Your Brain on Opioids, Part 4: Self-Care is Brain Repair

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Recovering from opioid addiction? Heal your brain with self-care.

The first three parts of this series focused on our brains – how we start to heal them in recovery. Equally important are the ways we can take care of our bodies in recovery, ways that also support our efforts to heal our brains and maintain their neuroplasticity. Just tuning in? Get the scoop on how opioids change our brains, and how we can work to change them back, starting with the first part in this series: This Is Your Brain On Opioids.


Our bodies go through a lot when we’re using. Helping them recover is daunting, but moving our bodies is essential to both physical and mental health. Studies have shown how exercise can improve our moods, sleep and concentration, as well as reduce anxiety and stress. Exercise is also how we re-train our brains to release and recognize our natural endorphins. We don’t have to run marathons. We can start with some gentle yoga or even a ten-minute walk. The point is to get our bodies moving again. And, as with everything we’ve been discussing, we want to create a habit, a new neuropathway, so that exercise becomes part of our everyday lives and our recovery.


Some of us may be as intimidated by the idea of mediating as we are by the idea of exercising regularly. We tend to over-complicate the simple idea of sitting quietly and being mindful. Research shows that meditation changes the way our brains work for the better, and some studies are focusing on how it aids specifically with addiction recovery. Don’t be afraid of it. There are tons of resources online, including some great apps, to help you get started. Or check to see if there are any meditation classes offered in your area.

Cognitive Behavior Therapy

Cognitive behavior therapy is a therapy modality that’s been around since the late 1960s. Under the guidance of a qualified therapist, it helps us recognize the patterns of behavior we need to change and gives us the support to make those changes. Which, as you know all too well by now, helps create and maintain positive neuropathways in our brains. CBT has been proven to be a very useful tool in recovery addiction and relapse prevention by helping us understand how we act and react, why we do so and what we can do differently in the present.


Almost all of us neglected self-care while we were actively using, especially when it came to eating right, creating nutritional and vitamin deficits that make it harder for the brain to do its work. Eating well helps heal both our bodies and our minds. (Nutrition is becoming an increasing focus for rehab centers, and a study by the National Center for Biotechnology Information found that rectifying nutritional deficiencies in opiate addicts increased the effectiveness of methadone intervention.)

But it doesn’t take a brain scientist to recognize how we should be eating in recovery: less sugar and processed carbohydrates, more protein, and more fresh fruits and vegetables. By eating properly and eating regularly, we are redeveloping the habits (hello, neuropathways!) of self-care that get so easily lost in the chaos of addiction.


We all know how much addiction messes with our sleep patterns and in early recovery, establishing normal sleeping cycles may be as frustrating as searching for a pot of gold at the end of a rainbow. Still, it’s crucial that we try to re-establish good sleep habits and retrain our brains. Setting a regular bedtime and adhering to it is a great start. Don’t get too frustrated if sleep seems elusive at first. As with all things in recovery, it takes time and effort to establish good habits.


Now for the fun stuff! A healthy brain depends on neuroplasticity and we’re both relying on it and improving it with the new habits we’re creating in recovery. It’s also essential to keep our brains on their proverbial toes with some fun approaches. Doing crossword puzzles or Sudoku, playing trivia games, learning a new language or taking up a new hobby are all great ways to support our newly alert, newly recovering brains on their journey back to health.


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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