practice
- Focusing on the positive aspects of life
Learning to Rewire Yourself
After addiction treatment, you can think about your recovery process as a journey of self-rewiring. You’re learning how to change the way you think to suit a better, healthier lifestyle, both physically and emotionally—all without harmful substances.
Think about for a moment all the skills you’ve learned over your lifetime. Some are limiting and some are expansive. With the rise of the internet, social media, and smartphone usage, for example, we’ve cut short our attention span. On the other hand, video games and other programs have the potential to teach us better reflexes, aid us in puzzle-solving skills, and tactical thinking. At the same time, however, video gaming has also lead to a rise in sleeplessness, in combination with other internet-based social media.
In short, neuroplasticity can work for or against you—take care to note how and where you’re learning, growing, and allowing your brain to be changed. Neuroplasticity is the cutting edge way of understanding how the human brain functions. This is how we can heal, train ourselves to learn new things, and perform new tasks. Thanks to evolutionary development, we now hold the power over our learning and evolving toward wholeness.