Addiction and Neuroscience: Old Dogs, New Tricks
“You can’t teach an old dog new tricks.” This has been accepted knowledge for so long that it’s an actual proverb. People (and dogs, apparently) reach a certain age and their habits are set. They’ll never clear the table after dinner. They’ll never pick up those socks. They’ll never escape that addictive habit.
Except, good news, that proverb is wrong. Very, very wrong.
Although much of a human’s brain development has solidified by the age of twenty, our brains can still shift and change with response to stimuli and learning for the rest of our lives. In fact, we can recover from major traumas to regain functions that we’ve lost. This is why we hear of people learning to walk again, to talk again, even when the part of the brain responsible for movement and communication has been badly damaged or even partially removed. Science, experience, and simple observation agree: the brain is remarkably resilient!
So why is the addicted brain so difficult to shift?
The Addicted Brain
When it comes to addiction, the brain has several things going on at once. On the one hand, it is receiving satisfaction or pleasure from the addictive behavior or drug. This creates a relief-gratification feedback loop that is so powerful, the brain is physiologically changed. On the other hand, the brain is trying desperately to get relief from negativity.
I’m not good enough.
I’m not smart enough.
I’m not strong enough to beat this addiction.
These negative thoughts become a strong neuropathway that can trigger negative thoughts, even in a state of rest. Waking up at 2:00 a.m. and worrying about your life is just one example of how these negative thought spirals can affect our lives.
This negative, usually fear based, thought spiral actually sends our bodies into one of our earliest evolutionary states: fight or flight.
The Perils of the “Fight or Flight” Mentality
Thought is energy. We are energetic beings, and our brain is the command center. It sends messages to all parts of our body. But when we are in a negative thought spiral, the brain activates fight or flight mode in order to protect us from the perceived threat.
Even if that threat is not life threatening, like an unexpected presentation at work, our body responds by narrowing our focus to survival mode.
Fight or flight activates the sympathetic nervous system, which shuts down much of our cognitive functioning, our multitasking ability, our problem solving ability, and our hormonal and metabolic processes. It minimizes all of these natural functions in favor of one thing: survival.
The Lion is Coming at You Right Now!
The part of the brain that initiates the fight or flight response, the amygdala, is incapable of distinguishing between a real and a perceived threat. The presentation you have to make off-the-cuff is indistinguishable from the lion attack. Cortisol levels rise (that’s the stress hormone) and the body becomes hyper-focused on surviving the lion attack that millions of years of evolution have taught our bodies to expect.
Except, there is no lion, is there? And the presentation will not actually kill you. Even without a lion to evade, the brain can become hyper-focused on whatever negative thoughts an individual is experiencing. The brain keeps us focused on these thoughts, for longer and longer periods of time, cycling us down the spiral, deeper and deeper. And because our processing and problem solving are limited, we can’t find a way out. Does that sound like depression to anyone?
This repeated release of cortisol and adrenaline is physically taxing. We don’t get our proper nutrients, because our metabolic processes are minimized. We get exhausted, because we’re crying all the time and we’re experiencing chronic anxiety. When we’re tired, we don’t function at our highest level and are prone to making bad decisions. We’re seeking relief.
Fortunately, the brain does not want to remain in this loop, and neuroscience tells us that we can break free from the cycle.
You Can Rewire Your Brain
Neuroplasticity refers to the fact that the brain is malleable. Which is fantastic news for people struggling with addiction. As mentioned above, the brain is continually making new synaptic pathways (e.g., the route I take to get to my new job, or where the grocery story moved my favorite peanut butter). And the brain is also pruning away synaptic pathways that it no longer needs (what color shoes I wore to the prom thirty years ago).
So how does it work? Imagine a wheat field. You park your car at the edge and walk half a mile into the middle. Surrounded by waving wheat stalks higher than your head, you can’t see your car. The only way to get back is to press the panic button on your key fob and follow the sound.
Now imagine that you plant a flag in the middle of this field. And you decide to visit that flag every day. Every day you trudge through that field, stand by that flag, and trudge back to your car. The first few days you may still have to hit that panic button on the key fob. But after a few days, when you turn around, you’ll be able to see your car through the flattened stalks your repeated trips have made.
The brain works in much the same way. Those negative thoughts, the ones sending our bodies into Fight or Flight mode, they create paths just like these.
The brain, however, would rather take us along a pathway that doesn’t end in increased cortisol, surging adrenaline and bad decision-making.
So how do we make one?
Using Affirmations to Create Positive Change
Believe it or not, we can purposefully make that pathway with positive thinking.
In the positive thinking space, our brain activates the parasympathetic nervous system. That puts us in a rest and digest state. Our circulation improves, our hormones rebalance, we can come up with creative solutions, and we can multitask. From this place, our decisions come from a place of balance and discernment.
To create a new, positive path through the wheat field, we have to purposefully create it. It won’t appear on its own; just like the wheat field, it takes time and persistence.
One of the best ways to achieve this shift, and move the mind from its negative path onto our preferred one, is to create positive affirmations and repeat them many times to ourselves, especially when the brain is hyper-focused on the negative.
When people struggling with addiction purposefully stop the dangerous cycle of defining themselves and their lives by what they don’t want to happen in favor of what they do want to experience, they can switch from negative default pathways to positive ones.
Creating an Affirmation
An affirmation has three important parts:
- What qualities you want to embody.
- How you want to feel—internally—about yourself.
- How you intend to walk your path through this life.
An example of an affirmation is:
(1) I am a genuine, truthful, and joyful person, (2) loving myself first and then others, (3) as I peacefully share my authentic self with others. I am enough.
The power of the affirmation comes with repetition. Your affirmation is meant to be repeated over one hundred times per day. It is perfect for re-centering yourself when upset, hurt, or disappointed. An affirmation will remind yourself, as you start to descend the negative spiral, that this is who you are, this is where you’re pointed toward.
In tandem with the deep emotional and mental healing associated with psychotherapy, affirmation work can help turn our default pathways positive.
A Message for People Struggling With Addiction
The best news that comes out of neuroscience research into addiction is hope. Humans have the capacity to change, and it can be easier than you might think. But it is important to remember that recovery is unique to each individual.
If another method isn’t working, there’s no reason to beat yourself while you’re already down. Find something that works for you. Whatever it is, it’s going to be unique to you and we have to value ourselves enough to allow ourselves the space and time to shift. It may not happen overnight, but every individual is worth working on, always. You are always worth your effort, time, and love.
So if you’ve tried something, and it isn’t working, take an example from your brain and change. Find what lights you up. Define where you want to go, and give yourself gratitude for continuing your journey towards peace.
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