Early recovery is a time when our brains are healing from the damaging effects of drugs and alcohol. Just as our addiction did not develop overnight, we cannot expect to heal immediately. It takes time for our mental health to return to normal, but there are activities we can do to speed up the healing process, says Johnny K – owner of True Life Recovery detox center in Orange County, California..
But first, it’s important to understand how addiction affects the brain as we become addicted, during active addiction, and as we begin recovery.
What Does Addiction Do to the Brain?
Drug and alcohol addiction affect the brain in various ways. The chemical compounds found in alcohol, nicotine, opioids, stimulants, and sedatives enter the bloodstream and brain upon use. Once that happens, it can lead us to lose control of our impulses and to crave more of the substance. As addiction develops, our brain craves the reward, or feeling, that that the substance gives us. That’s a result of the intense stimulation of our brains’ reward systems. Subsequently, many of us will continue using drugs or drinking alcohol, which unlocks euphoric feelings and unusual behaviors. The longer we use substances, the greater the risk of long-term consequences including brain damage, and even death.
Our brains respond to addiction based on several factors, including the specific substance we use, how often we use it, and the stage of addiction we are in. As an example, when someone uses cocaine, they will have a feeling of euphoria. This feeling happens because the drug is psychoactive, and it affects the area of the brain that controls motivation and pleasure. Thus, there is a short, but strong release of dopamine, the chemical that causes pleasurable feelings. This can lead to a strong desire, or craving, to use more of the drug.
The longer we use and abuse the substance, the more we continue to use it. Many of us become consumed with obtaining and using the drug to maintain that feeling. This is the powerful cycle of addiction.
How Does Addiction Develop?
The brain regulates our temperature, breathing, coordination, emotions, and decision-making. It also affects our physical sensations, cravings, habits, and compulsions. When we are under the influence of drugs or alcohol, it can change the way our brains function.
Drugs and alcohol interact with the brain’s limbic system to release powerful feel-good emotions, which in turn affect our mind and body. Our brains reward us when we do something that is pleasurable. We continue to use drugs or alcohol to maintain the intense feel-good emotions that the brain releases, creating the cycle of using and experiencing intense highs. As a result, we take the drug to just feel normal.
What Happens to the Brain during Withdrawal?
When we stop using drugs and alcohol, there are significant physical, mental, and emotional results. These are symptoms of withdrawal. Because the brain and body have become accustomed to having the substance in our system, they’ve recalibrated to expect them. Taking the substance away causes distressing symptoms that cannot be ignored and often lead us back to using.
Brain Therapies for Addiction Recovery
When we seek help to stop using substances, many of us go to an addiction treatment center. There, we will receive medication and other treatments to help stabilize and soothe the brain. The therapies that we get while in rehab may differ, but their goal is all the same – to help improve brain activity and function and restore it, as much as possible, to its former health.
In addition to professional treatment, there are some things that we can do ourselves once we’re in recovery to help promote better brain health. These include:
Physical activity doesn’t just help our bodies, it also helps our minds. Regular exercise releases endorphins that improve our overall sense of well-being and counteracts depression and anxiety. According to Harvard Health, “Research shows that using your muscles also helps your mind. Animals who exercise regularly increase the number of tiny blood vessels that bring oxygen-rich blood to the region of the brain that is responsible for thought. Exercise also spurs the development of new nerve cells and increases the connections between brain cells (synapses). This results in brains that are more efficient, plastic, and adaptive, which translates into better performance in aging animals.” We will find that our brain improves along with our body as we exercise.
Everyone has experienced the mental fogginess that occurs after a night without enough sleep. Sleep is incredibly important for our mood and mental health. John Peever, director of the Systems Neurobiology Laboratory at the University of Toronto, and Brian J. Murray, director of the sleep laboratory at the Sunnybrook Health Sciences Center, explain in a Scientific American article entitled What Happens in the Brain During Sleep, “The function of sleep has mystified scientists for thousands of years, but modern research is providing new clues about what it does for both the mind and body. Sleep serves to reenergize the body’s cells, clear waste from the brain, and support learning and memory. It even plays vital roles in regulating mood, appetite and libido.” Increased clarity and focus as a result of adequate sleep means that we will be better able to properly engage in the demands of our recovery program and will feel better as we do it.
What we put into our body affects nearly every aspect of our cognitive functioning. The Mental Health Foundation explains, “Those who report some level of mental health problem also eat fewer healthy foods (fresh fruit and vegetables, organic foods and meals made from scratch) and more unhealthy foods (chips and crisps, chocolate, ready meals and takeaways). A balanced mood and feelings of wellbeing can be protected by ensuring that our diet provides adequate amounts of complex carbohydrates, essential fats, amino acids, vitamins and minerals and water.” Our ability to think clearly and properly depends on adequate nourishment and give a boost to our mood and energy level throughout the day.
Meditation is a simple and effective tool at our disposal. Meditation has been proven to reduce anxiety and depression, and lead to greater behavioral regulation. Dr. Brian Roche explains in a 2014 Psychology Today article entitled 10 Ways to Improve Your Brain Health, “Stress prevents good learning and it is designed to do so. The stress response prioritizes immediate information and actually shortens attention span. However, in order to think intelligently we need to think more broadly, and in a considered way. This is not possible when we are stressed. So meditation can help us to calm the mind, and so increase our ability to attend to each learning experience fully. Some studies also appear to show that extended practice can even raise our general intelligence.” Meditation is accessible to everyone, requires little time, and provides wonderful brain healing benefits.
Though the amount of brain damage from long-term drug and alcohol abuse can be very extensive, the possibility of healing always exists. The first step is to get rid of the substances, which is why seeking help for addiction as soon as possible will minimize damage and speed healing.