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Your Brain on Opioids, Part 3: Yes, Your Brain Can Change

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After opioid addiction, your brain can recover and repair.

Now that we’re all well on our way to becoming brain scientists, let’s focus a little bit on how, exactly, we heal our minds by building new neuropathways. Like a lot of things in recovery, it’s simple enough in theory, but challenging in practice.

(Read Your Brain on Opioids, Part 2: Walking on the Wild Side With Neuropathways)

In a nutshell, we create new neuropathways by establishing and practicing new habits. The more we repeat them, the more ingrained those neuropathways become.

Here are four key elements of the process.

1. Motivation and intention

It all starts here, with our motivation for getting clean, our intentions, and our goals. Motivation is a powerful thing—without it, none of our recovery efforts can find footing. At the outset, we have to prep our brains for change by spending some time identifying what it is we want to do. It’s essential that we’re really clear with ourselves about our goals, and that we acknowledge and harness all the motivation we can for kicking opioids in the rear.

“Motivation is a powerful thing—without it, none of our recovery efforts can find footing.”

2. Get honest

It’s tough, but necessary, to take a good, hard look at our addiction to opioids and what it has done to our lives. We have to be honest about how it’s ruined our relationships, finances, health, etc. And it’s not enough just to think about it! We have to put pen to paper (or fingers to keyboard), and see it all in black and white.

3. Recognize triggers

As we’ve learned, our brains are hardwired to respond to the people, places, and things that we associate with our addiction, triggering our desire to use. No matter how strong-willed or tough we think we are, our brains have other plans. We have to take a clear look at the lives we’ve built, and identify the specific people, places, and things that are triggers for us. For the road ahead, we’re going to have to be our own trigger cops, staying vigilant and aware at all times. At Workit Health, a big part of early recovery is learning to recognize triggers, and to handle the cravings that they cause.

4. Change our responses to addictive thoughts/patterns as they arise

So we acknowledge what triggers us … then what? Instead of using, we … don’t use, right? That’s all there is to it? In some ways, recovery really does boil down to that difference. But it’s so much easier said than done. There’s a saying in recovery circles that the only thing you have to change is everything—which isn’t super comforting, but there is certain amount of truth in there.

“Even the smallest changes help our brains adapt.”

(Read Part 1: This is Your Brain On Opioids)

Unfortunately, we can’t just decide that we’ll avoid triggers and then our addiction will be fixed. The brain doesn’t work that way—nor does the world always cooperate in helping us avoid them. Those old neuropathways associated with using are deep. Again, we have to distract our brains by creating new neuropathways. We do that every time we make a new, healthier choice. Part of the Workit program is learning to kick old auto thoughts to the curb, and welcoming their opposites, called antidotes, into our life.

Paving a new road is exhausting, so it may be less daunting to think of it as laying one little paving stone after another. Even the smallest changes help our brains adapt. If you’re used to getting up and sitting at the counter with a cup of coffee while you take your first pill of the day, do something different in recovery. Sit at your kitchen table and drink milk instead. Or even drink your coffee out of a different mug. Along with big decisions (such as not using), all of these small decisions confuse your brain and help break the connections that trigger cravings. They add up.

Creating new neuropathways is a long process, and we have to remind ourselves that we’re actually retraining our brains. That requires care and dedication, plus a fair amount of sweat and tears. There are also other things we can do, healthy habits and supportive activities we can introduce into our lives to help our bodies support these brain changes—and that’s what we’ll look at next time.

Julia Smillie is a national award-winning freelance writer and editor whose work has appeared in lit magazines, consumer and trade publications nationwide. She holds an MFA in Creative Writing from Antioch University Los Angeles and is currently trying to wrangle her way through the maddening stages of finishing her first novel. She lives in Ann Arbor, Michigan and has been sober since 1996.

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