Overcoming addiction is a complex, multifaceted process. It isn’t enough to simply swear off using a substance or indulging in a behaviour and never go back to it again. If that was the case, addiction wouldn’t be such a widespread problem that ruins tens of thousands of lives every year.
We know that addiction isn’t only a physiological problem related to a physical dependence on a substance. It also takes root deep in the human psyche, reworking the brain to prioritise chasing its drug of choice over everything else.
Thankfully, with therapy, abstinence, and the right support network, even the most severely addicted individuals can work to rewire their brains from addiction. It’s not an easy process, by any means. Getting over addiction takes time and effort. How much time, exactly? That depends on a number of factors, which we’ll explore in this article.
The Impact of Addiction on the Human Brain
As a person becomes addicted to something, their brain “rewires” itself to rely heavily on the source of their addiction. With time, it will need to satisfy these cravings to function normally, not just to experience a “high.” As the addict becomes heavily dependent, nothing else in their life will provide them with the same surge of dopamine as their drug of choice, even if that was the case prior to the addiction.
Researchers and medical professionals are still examining addiction, trying to uncover all of the underlying mechanisms of it. With that being said, addiction seems to affect the brain in two primary ways, which are responsible for its “rewiring” as the person falls deeper into their destructive habit.
The Reward System
The first one of them is the fact that our brains have a natural reward system ingrained into them, which motivates us to chase achievements, compete with others for prizes, and many other things. When you first start using a substance, it floods your brain with dopamine, even if you only take a small dose at first.
Just like in the case of winning a sports tournament or eating a particularly delicious lasagna, your brain still interprets it as an experience that makes you feel good, and is therefore worth seeking out more frequently.
Artificial substances are much easier to obtain and release a lot more dopamine than training to do well in a sports event or getting a promotion at work. This leads your brain to the “logical” conclusion that chasing the drug is more worth it – you’ll get more dopamine for less effort.
This is a very surface level of how addictions come to be. Once the mechanism kicks in, the build-up of tolerance to a substance makes the condition progress further and continues to change the way one perceives and interacts with the world.
As an addict continues to ingest their substance of choice, they will quickly develop a higher tolerance for it, which leads to the need for taking in larger doses at shorter time intervals. That’s usually when life tends to spiral out of control for most people.
It’s because of the rapid tolerance build-up that individuals lose themselves in their addiction. They start pursuing drugs not just to experience a “high,” but simply to feel normal and able to go about their day without experiencing severe withdrawal symptoms.
This creates a dangerous loop where the addict operates in two modes: trying to obtain their drug of choice at any cost and the short-lived satisfaction of securing a batch and using.
How Substances Affect Your Brain
Addiction is not merely a psychological problem. Contrary to popular belief, most cases of severe addiction cannot be resolved merely with strong willpower. It’s an ailment that physically changes the human brain, altering how it processes information in the long term. Addiction primarily affects the three following areas of the brain:
- Limbic system: responsible for survival mechanisms, e.g., reproduction, feeding, fight or flight
- Cerebral cortex: governs higher-level processes, including memory, language processing, decision making, and emotional responses, among others
- Brain stem: controls vital functions of life, i.e., sleep, breathing, heart rate, and blood pressure
As you can see, addiction doesn’t just hijack your brain’s reward mechanisms. It also completely rewires some of its most important parts to centre around the addiction and satisfying cravings. This usually happens during the period when an addict stops perceiving their drug of choice as something that they like or enjoy using and looks at it as something that they need in order to keep going.
5 Steps to Rewire Your Brain From Addiction
In most studies that compared the brains of non-addicts to those of individuals who suffered from severe addiction, the addicts’ brains reverted back to normal after a full year of abstinence. Of course, this can vary depending on how long a person was addicted, what substance they were using, and a myriad of other, highly individualised factors.
While long and unpleasant, the recovery process and the road to rewiring one’s brain from addiction consists of a few simple steps. By “simple,” we mean that they’re only uncomplicated on paper. In reality, addiction recovery is one of the hardest journeys a person can embark upon.
The very first step towards breaking free from addiction is getting through the withdrawal period. It is definitely the most difficult aspect of quitting any drug. It’s also when most relapses happen – the withdrawal symptoms can be too strong to handle.
In order to have the best shot at success, addicts should commit themselves to a safe and supervised detox program. Under the watchful eye of medical professionals at a high-quality residential rehab facility, the road to recovery becomes much more straightforward.
We know – it’s easier said than done. Once a person gets over the initial, most painful withdrawal period, they can slowly get back to their daily routines, as well as professional and personal responsibilities.
However, this is also when their addict brain can kick in and begin rationalising falling back into the old habits.
It’s not a big deal if I just smoke one cigarette at a party.
If I use only during the weekend, and stay sober throughout the week, I can totally manage the habit!
These are just some of the most common rationalisations, but they show just how powerful an addiction can be. It’s important to realise that overcoming withdrawals is just the first step. The addicted brain will continue to try and come up with new ways to get back into using, which is why psychological and community support are so important when it comes to getting back on track in one’s daily life.
Finding New Interests and Hobbies
Replacing an old addiction with a new one is never a good idea, but in order to make recovery possible, you need something to occupy your mind in your free time. Otherwise, the intrusive thoughts and rationalisations may prove to be too strong to resist.
It doesn’t matter what it is that you find a passion for, as long as it doesn’t involve substance use. You should also steer clear of activities that have a high potential for addiction, such as competitive online gaming. Usually, creative hobbies such as painting or writing, as well as sports are great activities to direct your energy towards.
Celebrate Victories (Even the Smallest Ones)
Recovering addicts also need to put in the work to get their brain’s reward system back on the right track. The feeling of succeeding at something releases endorphins and dopamine hits, which is why it’s important to try and find reasons to feel successful and celebrate those successes regularly.
Many addiction treatment programs make it a point to treat each passing day of sobriety as a reason to celebrate. It’s a good start. Coming up with small goals you can achieve in short timeframes is an effective way to get used to the “normal” dopamine flow.
The brain’s prefrontal and cerebral cortexes are responsible for long-term planning, decision-making, and problem-solving. For an addict, these parts of the brain were preoccupied with obtaining drugs and continuing to feed their addiction.
After quitting, you need to get busy with other tasks that require lots of planning and high-level thinking. Whether it’s a new job, setting up events or get-togethers with family and friends, or planning your next vacation, all of these things will engage your brain and distract it from the addiction.
Get Back to Your Old Self with The Dawn Rehab Thailand
At The Dawn, we understand that breaking free from addiction is a lengthy, challenging process. We also realise the importance of brain chemistry and behavioural therapy in overcoming this condition. This is why we’ve adopted a holistic approach to inpatient treatment, which takes medical care and psychological help and combines it with wellness activities, recreational trips, and plenty of other healthy ways to fill up one’s day. At our facilities, located in Chiang Mai, Thailand, you can count on:
- Private accommodation with fast internet access
- Weekly excursions to elephant sanctuaries, national parks, temples, and kayak trips
- A number of workshops and cooking classes
- Wellness therapy with yoga, sound bath and mindfulness meditation
- Comprehensive aftercare program, ensuring support after returning home
Rewiring the brain from addiction is difficult, but not impossible. Understanding the underlying mechanisms of the condition and how to push back against them is important for any addicts looking to get started on their recovery. On average, it takes about a year to revert back to normal, but all brains are different, which is why it’s difficult to set a specific timeframe for recovery.
You don’t have to struggle with your demons alone. With the right treatment and support from top addiction professionals, you can ensure a smooth, uninterrupted recovery process.