People used to believe that people with addictions just needed to “try harder.” Through science, we now know that this isn’t necessarily the case. Addiction has a direct effect on the chemical processes and structures of the brain.
Anyone who has struggled with addiction can tell you it’s a difficult journey and recovery will take time. But where do you even start? Addiction recovery usually requires professional help, but there are some things you can do to help you get started or help you progress as you’re working with a professional.
step ONE: understanding addictions
Harvard medical school in their article How Addiction Hijacks the Brain said,
“The brain registers all pleasures in the same way, whether they originate with a psychoactive drug, a monetary reward, a sexual encounter, or a satisfying meal. In the brain, pleasure has a distinct signature: the release of the neurotransmitter dopamine in the nucleus accumbens, a cluster of nerve cells lying underneath the cerebral cortex. Dopamine release in the nucleus accumbens is so consistently tied with pleasure that neuroscientists refer to the region as the brain’s pleasure center.
Dopamine not only contributes to the experience of pleasure but also plays a role in learning and memory — two key elements in the transition from liking something to becoming addicted to it.”
As your brain experiences something pleasurable, it releases a neurotransmitter called dopamine. When dopamine is released, it signals the brain to seek out further experiences that will create the same sense of pleasure.
Let’s say that you had alcohol for the first time. This is a new experience for you and your brain created a new neural pathway for that experience. You may have had a huge dopamine release while drinking and feel compelled to seek a drink again and again.
The more times you participate in this pleasurable activity of drinking, the deeper the neural pathway for drinking will be. The dopamine high along with deep neural pathways contribute to additions. Part of addiction recovery is rewiring these neural pathways.
With that being said, not everyone who has a drink will become an alcoholic. There are other factors that contribute to addictions. Factors such as how fast dopamine is released with the activity, the intensity of that release, and how reliable that release is contribute to how addicting an activity will be. For the example above, the speed, intensity, and reliability of a dopamine release were high.
Step two: notice your behavior
Addiction recovery isn’t just about getting rid of a bad habit; it’s about creating a lifestyle that will help you get rid of your addiction. So where do you start? You start by getting at the root of the addiction, creating new patterns, and noticing risky situations.
First, start thinking about what triggers your addiction. Is it when you feel sad? After you have a fight with a loved one? There could be many reasons. Write these down. These are your high-risk situations when you should be aware that you have a habit of giving in to your addiction.
Writing them down won’t change the fact that you have an addiction, but it will help you identify your behavior better so you can be aware that you’re reacting to something when you’re giving in to the addictive behavior.
Now, think of how you feel before you succumb to your addiction. Are you feeling angry, lonely, or tired? For each high-risk situation that you wrote down, write down how you feel in that situation. These are the emotions you’re going to want to watch out for. These emotions aren’t bad, but these are times when you might be more susceptible to your addiction because you’ve created a pattern of behavior. So, when you feel sad, you might automatically go to substance abuse to avoid sadness. These are patterns you want to identify so that you can interrupt them. If you notice you’re sad, then you can learn to acknowledge that feeling, and then use a different coping method rather than give in to the addiction.
Step three: learning skills
Addiction recovery won’t be solved in a day with a list. You’ll have to learn new coping methods, change your lifestyle, and in some cases alter the way you think about things or heal from trauma.
Sometimes we are faced with difficult situations or feelings we don’t know how to handle. In these cases, many people turn to their addictions. But there are other coping skills you can learn to replace your addictions with. Here are a couple of ideas:
- Meditate: When you take time out of your day to recenter your mind on what’s important, you can let go of feelings of frustration.
- Learn mindfulness: Mindfulness is something you can use whenever and wherever you are. All you have to do is learn to focus on the here and now. What can you see, smell, feel, hear? When you stop worrying about what’s going to happen, you can learn to calm down.
- Breathe deeply: Breathe in through your nose for six seconds and then out through your mouth for six seconds. Do this until you notice your heart rate is at a calm pace.
- Keep a journal: Sometimes writing things down will help you organize your thoughts and help you stop worrying so much.
- Exercise: When you exercise, your body releases a chemical called endorphins that will make you feel happy.
When you find a coping method that fits you best, try it out when you notice yourself start to feel one of the emotions on your list or after you encounter a high-risk situation. Even if it doesn’t work the first time, stick to it. Your addiction recovery will take time after all.
Being Patient With Yourself
And of course, through this addiction recovery process, be patient with yourself. Be kind to yourself. And don’t give up.
Yes, you will have to make a big lifestyle change, but it will be worth it. It’s important that you start to notice other parts of your life that will have to undergo changes. Are there people who encourage your addiction? Are there places where you go that encourage your addiction? Be aware of these and avoid them when you can. But of course, you won’t always be able to avoid these things, so build up your arsenal of good habits and coping skills.
Getting professional help is going to be crucial in your recovery. If you don’t want to do an in-patient treatment program, or you have done one and need extra help, consider seeing a therapist who can help you. Here are some types of therapy that can help you in your journey of addiction recovery:
- Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT): This type of therapy will help you think more rationally and interrupt the thoughts that lead you into addictive behavior.
- EMDR: If you are suffering from trauma, this type of therapy will help you heal and move forward with your addiction recovery.
- Motivational interviewing: This therapy is very goal-oriented and will help you take steps toward recovery.
- Neurofeedback: This therapy helps train your brainwaves so that you can think more clearly and make more progress in your addiction recovery.
How Neurofeedback can help
Because addiction is correlated with deep neural pathways of addictive behavior in the brain, one of the best ways to treat addiction is to rewire those pathways.
Neurofeedback can target those damaged areas and try to repair them by making different neural pathways.
Let’s compare addiction to a muscle that is overdeveloped and neurofeedback as an exercise for an underdeveloped muscle. With specific exercises tailored to the weaker muscle, those muscles grow. Since we are not working out the overdeveloped muscles, they weaken or deteriorate.
Neurofeedback is one of many treatments for addiction. For best results, it is better to go with a treatment that resonates with you and that you feel comfortable doing. Don’t be afraid to try different methodologies.
Remember, your road to addiction recovery will be your own, but you don’t have to do it alone. Understand how addictions work, understand how addiction shows up in your life and what your triggers are, and reach out for help. Get help from people who will encourage you to get rid of the addiction, therapists, specialists, and others who’ve recovered. And be patient. You’ll get there.